Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Dangers of applying stereotypes in marketing

Updated Feb 17, 2016 01:54pm
Marketers are simply embracing societal stereotypes and using them to justify their product’s communication.
Photo: Online.
Photo: Online.

Growing up, Robin Williams was an amazing influence, from the crazy Mork & Mindy TV show to Hollywood movies to stage comedy, and of course, those epic Oscar host gigs. He was funny, alive and vibrant. He had a serious side, which was as compelling as his slapstick and wit. However his stand out performance in my view was in Good Will Hunting. In this debut movie by the now famous duo of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, we get a glimpse of life and luckily a chance to unlearn some preconceived notions. These notions are damaging for individuals – and especially disastrous for marketers.

If you are not familiar with the movie Good Will Hunting, it’s the story about an exceptionally gifted but troubled young boy, Will (Matt Damon) and how a doctor, a psychiatrist has to help him to deal with his intelligence and also his ego defence mechanisms/stereotypical behaviour.

In one of the best written and best delivered pieces of dialogue in Hollywood history, William’s character, Sean tears apart Will’s misconception that he knows all there is to know about life from reading books.

“So if I asked you about art, you would probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You have never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. You're a tough kid. And if I ask you about war, you would probably throw Shakespeare at me, right: 'once more into the breach, dear friends.' But you have never been near one. You have never held your best friend's head in your lap, and watch him gasp his last breath looking at you for help.”

Sean’s point is simple; you cannot experience life by reading a book. He also is trying to teach Will that you can’t understand people by being stereotypical. In an earlier scene, Will sees a painting in Sean’s office and immediately assumes that the doctor’s marriage had broken down. In actuality Sean’s wife had died of cancer.

In the last part of his monologue, Sean brings his point home:

“You presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine. You ripped my f--kin' life apart. You are an orphan, right? (nodding) Do you think I would know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?”

The lesson here is simple. You cannot know people by applying stereotypes. Yet that is what we do on a daily basis as marketers. Stereotypes are like egos and not a bad thing. They are natural, and they have been developed to help us deal with new situations and stimuli based on previous experiences. Our brains access a similar event in the past and help us navigate novelty. It saves time at a cognitive level.

The danger arises when inaccurate information is grouped together and wrong stereotypes are created. A perfect example – the every girl wants to be fair stereotype or the only boys need milk and nutrition stereotype. In some cases, marketers are simply embracing societal stereotypes and using them to justify their product’s communication. A recent example is this TVC for Tapal Mezban which managed to enrage quite a few Sindhi friends.

Tapal Mezban TVC 2015

Tapal Mezban TVC 2015 - Tapal Janey Mezbani jo Ra’az, Bhali Karey AayaProduction House: Ambience FilmsAgency: IAL Saatchi & SaatchiDirector: Asad U. HaqDOP: Zain Haleem Executive Producer: Mohsin KamalAssistant Director: Ali DadiLine Producer : M. Zohaib2nd AD: Saman ZProduction Manager: M. K. AmirArt Director: Sadaf Umar AnwarTalent: Citrus Talent - Uzma Khan, Hasnain Lehri, Azra Aftab, Dr. Malik Maroof, Aalyan AwanWardrobe: Mavi KayaniMakeup: Adnan AnsariMusic Composer & Producer: Shujja Grade :1000 VoltsPost : Yellow Bean

Posted by Advertistan on Thursday, December 17, 2015

Their contention (as expressed on Khalid Alvi Marketing Next) was that it was stereotypical. The people were not Sindhi, the pronunciation was wrong and the concept suggested that saieen and waderaemphasized text mean the same thing. (As has been shared vocally on social media in the past few months, saieen is not a term equivalent to wadera. In fact it is a term denoting respect. We can recall Junoon’s hit song Saieen. The song in the Sufi rock tradition was no doubt talking about God.)

So how did a big brand and reputable agency get this ideas wrong? I think the reason is the same flaw that Sean exposed in Will. You cannot know someone or something through third hand knowledge. You especially cannot know your target audience if you are sitting in a cushy armchair in Karachi and not out in the fields of Larkana. This point was hinted by Shoaib Qureshy in a recent article on this site.

Read: Lost in a branded maze.

The obvious answer seems to turn to research and focus groups, a solution but not the best one. FGDs and other research methods have serious drawbacks. They are skewed, biased and often a glorified form of convenience sampling.

We need to learn a new skill in Pakistan; a new buzzword for the future, a craze to be sought: ‘Ethnography.’ But for that you will have to read this blog post first.