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FutureNow Article
Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008

Why “Harmless” Stereotypes Kill Marketing Campaigns

By Holly Buchanan
February 19th, 2008

Borat offers stereotypes at costWe all use stereotypes. They’re a shortcut to understanding people who are not like us.

Occasionally — perhaps more often than we’d like to admit — there’s at least some grain of truth in stereotypes. There are a few attributes that may be accurate about each of the groups others lump us in. So why are they so harmful?

In an article for MSNBC (“Science Gets the Last Laugh on Ethnic Jokes”), Kathleen Wren discusses a recent study showing that real personalities don’t match stereotypes. It seems there’s further proof our prejudices may be misleading…

A possibility is that some very specific components of a stereotype may be accurate — for example, Italians may gesture with their hands a lot — but that they don’t necessarily tell us anything more generally about personality.

Stereotypes keep us from digging deep enough to truly understand people (e.g., your customers). We see one or two traits and assume several others must also be true. Very dangerous.

But here’s the really scary part:

We may be “hard-wired,” to some extent, to maintain inaccurate stereotypes, since we are less likely to notice and remember information that violates our stereotypes.

When analyzing data, surveys, focus groups, and other information we gather about customers, we may be more likely to focus on information that reinforces our stereotypes since, well, it just “feels right.”

Think this can’t happen to you? Think again.

When I create male personas, I check in with the men on our team to make sure they’re accurate. (I’m not trying to brag here, but… ) I’ve been helping clients create customer personas for a long time, and my results confirm that I know what I’m doing. Still, there have been several times where the research information I was getting just sounded dead wrong. I simply could not believe it. But after extensive checking, it appeared it was indeed true.

I’ve done enough research on the difference between men’s buying processes and the ways women buy to know there are indeed some BIG differences. So when I see something that goes against my gut, I don’t just write it off. I investigate and try to keep an open mind. But this is why it’s so dangerous when marketers (even yours truly) claim to know something’s true in their so-called “gut”:

Generally, according to Robins, when we encounter people who contradict prevailing generalizations, we perceive them as unique individuals rather than representatives of their national or cultural groups.

How true. But stereotyping doesn’t end there. When ethnic stereotypes don’t fit, it’s gender stereotypes to the rescue!

I see this all too often: “Oh, the research says this woman is happy with her weight. She even thinks she looks good, even though she’s obviously overweight. That can’t possibly be true. All women want to be skinny.”

Guess what. There are many women whom the beauty industry would consider overweight who are perfectly happy with their bodies and do think they look good. (Look at the success of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, or Jenny Craig “plus size” spokeswomen Kirstie Alley, Valerie Bertinelli, and Queen Latifah.)

How can you break through stereotypes and really understand your customers? First, consider that stereotypes are the single biggest reason why so many marketing-to-women efforts fail, then read my post on Copyblogger (“Surprise! Not All Women Think Alike”).

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Shameless Plug: Holly is co-instructor of our Persuasive Online Copywriting seminar on June 2nd in New York City, and co-author of The Soccer Mom Myth — Today’s Female Consumer: Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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Comments (11)

  1. Question: If you’re niche is small enough, don’t stereotypes just find themselves in the language? I sell Health Insurance to Rugby Players. When I say “prop”, a rugby player sees a very stocky, beer guzzling, semi-mobile fire hydrant. When I write that “Backs don’t ruck” only rugby players get that statement. The stereotypes, the language, give me instant connection with my customers. I do use personas in my copy, but I think I’m missing something key in your article. Where have I “knocked-on?”

  2. Kevin,

    It sounds like you’ve done your homework on Rugby Players. You’ve made an effort to understand who they are and the language they use, am I correct?

    That sounds like doing uncovery to me.

    An example of stereotyping would be – you think almost no one plays rugby so why even bother to try to sell anything to them? But it is my understanding that rugby is growing in popularity, for men and women – and is the third most watched sport in the world.

    So it sounds to me like you broke through a stereotype to even consider them as a target audience.
    (at least from the perspective of a U.S. resident)

  3. Coming from Australia (pronounced: Oz-tray-ya), we find it hard to believe that anyone would think that nobody plays Rugby! Perhaps that’s a stereotype?

    I’ve struggled a little with this concept too… What is a stereotype? Even a persona could be called a stereotype at micro level. I guess you’re referring to broad cultural or sex stereotypes and assumptions.

    It seems to be much easier to write copy once you have drilled down to the most specific picture of your customers that you can get. Personality, needs, wants, buying styles etc. By-passing this just doesn’t work. I appreciated your examples Holly.

    Kevin, funny site. I’m sure it will appeal to the niche!

  4. Holly,

    I catch myself stereotyping my prospects on a regular basis, even though I teach others not to do this very thing.

    I can say I am doing a better job of catching this weakness, since making “Waiting For Your Cat To Bark, Persuasive Copywriting and Call To Action” part of my daily referrence material.

    Thank you for this post, it has given me some extra referrence points.

    Never Give Up,

    Troy Dooly

  5. [...] Buchanan who is a hero of mine, has written a great article on this over at GrokDotCom, the blog of Future Now Inc, the masterminds behind some of the most successful online properties [...]

  6. Troy,

    Let yourself off the hook. Our natural tendency is to stereotype. (I’m guilty of it at times as well) We’re looking for a shortcut to understanding who people are and what they want. It takes some extra work to dig deeper, but it’s always worth it.

    Another clue you may be stereotyping is if you find you do not like the persona or audience you are writing to.

    I was reminded of this while watching “Entourage” – At first I was going to write the show off. It was a bunch of steroeypical young guys in hollywood. I found myslf disliking most of the cast.

    But after watching two full shows, I changed my tune. I got a chance to go past my surface reaction (and stereotypes) and get to know the characters. I found I actually liked these guys.

    If you told me to write copy to these characters after only 15 minutes, it would have been hard. But after two full shows, it would be much easier to write copy to them.

  7. I agree with Kevin, sometimes stereotypes are contained within a specific demographic. In the UK the Equality Bill excludes age for insurance providers, and so it should as the evidence of higher risk is very clear-cut. Naturally, there are many people who are overpaying for their insurance premiums as they are a lower risk than average but the stereotype has to be made in some way, otherwise rates would go through the roof underwriting everyone. I know a useful insurance guide that sets out why some people are charged higher rates than others if anyone is interested. Many insurers actually use these old age stereotypes to sell more policies, its part of life.

  8. Phenomenal blog, numerous fascinating details. I believe seven of days ago, I have seen a similar blog. Does anybody know how to track future posts?

  9. I catch myself stereotyping my prospects on a regular basis, even though I teach others not to do this very thing.

  10. Interesting article Holly but I feel as though I am missing something in your overall premise. As marketeers should we not be of a level above the common person and the tendency to stereotype? I would assume that anyone in this business would know to look past first impressions and assumed roles when putting together a decent campaign.

  11. @Dougie Brisbane – of course we should be above that. Marketing to stereotypes will get you into trouble, and you will soon find that your supposed customers aren’t behaving the way you want them to, or taking the actions you want them to take. Unfortunately, many companies are still creating marketing personas rooted in stereotypes (soccer mom), and demographic info (middle-aged, suburban, stay-at-home married woman with 2 kids who drives a mini-van), rather than creating personas rooted in meaningful information about how people collect information and make decisions.

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Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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