News & Opinion

The Empathy Delusion

A new study by Reach Solutions finds that empathy with the mainstream mass market doesn’t come naturally to marketing and advertising professionals, calling on them to work hard on overcoming in-built emotions and moral belief systems.

The study in partnership with research agency house51, used techniques and tests based on the work of eminent psychologists. The study found that people in the marketing industry have no special aptitude for understanding others, scoring almost the same as the ‘mainstream mass market’. Furthermore, the tendency for the industry to have different intuitive moral foundations to the mainstream – more focused on the welfare/rights of individuals and significantly less on the binding ethics of community – can raise significant unconscious barriers to understanding and interacting with target audiences. In practice, this can lead to an over-emphasis on personalisation and hyper-targeting, strategic risks when signalling social virtue (because we downplay the relevance of mainstream ethics) and “marketing to ourselves”. 

In Reach’s version of the ’Dictator Game’, an off-shoot of the ultimatum game created by psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others, the majority of people (in and out of advertising) prefer to be fair in sharing £50. However:  

  • Advertising and marketing people are significantly less fair than the mainstream - 69% would share equally, compared to 77% of the mainstream.  
  • Advertising and marketing people are also more politically motivated when deciding how much to share. When Remain voters in the industry were told that their partner is a Leave voter, willingness to share drops to 43%.   

The white paper for the study ends with recommendations on how the advertising and marketing industry can work around empathy shortfalls and biases. These include placing greater emphasis on context and less emphasis on virtue marketing and hyper-targeting. 

Reach Solutions' Director of Group Insight Andrew Tenzer said: “It’s no secret that marketers are different from the mainstream, but there’s a persistent belief that we can overcome this with a little empathy and imagination – that as a group we are somehow uniquely poised to put ourselves in other people’s shoes in order to effectively sell to them. However, our research shows that this is a myth.”  

To read the full report click here.  


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