On Empathy

Last year Reach (publishers of The Mirror and Express newspapers) produced a fascinating study into the differences between those in media agencies and the population as a whole. Reach (or rather Trinity Mirror as it was then) summarised their findings as follows: “We discovered that people in ad land unconsciously see, experience and interpret the world differently to large swathes of the UK population”.

Here’s what the Cog Blog had to say about it at the time.

This year Reach has extended the original idea to explore the issue of empathy – and whether or not those in adland have any with the people we’re trying to influence with our messaging.

Reach (and their research partners House51) conclude: “..we’ve identified the role that our moral intuitions play in driving a wedge between us and the mainstream audiences we seek to engage”.

The study is called The Empathy Delusion, it’s an interesting and revealing read, as you can see for yourself here, along with a comment from Dominic Mills.

Andrew Tenzer (Reach’s Director of Group Insight, and the report’s author) was kind enough to send me a pre-publication edition of the research, and to agree to respond to questions. I wondered whether this ‘empathy delusion’ exists amongst others who seek to communicate with the public – such as journalists.

I hope Andrew doesn’t mind me quoting his response as it relates to Mirror journalists (note that his answer refers to a different study, although his conclusion is clearly relevant to the empathy debate):

“Interestingly I measured .. Mirror journalists against the values framework from my gut instinct research last year. Although their values are slightly different to the mainstream, they (get) it spot on when estimating the values of (the) mainstream audience. On the whole, ‘The Mirror’ is very empathetic to working class issues (I think we represent them better than any other newsbrand) so I didn’t find this overly surprising.”

I’m sure Andrew is right – newsbrand journalists have no reason to reflect the values or issues of the entire population, or even a demographic subset of the population, but rather the views of their readers. And as readers most of us do of course choose those views that most closely reflect our own.

Which leads on to an interesting issue. Shouldn’t we do more to tailor-make creative to the vehicles in which the message appears?

Years (and years) ago I was tangentially involved in some research into the respective merits of ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Daily Mirror’, one element of which involved asking the readers of one for their opinions of the other.

‘Sun’ readers said they found ‘The Mirror’ too detailed, too wordy; ‘Mirror’ readers found ‘The Sun’ too pictorial, too shallow. So they largely agreed on the titles’ characteristics; what was a positive to one set was a negative to the other.

Setting aside whether these views are in any way valid today, shouldn’t we have been designing ads for ‘The Mirror’ differently from ads for ‘The Sun’?

Journalists are brilliant at doing this in their world. Julie Birchall, the columnist made her name at ‘The Guardian’ with a regular piece in the weekend magazine. When she shifted to ‘The Daily Mail’ there is no way she would have continued her ‘Guardian’ persona (note to overseas readers: ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Mail’ are at opposite ends of almost every pole).

Julie wrote for her readership and did so extremely well.

Yes, there might be an element of ‘chicken and egg’ in this example, but the point still stands that if you want to communicate effectively with an audience you need to empathise with them.

The old argument for one-size-fits-all-within-a-broad-demographic ads was expense and production costs, but that is far less relevant today.

We are still largely bound by the old conventions of demography and location in targeting, which broadness in turns feeds through to the look and feel of the creative. It’s not all that surprising that much of it often seems irrelevant to those seeing it.

With values and issues being front and centre these days, and with the research around to allow creative messaging to reflect far better how the audience thinks and feels we can and should do better.

Good on Reach – let’s hope those responsible for currency measures take at least the principles of their findings on board.


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