We 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”).
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.