It’s no accident that the creators of Mad Men gave their antihero ad guru, Don Draper, a poor childhood. The word “aspirational” has become creative-brief boilerplate, and the idealized results are often out of touch with customers’ lives. It’s time for marketing that reflects our true socioeconomic mix—from diversity in income and occupation to education and location, as well as the personal values shaped by these things. 

Insights & ideas

Aspiration versus authenticity

About 29% of US adults live in lower-income households and 51% are considered middle class1—but you wouldn’t know it by looking at advertising. Upper classes are overrepresented in marketing, perpetuating an imagined world of prosperity and privilege where few of us fit in. Urban professionals commuting to loft apartments in luxury sedans may be ubiquitous in advertising, but in reality, they’re the exception, not the rule. Our creative can and should make room for people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Let’s get real 

When marketers do feature working class and lower income people, they’re often stereotyped or misrepresented. The middle class is commonly idealized in a way that ignores the economic insecurity that many face. Working class people are often presented as having a down-to-earth common sense that a more elite target audience can acquire by buying whatever product is on offer. Meanwhile, lower income people are rarely shown at all outside of ads for charitable causes, much of which borders on “poverty porn.” Challenge these old stereotypes. Better yet, throw them out. Inclusive marketing respects our socioeconomic differences and strives to portray them accurately.

In a 2019 study of 50 brands from the top 200 media spenders, only 10% of ads included people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.(2)
Young Muslim woman prepares her makeup in a pink room.

The value of other POVs

Another way the aspirational advertising model fails is in its assumption that everyone values things the same way, when in fact the very idea of value is different from person to person. One person’s must-have might be a new big screen TV, while another person’s might be a donation to a women’s shelter. Conduct market research and incorporate different perspectives into your marketing—it’s value might just skyrocket.

Beyond bank accounts

Socioeconomic diversity is based on more than what’s in our wallets. How we make a living, where we live, what level of education we have—all of these things have an impact on the way we see ourselves and the world around us. And while audience demographics don’t often take such nuances into account, your creative can. Could your ad’s hero live in a small town rather than a city? What if they worked in a hospital instead of an office? The more diverse your characters are, the more real and relatable they’ll become.

  1. Wisconsin School of Business, “Advertising May Mislead People into Thinking They're Part of Shrinking Middle Class,” University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jan 9, 2018.
  2. Beer, Jeff, “17,000 data points from 50 top brands prove that diversity in ads is good for their bottom lines,” Fast Company, Sep 23, 2019.