marketing & design

Demographics must be used with Empathy

by Brian James Rawson
December 28, 2022

Listen to the episode above. Read the transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Owl Street Studio podcast, where we talk about how marketing and design affect the unexpected areas of our lives.

Something we like to do is to take words and phrases and ideas and unpack them to show different perspectives and the hidden machinations within these seemingly common ideas. And one thing that we often have to unpack…is demographics.

Do You Know Most Demographics are Wrongly Used?

Most people have a concept of demographics. They understand that it has to do with numbers and information like age and income. They know that demographics are used for marketing and advertising. But beyond that, people don't always pay that much attention to demographics, and they don't really know how they should be used. And speaking as someone inside the marketing industry, I personally feel that most marketers use demographics in the wrong way.

Do You Know How Demographics Should be Used?

We believe that demographics are simply a tool to help understand what it's like to be another person. We believe that demographics are not the encapsulation of a person, that they can't define a person, but that they simply help us see a tiny window into what it's like to wake up every day and move through the world as that person. All that to say, we believe that demographics must be used with empathy.

We Put Privacy Boundaries on Demographics

For us, we purposely limit the amount of demographic information that we research and gather about client audiences and new customers, because we believe that there's a breaking point with how much information you can have on demographics, that there is a line between demographics being a tool for empathy and being an invasion of privacy.

We Put Heavy Caveats on Demographics

At the same time, we understand that no matter how much information you can get about a person, no one can be boiled down to just some numbers and checklists. So, we strive to use demographics in a middle ground. To use them in a similar way as a method actor and a novelist uses research to understand their characters. We use demographics, not to minimize and reduce empathy, but, actually, to grow empathy and to fact check our empathetic assumptions.

Demographics Start to Reveal How You Experience the World

With demographics, when you understand that things like age, gender presentation, racial presentation, and class markers all affect how someone moves through the world and how they experience the world and how the world reacts and experiences them; when we see that - we can use demographics just to help us imagine what is it like to be this person. What is it like to wake up every day and move through the world as someone who's 65? As someone who’s 25? As someone who is male presenting or female presenting or non-binary presenting?

Demographics Start to Expand Empathy

Because each person has a very different set of experiences, a different set of goals, a different set of anxieties and worries and hopes, instead of just assuming we know what it's like to be that person, we use demographics to fact check. What are the things that are affecting someone who's 65 today? What's the political landscape, the generational landscape, the resource and contextual landscape? And we do that same thing for someone who's 25 or for someone who's from a certain part of the country versus another part of the country.

We do all that not to invade anyone's privacy, not to assume that we know everything about them, but to just simply help us grow our empathetic imagination and understanding. Now, by all means, we're not perfect. We're always learning and striving for progress over perfection. But we feel that this approach of using empathy with demographics is the morally and ethically right thing to do. And we feel that demographics devoid of empathy are morally wrong.

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