In his new monthly column for WARC, Ian Murray, co-founder of Burst Your Bubble, unpacks a ‘marketing bubble’ to help marketers better understand consumers. He’s starting off with a critique of empathy and argues that marketers should consider cognitive perspective taking instead.

Andrew Tenzer and I think about bubbles a lot. Since 2017, our award-winning series of whitepapers including ‘The Empathy Delusion’ have shown that the marketing and advertising industry is woefully out of touch with the public it is paid to understand and engage. From grossly underestimating the role of collectivist values like universalism and benevolence, to overestimating people’s interest in money, image and fame, we find an industry routinely operating on different cultural and ethical settings to the mainstream.

Marketers and brands continue to talk about taking their place in culture while insisting on imposing their privileged worldview on everyone else. And failure to confront these biases limits our industry’s potential and the commercial and social impact of our work.

Generational marketing has been hollowed out by crude stereotyping and an obsession with youth. Our sustainability agenda remains hooked on techno optimism and the myth of green growth. Our diversity push has spawned a whole new industry for awards but continues to eschew anyone over 40 or who didn’t go to the right school. We ignore people’s need for community and the fundamentals of mass marketing in pursuit of atomised ‘personalisation at scale’.

Mark Ritson reminds us – ‘you are not the customer’. Our industry responds by doubling down on empathy as the key to market orientation, cultural relevance and competitive advantage. We compete over who owns empathy. But the bubbles remain.

Here then is a fundamental flaw in the marketing playbook. The science of empathy shows that it works when directed towards small groups of proximate people. It doesn’t work when we need to think about large groups of anonymous people who don’t live like we do or live where and how we live.

So, in this column I want to offer a heretical idea. Marketers don’t need to get better at empathy. Marketers shouldn’t be doing empathy at all. It is the wrong model for understanding and engaging with the people we choose to call ‘consumers’.

Against empathy

Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale offers a counterpoint to our cultural obsession with empathy, arguing that it has major design flaws as a model for decision making. Empathy is a “capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices”. It encourages us to take shortcuts towards familiar and accessible feelings, values, and beliefs. Of course, all of this makes sense when we take an evolutionary perspective. As Bloom observes, “we are constituted to favour our friends and family over strangers, to care more about members of our group than people from different, perhaps opposing groups.”

Building our decision making around emotional identification and ‘feeling what others feel’ makes us vulnerable to these evolutionary biases and inevitably turns the spotlight towards ‘people like us’.

Bloom’s critique of empathy is part of a wider academic movement to roll back the worst excesses of the ‘emotional turn’ in psychology and behavioural science. His goal is “to make a case for the value of conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life, arguing that we should strive to use our heads rather than our hearts.”

The focus on empathy is symptomatic of a marketing industry that has lost sight of this balance. Many marketers now see their job as predominantly emotional not cognitive work. Kahneman’s blockbuster was called Thinking Fast and Slow. But marketers have largely ignored the slow part.

The power of perspective taking

In popular usage terms like ‘empathy’ and ‘perspective taking’ are often used interchangeably. But increasingly, psychologists and neuroscientists see them as entirely distinct processes. Perspective taking is a cognitive (i.e., not emotional) process focused on the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from a particular point of view. We improve our capacity for perspective taking by focusing on three things:

  1. Expanding our knowledge (of alternative contexts and worldviews).
  2. Building our capacity for reflexivity – i.e., our ability to critically examine our own emotions values and beliefs.
  3. Motivation – having the desire to embrace nuance and complexity.

Perspective taking doesn’t require any transformation in feelings, values or beliefs. It’s not about “I feel what you feel.” It’s about exposure to heterodox thinking; it’s about “I am here, but I understand why you are there.” At Burst Your Bubble we think perspective taking is how marketers can achieve the commercial and social impact that we all crave. And good old research, if it’s done properly, plays a critical role in this process.

But what does it look like? Below I’ve offered a quick snapshot from some research Burst Your Bubble and our friends at Yonder Data Solutions are doing on young people.

Gen Z, nihilism, and the need for chaos

The backlash against generational marketing is gathering pace. Ritson tells us demographic segmentation is horseshit. But demographics remain a cornerstone of social science. Why can’t our industry make it work? Our industry’s role in the risible stereotyping of ‘Gen Z’ as a force for good is at the centre of it.

Marketers are focused on purpose and being leaders of social change. Narrow empathy means we assume that young people are too. And our industry has little time for any other narrative. But barely one-in-three young people see themselves as ‘progressive’.

Adopting a wider perspective would lead marketers to the burgeoning academic literature on the rise of nihilism and need for chaos. Here is what happens when you give young people the opportunity to talk about this stuff:

  • 31% think that “nothing truly matters”.
  • 29% think “there is no such thing as purpose in life”.
  • 44% exhibit facets of need for chaos – i.e., agreeing with apocalyptic statements like “we need to tear down our institutions and start again”.

(Source: Burst Your Bubble and Yonder Data Solutions, July 2023, UK Adults n=2069, 16–24 n= 232)

This is far from our industry’s neat story of purposeful youth plugged seamlessly into the market, changing the world one purchase at a time. Young people are just as likely to be nihilists as progressives. And that’s the point of perspective taking. To paraphrase Rory Sutherland, young people are messy and non-linear. But many marketers, driven by narrow empathy and enabled by a largely acquiescent research industry, are devoted to pretending that isn’t true.

Rory reminds us that neatness costs – “lost creative opportunities” and “potentially interesting ideas are destroyed when we design things to look neat.” Bursting Bubbles is messy. It’s about what Adam Grant calls “ideas that make you think hard, not just opinions that feel good”. That’s what I’ll be trying to offer here every month.