Where are you on the rich/poor staircase? Let’s find out

Research suggests most marketers grew up in a household where the highest earner was social grade AB – to better represent people of all walks of life the industry needs to diversify.

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Back in 2020, my business partner Ian Murray and I asked a representative sample of the UK population and a sample of marketers to position themselves on a ‘rich/poor staircase’. They rated themselves on a scale ranging from 0 being the poorest and 10 being the richest. Our UK adult sample rated themselves an average of 4.8, and marketers at 5.5.

According to Marketing Week’s 2024 Career & Salary Survey, the average marketer earns anywhere from £50,000 to £68,000 per year depending on the sector. The ONS reports that the average annual personal income in the UK is a little over £27,000. Marketers’ response to the ladder question shows a degree of awareness that they are a bit better off than other people. But marketers are still firmly positioning themselves in the middle with everyone else.

We then asked people where they aspired to be on the staircase, and once again we saw a similar pattern for both samples – 7.0 for all adults, and 7.7 for marketers. Note that the aspiration gap is the same for both. Everyone wants to move about two rungs up the ladder. The major problem is that people in our industry are way off in their estimation of where they are on the ladder right now. Marketers are already near the top.

Let’s not forget that marketing is one of the most elitist professions in the UK. In our study ‘The Aspiration Window’, Ian and I revealed that 70% of people working in marketing and advertising grew up in a household where the highest earner was social grade AB – this is compared to just 29% in the UK population as a whole. All of our research suggests that marketers are the elite, and they don’t even know it.

What can be done to fix marketing’s persistent socio-economic class pay gap? 

The categorisation problem

Alongside this lack of self-awareness, our research has found people working in marketing are more likely to have an analytical thinking style, meaning among other things, that we are more focused on categorisation.

What better example of this than Channel 4 and Republic of Media’s recent attempt to audit TV adverts for working-class representation. This reinforces my belief that class and social mobility still isn’t well enough understood in our industry. In the wider report, they say class is a “nebulous social construct”. This is despite the incredibly robust definitions from decades of social science research, including the ONS framework for measuring social mobility.

However, being able to accurately measure social mobility doesn’t mean you can identify a working-class person just by looking at them. Imagine your HR team walking around the office, looking you up and down, and determining your social class based on how you speak and the clothes you wear. I’m sure you would find that crass and offensive. Even though the authors of the study acknowledge that class is very difficult to judge from a 30-second ad, they go ahead and do the audit anyway. This is because marketing is an industry obsessed with the need for dichotomous categorisation. Unfortunately, it leads to stereotyping and only serves to highlight the bias of marketers.

It’s very difficult to connect with the majority of the population if you don’t know where the middle is.

The audit couldn’t identify 59% of all characters coded. Assumed lower social grade characters play a lead role in 7% of ads and 34% are of higher social grade. You can only measure what you can measure. The report states that the majority of character classification came down to material signifiers such as environment and dress.

Channel 4 has not published the full audit, so the methodology is unclear. However, it highlights an example of a Fairy non-bio ad which features a mother bathing her baby. It was audited as featuring upper/middle-class characters due to the ‘upmarket’ home and a well-dressed actress. Do working-class people not dress well? Do they not care about their appearance? The interior of the house is smart. Do working-class people not invest in making their homes look nice? I think you can see the problem here.

The London bubble is a misnomer, the real bubble is the culture of marketing

This categorisation problem was further highlighted by the famous ad man Dave Trott, who despite his stance of championing ordinary people, is as guilty as Channel 4 of dichotomous/zero-sum thinking. In his recent post on X, he wrote ‘Don’t just read the Guardian, read the Sun, read The Daily Mail. Don’t just go to the opera, go to the football. Don’t just drink white wine, drink beer. Don’t just eat at restaurants, eat pie & mash. There’s a world outside middle-class university grads’. Where would I fit in? I go to football, but I’m also partial to a glass of white wine. The idea that merely drinking a pint of beer will deliver some deep and meaningful insight into the lives of working-class people, is frankly ridiculous.

Class and social mobility is very complicated, and there is no magic bullet for representation of class in advertising. These oversimplifications and tick-box exercises are seeking easy answers to incredibly complex questions. These recent examples say more about the industry and its view of class than it does about championing social mobility and genuinely understanding mainstream audiences. As results from the ladder question shows, we have the calibration all wrong. It’s very difficult to connect with the majority of the population if you don’t know where the middle is.

There is a much bigger issue at play here. Let’s not forget that working-class people are still very much an outgroup in our industry. I would argue that being unable to identify the class of six in 10 people in ads is no bad thing. I therefore urge marketers to prioritise getting the industry’s own house in order. The best way to ensure better representation in our output is to surround ourselves with people from all walks of life.

Andrew Tenzer is co-founder of Burst Your Bubble.



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