Your Audience: Ideal, or Real?

Disclaimer! I’m not an anthropologist. (If I were, I may be just about the only one with a consistent online presence. They’re hard to come across, take my word.) Although I mainly study strategic communication, I’ve always been interested in anthropology and the intersection of language and culture.

Since it can be difficult to draw connections between the two fields, I always keep an eye out for solid examples. Here’s something that’s caught my interest…


On the first day of classes for the semester, I sat waiting for my Operations Management course to begin. Before the professor even introduced herself, a sales rep. for the Wall Street Journal took the spotlight. Within three minutes, she was collecting order forms from the class. Already annoyed by this coercive sales tactic, I ignored her spiel on the benefits of their student subscription offer, and considered their brand strategy.

WSJ offers an exclusive student subscription, the slogan: it’s all here. jump in. The brightly colored brochure detailing this bargain is covered in sketches: talking hippos, a piggy bank, random patterns. The same sketches that you’ll find in the margins of many students’ notes. Here’s a glimpse.

A key step in establishing a brand is considering your audience. It comes so easily, cater to the young/student audience with bright colors, quirky sketches, millennial slang. In a 1D world, it works perfectly. But if you ask me, it misses the target completely. It speaks to the ideal culture of the modern student, but it’s far off the mark of the real culture.

Just like many communications professionals have their own definition of PR, many anthropologists have unique definitions of culture. This definition by David Sidney one outlines the “ideal vs. real” dilemma perfectly…

A culture consists of the acquired or cultivated behavior and thought of individuals within a society, as well as of the intellectual, artistic and social ideals which the members of a society profess and to which they strive to conform.” -David Sidney

The disparity between ideal culture and real culture is best understood as the difference between the behaviors we strive to adopt, and those that are truly adopted. A great example is difference between the token American family (a happily married couple with one athletic son and one pageant-worthy daughter) and the true American family (see: Modern Family).

The WSJ student-centered branding speaks flawlessly to the ideal culture of their audience. Yet, the impact it has on us “youngsters” is borderline offensive in its simplicity. Not only does this approach lack engagement, it mocks the very audience it should be communicating with.

While the ideal culture can’t be ignored, adhering to it too closely results in an over-simplified and stereotypical brand message. Instead, considering the real culture-the imperfections, the unexpected-can lend true impact to your finished product.

What are some other brands that disregard real culture? Which culture do you cater to?


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