Mass marketing, semiotics and consensus reality.

by Aug 1, 2018News

Photo by King’s Church International on Unsplash

There’s lots of debate about targeted marketing versus mass marketing, this week’s feature in The New Statesman, by Ian Leslie, being just one example. The pro-targeted-marketing argument goes like this: What’s the point of mass market advertising when you can have the highly specific, targeted advertising opportunities offered by Facebook, Google and Amazon? Why spend money on expensive mass-market campaigns on TV or in print when digital ads are so much cheaper? Do we even need advertising any more? It seems so old-fashioned and unscientific to attempt to reach huge numbers of people with a single siren call in the hope of working up some kind of emotion. Surely big data is supposed to have rescued us from all that. We can reach the exact people we want with short, inexpensive, uncomplicated messages that are tailored to their characteristics.

This is a popular view – perhaps the popular view. There is dissent – P&G reduced ad spend on digital so that it can spend more on traditional print and broadcast campaigns – but nobody is explaining in a way that’s contemporary or persuasive why mass marketing matters. Byron Sharp of 2010’s provocative How Brands Grow summarises it as ‘most of your revenue probably comes from people who only purchase occasionally, so spend your marketing budget on reaching as many of them as possible’. Leslie in The New Statesmanhas to reach all the way back to 2001 for academic support (which is the view that consumers look to advertising to tell them what others treat as normal behaviour). I think semiotics, as the study of consumer culture, has something to contribute in support of mass marketing. It’s a timely issue for me because I was just looking at this, in yesterday’s Sun newspaper.

Whatever you think of its politics, The Sun has strengths as a brand and one of those strengths is the manufacture of a consensus reality in which we are all the same and one person isn’t better than another. It constantly repeats visual and verbal semiotic gestures which reinforce this version of reality in which everyone is equal and united. What particularly strikes me about the above image is the selection of brands included in the image which represents “your food shop”. There are some brands in there which are not the cheapest but which we know consumers don’t like to compromise on, such as Heinz ketchup. But look at the other brands – the sugar is Whitworth’s, not Silver Spoon (let’s not be oblivious to the semiotics of Silver Spoon, which is about privilege and social class) and the instant coffee is Maxwell House – not Azera or Millicano or even Nescafe Original. Maxwell House is about as ordinary and unpretentious as instant coffee gets. Consumers who buy Maxwell House are well aware that they are not buying at the top end of the market for coffee – which can be quite a pretentious category – and here is The Sun telling them that Maxwell House is not merely okay; it is the default choice, standard and what a bona fide normal person would drink. Through semiotic signs like these, and they are repeated throughout the newspaper, all the time, The Sun creates and maintains a clear and seemingly democratic consensus reality from which no-one is excluded. Brand owners and marketers who are wondering about the value of the mass market may find it here. Instead of asking ‘what is the value of the mass market for brands’, we should be asking the relevant question, which is ‘what is the value of the mass market for consumers’. And the answer is that the mass market – that sense of ‘mass’ which is achieved through national, mass communications – is a place of safety and comfort for consumers who want to be reassured that there are still some things that make us all the same. This kind of messaging is good for Maxwell House, great for The Sun (because it makes so much effort in this direction) and valuable to consumers – especially now, in light of Brexit disputes, fierce loyalty to ordinary British ways of life and an uncertain economic future.


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