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May 15, 2013
Targeting is Futile When Our Audience is Everyone, Everywhere
The whole world is watching, even if they aren’t buying
I once worked on a small chain of auto repair shops. This was truly a “spray and pray” type of account where big gobs of low-budget radio and print were the only media used. One day, our agency’s Account Executive tried to help our client narrow his audience a bit and try some different approaches, more targeted ads and CRM. The client wasn’t buying it. “Research shows our target audience is men and women from 18 to 49,” he said. To which the AE shot back, “Who drive cars, right?”
Few marketers take that approach and truly target almost everyone. These days, though, everyone seems to think they’re a part of every ad’s target audience — whether they are or not.
Consider all the marketing-related items making the news recently. A JC Penney brand restart. Controversial Mountain Dew ads. Insensitive Abercrombie & Fitch CEO comments revived seven years after they were uttered. Ford print ads designed to run (or appear in awards shows) in India. A suicide-themed Hyundai ad in the UK.
People all over the world have been expressing their opinions on these. Some are people who’d never shop at JC Penney or Abercrombie & Fitch, or drink a Mountain Dew. Still, they’re getting their outrage on, or at least declaring themselves an authority on the brands. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Anything a brand decides to put out in public is fair game for criticism.
But let’s face a truth: Not every ad — or brand — is meant for everyone. Which means many people (myself included) can get offended or dislike a message that’s not intended to be seen by them in the first place. Or bitch about a store we never shop at.

So, are some consumers' opinions more valid than others? Can we effectively target a narrow segment and truly ignore the feelings of everyone else?
Every creative brief I’ve ever been handed contains a section about who the target audience is. Some are very narrow, some are quite broad. It’s futile to try to target even a majority of the population.
Yet when large swaths of the public rise up and complain about an ad or a brand, they get attention. Woe to the brand manager or CMO who says, “Sorry, we’re just not talking to you.” All consumers are supposed to matter, and when anyone can write a blog or use the Twitter megaphone, they all need to be heard or placated. In cases where a controversial ad is in question, many people don’t think twice about pouring gasoline on a fire.
Every ad — even the most egregious ones — has its defender. After JWT India made some ads showing the Kardashians and Silvio Berlusconi’s mistresses in the trunk of a Ford, one Indian creative in Ad Age defended them by citing “cultural differences.” I don’t know if that’s true, but the implication is a serious one: Messages that work in one culture don’t always work in another.
The trouble is, an ad (and everything else) rockets around the world in minutes. There are no borders. And Americans are just as likely to raise their hackles about ads meant for another continent as ones seen at home. But these days, it’s easy to stir up outrage from our laptops thousands of miles away.
What does that mean for marketers and their agencies? Simply put, we can’t create ads that pass muster with 100% of the audience. Sure, we can try. But we have to define who our target is — and isn’t — before we can start considering the right messages for them.
And mostly, that’s what happens. In marketing plans, we subdivide our audience in all sorts of ways: By age, income, gender, geography, ethnicity, and others. And that doesn’t even account for emotional cues or mindset differences. I know I’m not a teenager, a mother, a senior citizen, a millionaire, or a farmer. A large amount of the ads I see aren’t intended for me. Yet I see them, and I react.
What’s ironic here is that while consumers have more power than ever to limit or control the messages they receive, they see more that are clearly not intended for them. Think of all the news stories, articles, Tweets, or posts on someone’s Facebook news feed that get traction. Mass media is still prevalent — but now it’s in the hands of the masses.
So what would it take for more marketers to say, “We’re sorry, but our brand isn’t for you. And the ads you don’t like, well, they aren’t meant for you either”? Abercrombie is taking that route, for the moment at least. They’re not winning new fans over, that’s for sure. But it’s possible that if more brands want to stay pure to their target, they should look to Abercrombie as a model to follow.
It’s a delicate balance. Do it right, or else the real target audience — everyone — will take aim at your client or your brand.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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