#REACH2014 – Ethnography and Advertising: Alison Demos ’98


“What we want to do is go beyond what people say and get to what they actually do. We are complex people. Daily life is a set of negotiations that puts us closer and further from our aspirations at differing times. Behavior is curved.” These were the opening words of Alison Demos ‘98s Reach Talk.  Demos described the importance of cultural ethnography in marketing. The ethnographic videos she showed us demonstrated how ethnographers utilize natural habits and quiet to get to the heart of what makes the consumer tick. Demos intimated that it’s all about “being a really good fly on the wall. Making sure you’re in the space you need to be in so that they can tell you what matters.” This active listening and nonverbal communication allows the explorer to actually notice unscripted surprises that are often incredibly telling.

Demos intimated that the environment in which many marketing discussions take place is often also very telling. She points out that when asked what they want in a shoe, women often say “comfort or low-prices”. However, a quick look under the table will often reveal that these same women do not wear shoes that boast their perfect shoes. Demos then went on to point out that ethnography is often used in cases where a company desperately wants to break a marketing cliche trap, or in areas where research is just in its beginning stages. Demos gave two particularly poignant examples.

In one example, the Dove company realized that a new demographic for their products was arising. This group was largely made up of married men in their mid 30s and 40s. In the snack department, Reeses, in an attempt to revitalize their products realized that the packaging of the Reeses cups into separately wrapped containers lead to secretive Reeses eating practices, simply because people did not want to share.

In a final affirmation of the importance of video ethnography Demos used the example of a scientist who worked on the building of a moon rover. “You might have all these probes and you might have an alien sitting there watching them do it, and you wouldn’t know if you don’t have a camera on the probe.” There are many advertising secrets to be found in the home. You just have to go out and get them.

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