The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Power of difference

"You've packed a lot into one arm, haven't you? My life would only cover the top half"

This is what I heard from the table next to me, while sitting in a bar in London about a month ago, waiting for a friend. Curious about the conversation, I tuned in and glanced over to see two men, very different ages and very different appearances, talking about the older one’s body art, and the story contained within his sleeve.

The younger man was wearing jeans and a linen shirt and bore more than a passing resemblance to John Cusack. He was fascinated by his neighbour’s left arm and the notion of creating a permanent tribute to his career and his family on one of his limbs. The sleeved man had a ponytail and was wearing a plain T-shirt, a pair of shorts and sliders.

These two men wouldn’t have been put together on a collage board, for sure. They were joined by a middle-aged woman. She was wearing a navy blue suit, cream silk shirt and a pair of beige heeled shoes.

They were all friendly colleagues, it transpired, and as she joined their conversation, she commented that she too had a tattoo, wouldn’t tell them where on her body it was, but that it always surprised people when she did. I was surprised she had one at all. My unconscious stereotyping at play. I spent a while trying to work out what industry they were all in. From our shared location I guessed maybe finance, retail, the arts, possibly. It took 10 minutes of nosing in on their conversation before I realised they were all market researchers, just like me.

Would I fit with them? Were they my tribe or not? How similar to me was the woman in the suit, just because she was a woman of about my age? Which of them had voted Remain? Were any of them ex-smokers? Did any of them have children? I started being aware that I had created back-stories for all of them, based on, well, nothing much at all.

Judging people and pre-guessing their behaviour and allegiances by taking all the unconscious castings we have in our heads and imposing them on perfect strangers, based sometimes on nothing more than age, fashion sense and geography is something we all do.

We all understand how we use and perpetuate stereotypes, but I wonder whether we need to be careful about this,

Our industry has been built on boxing people up, stereotyping people by sociodemographics, bland attitude statements, how they look, where they live. Every segmentation, every screener, every piece of populated visual stimulus material is designed to round people up and fence them in, so we can investigate and explore their similarities.

By doing this, though, are we responsible for perpetuating some of those dangerous stereotypical myths that advertisers have got into hot water for: women being shown to do all the grunt-work that goes into preparing Christmas day (Asda Christmas campaign), the assumption that little girls dream of being ballet dancers and boys of being scientists (Aptamil Infant Milk Formula), the neat and convenient representation of functioning, healthy people as slim and/or attractive (nearly every health food, supplement and personal care brand, even, yes, Dove, I think).

We know that media of all kinds, especially advertising, contributes to shaping and reinforcing stereotypes, and that these become shorthand that everyone uses to make sense of what we see around us and how we interact with all kinds of fellow humans. More and more though, we know that advertisers and agencies are being called to account.

But… as Sam Cooke said, ‘a change is gonna come’. Large global organisations including Unilever, Google, Diageo, P&G, Johnson and Johnson and GSK, among others, have joined forces to set up the Unstereotype Alliance to work towards actively dispelling gender stereotypes from advertising. The alliance has developed the 3Ps for unstereotyped communications, to ensure that women are properly represented; enough of them, with enough of a voice, and represented in all shapes, sizes, ages and colours. This feels like a really important initiative in my view, but improving gender diversity isn’t the only battle that needs to be fought.

In a similar vein, I chaired a fascinating session at AQR’s one-day conference The Big Day Out. Four great papers in this session really made the audience think about just how diverse our industry really is, and whether working at this will help us to do better by the consumer and by our clients.

Afra Acquah and Hamish Kynoch of Discovery talked about how we approach age in research and how different generations perceive each other. They talked about the attitudes, beliefs, hopes and fears of Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z, how these bring each group together and pull them apart. They also talked about how these four generational sectors are more and more unified by the very thing that we think sets them apart from each other: technology.

Another speaker that day, Keisha Herbert, felt we should think more about the impact we moderators have on the people we interview and the dynamics of those interviews. How much is the integrity of research participants’ responses affected by our presence and what they guess about us, as fellow human beings? (It’s always puzzled me, by the way, that we talk about ‘respondents’ and ‘moderators’. We are all ‘respondents’, and it’s often the case that those we invite to interviews are encouraged by us to share the moderation of the discussion).

So, how can we, as an industry here to represent and help communicate human truths, do better at helping ensure a rounded represention of ‘real life’? Do we need to become more active in encouraging our clients to be properly inclusive, less reliant on stereotypes and more diverse in their representations of their customers? Do we even know enough about how people want to identify, if at all, and by what markers?

Could we encourage our clients to embrace dissimilarities rather than homogeneity? Let’s challenge ourselves and our clients not to keep reinforcing the lazy stereotypes that are sometimes used to represent ‘everyman’ (or woman).

Should we be less worried about making sure consumers fit together, more worried about not getting a broad enough range of views?

If we cast our nets wider might we get a more nuanced and balanced understanding of trickier issues, and a more rounded, more dimensional set of perspectives on some of the more complex subjects we are asked to explore?

Finally, should the AQR spearhead something akin to the Unstereotype Alliance for our industry, or join forces with this group, so we are able to consider how we could positively adapt some of our practices? It would be great to hear from others about their points of view on this.

Let’s be inclusive about diversity, and diverse about who we include and encourage those who advertise and PR brands to be more conscious of it too?

 

Judy Taylor
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2019