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Is targeting stereotyping?

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But isn’t targeting, in its rawest form, essentially just shameless stereotyping?

Targeted digital marketing

As digital marketing continues to evolve and offer greater targeting options, we are able to serve more relevant, personal messaging that is of real interest to the consumer. But in order to do so we must put the consumer into a box.

There is a fine line between targeting and stereotyping but it is a line that is increasingly being blurred and crossed by brands. Unilever recently came under fire for the clear gender stereotyping in its cleaning product TV ads, leaving the company promising that it will “advance portrayals of gender” across its 400+ brands.

From delivering more relevant ads through PPC and social media targeting to researching and getting under the skin of the core target audience of a campaign, stereotyping is inevitable in some respects. But what we must decide is whether there is a way of being targeted without crossing the line.

Our view

Here we asked a few JJers to weigh in on the debate.


Whilst you can raise awareness with the scatter gun approach, to maximise ROI you need to be a sniper.
Zea Endacott-Lockhart

Barney Sayce, Account Manager

There’s a great line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian that perfectly sums up the topic of targeting “We are all individuals!” … “I’m not”. While every person on the planet is unique, our environment and the things we are exposed to, mean that we do all share similarities and this in turn leads to stereotyping.

This has been key to advertisers for years now, however, with advancements in technology and data management, targeting is becoming more and more precise. We are no longer having to make assumptions that a certain person in a certain demographic will behave in a certain way, we are able to avoid assumptions and talk to people based on their behaviour and actions. While it could be said that targeting at this level is “creepy” there is no doubt that, done properly, there are benefits to both advertisers and consumers. Advertisers can minimise wastage and consumers can see more relevant ads.

As a 25 year old male it could be assumed that I will be interested in Nike’s latest football boot, however, if my dishwasher has just broken down I’d much rather see an ad for a sale on John Lewis kitchen appliances than an ad showing me the latest in sport footwear.

Gaetan Staples, Account Executive

Although modern society teaches us that it’s wrong to stereotype, it’s just human nature. The pictures we build up in our minds are generated from a mixture of personal real-life experiences and stereotypical portrayals in popular culture. We just struggle to distinguish the two and end up merging them together.

Also, without stereotyping at all, where would marketeers start when trying to build a picture of a target audience? Surely you start with your stereotypical gut feelings then back it up with real data and insight? With the number of free analytics and audience insight tools available these days, there’s no excuse to go on gut feeling anymore, but it’s certainly a good starting place.

Jai Raja, Account Executive

Stereotyping is an assumption into a group based on a previous meeting with someone, whereas with target marketing we’re breaking down a group of people into smaller parts to ensure that we’re serving them the correct message. With social media we’re able to target based on user preferences and what they have chosen to list as their interests as. There may be times when we’re targeting a group of people and their stereotype may play into our hands but is this stereotyping or is it a fact?

Zea Endacott-Lockhart, Senior Account Manager

With the success of marketing programmes being increasingly measured on ROI, marketeers are under constant pressure to make sure their campaigns are targeting the right people. Whilst you can raise awareness with the scatter gun approach, to maximise ROI you need to be a sniper. By profiling your audience, you ensure money and time is invested in relevant audiences.

This doesn’t just benefit the business but it also benefits the recipient. If we take this approach, people are more likely to be exposed to products they are in the market for, and messages they are interested in. As a result, people can feel more connected with the brands they interact with because brands are actually giving them, either the consumer or business, what they want. This might be a product, a service or information.

Creating personas (not stereotypes) can help marketeers build up an image of their ideal customer. Due to digital advances and significantly increased data access it’s easier to identify common traits between target markets, and predict what that ‘ideal customer’ looks like.

Our capability to analyse behaviour, data and statistical results means we can make intelligent decisions about how we target people, rather than just isolating complete groups and relying on stereotypes.


always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.
Margaret Mead

Tom Hunter, Senior Account Manager

Right or wrong – historically, brazen stereotyping was one of the only ways to distil your targeting efforts and avoid wastage. However, nowadays, with the rise of big data and programmatic advertising, sweeping generalisations play less of a role. We are now able to analyse the profiles of those converting, at a highly granular level and actively seek out ‘lookalikes’ who match these profiles basing strategies on science rather than guesswork. Stereotyping still has its place, but data is key to ensuring the right audience is targeted with the right message, at the right time.

Toby Shelley, Account Executive

If you’ve spent time and resource creating a great piece of creative, then care and attention needs to be placed into making sure that creative is seen by the most relevant people that the budget possibly allows. Traditionally grouping people and effectively stereotyping has been a vital aspect of media buying. A very crude example of this could be as simple as assuming that people who watch Top Gear are interested in cars.

Since computer programs and data are influencing the way that advertisers are reaching their audiences more and more, it could be said that this arguably rudimentary method of purchasing based on generalisation is dying out. Or will generalisation will be used more in combination with data to help drive decision making? One thing we know is that the more data we collect the less we will need to rely on our assumptions and predispositions.

Rich Henderson, Account Director

However it’s done, marketing will only be successful if it is saying the right message to the right people. Generalisation and profiling can be useful to remind ourselves who we are talking to and that the marketing activity we are creating is not, necessarily, for us or people we know.

There will often be themes that connect many of your target audience, but it is important to remember that this will only connect many of them, not all. Customer profiles might allow us to target and reach the majority of potential customers, there will also be plenty we are needlessly excluding.

What’s more, everybody will approach a message from their own view point and read it from the context of their personal life experiences. Great marketing will tell a story in which the audience will feel a part of and by immersing themselves within this, they are making that story unique and personal and this is why it will be effective to them. This is something that can be difficult to achieve from an audience profile and something important to remember when creating marketing messaging.

In any case, it is key to know who you are talking to and why. And if in doubt, just take these words of advice from Margaret Mead; “always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.

Towards the relevant consumer experience

While you will always get the individuals that don’t fit the mould, if you look at it from a numbers perspective, there is a correlation between personal factors such as gender and interest in your product or service.

There may be an element of targeting that makes us feel uneasy but it could just as easily be argued that it is for the greater good – a more relevant and personalised consumer experience.

Got your own thoughts on the subject or want to find out more about better targeted advertising? Get in touch or Tweet us.

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