I’m Not Your Consumer: How Research Misses The Human Behind The Demographic

Deutsch’s Douglas Van Praet discusses how focus-group feedback, and the whole notion of the consumer, are misguided and how research should focus on understanding the unconscious and improving human lives.

I’m Not Your Consumer: How Research Misses The Human Behind The Demographic

Whenever I hear the word “consumer,” a term unavoidable in marketing, a part of me winces. The label is counterproductive and misguided, suggesting hubris by putting corporate interests over customer concerns. The worst offense is that it presupposes a response you haven’t earned yet. Their purpose is not to consume your product!


Yet this label frames market research, with an emphasis on sales and usage, in other words, the bottom line, market share, or ROI. The ultimate goal is profitability, not helping people better themselves.

How these research studies are done is at sharp odds with what science now knows. The elephant in the room is that the vast majority of our decisions are made unconsciously. What is a no-brainer for any cognitive scientist remains mind-boggling to marketers. The conscious mind is simply not running the show, but we’ve created an entire industry pretending that it does.

Advertisers are doubling down on this myth, investing in exhaustive investigations of self-reported preferences, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. These deceptions become guideposts for product and campaign development. For $150 and a ham sandwich, panelists are drilled for hours in formal focus groups before two-way mirrors and cleverly concealed microphones that elicit groupthink and inauthenticity. The best become “professional respondents” glibly dominating groups on the topic du jour–from potato chip to microchip.

The problem is we’re profoundly social beings having spent 99% of our evolution relying on vital resources from tribal affiliates whose opinions mattered. Group rejection likely meant a death sentence. So it’s no surprise we still only put our best face forward while artfully maneuvering ourselves competitively in the pecking order.

The brain is designed to hide most of our intentions and promote self-confidence, an adaptive function that improves lives and prevents information overload. So we invent stories and believe our lies and confabulations. Social science experiments reveal that we are inherently self-righteous and consistently overrate our knowledge, autonomy, and abilities. We say advertising doesn’t influence us even though sales say otherwise. And we maintain these self-serving delusions when wired to a lie detector, which means we are lying to ourselves and not intentionally to the experimenters!

But marketers cling to these false convictions and post-hoc rationalizations in large-scale quantitative studies that test and track “awareness,” “topline” reports that skim the surface because they ignore real motives that lay hidden in the depths of our “unawareness.”


This vast data dump is distilled into a target “persona,” the “true north” for creative inspiration. Psychologist Carl Jung is turning in his grave because he coined the term to describe the façade we contrive to make an impression on others while concealing our true nature. The persona is the mask of overconfidence that colors reality in our favor to adapt to social situations.

We need to penetrate this veneer. As Jung put it, “In each of us there is another whom we don’t know.” This inner “self” is a term he used to describe the totality of the psyche that includes our unconscious intentions or, in essence, “the real you.”

And we all share an inner essence through our DNA. We’re not consumers, eyeballs, non-responders, laggards, Millennials, or Hispanics. We are humans. And by raising our sightline and defining customers more broadly we will not only deepen empathy and relevance but also widen appeal.

I’m not saying all research is bad research. Measuring sales and online engagement is very useful because we observe what people do, not what they say they do. And despite the pitfalls of qualitative research we can still observe face-to-face, micro-expressions and body language that belie words. Skilled moderators can unveil hidden agendas and unconscious defenses. But these researchers are rare. Strategists who inspire through traditional methods make subjective leaps beyond the data. They succeed in spite of current research protocols, not because of them.

I have developed a 7-step process shedding human insight on how idea becomes action: 1) Interrupt the Pattern, 2) Create Comfort, 3) Lead the Imagination, 4) Shift the Feeling, 5) Satisfy the Critical Mind, 6) Change the Associations, and 7) Take Action.

When marketers interrupt the pattern, they also have us looking for threats. We have evolved to avoid harm, making us skittish customers. Step 2 is to Create Comfort, which is needed to open us to new possibilities, a state of mind that only occurs with easing tensions and building trust. Before anyone can get excited about your pitch, you need to first engender receptivity to your overture.


Take for instance a TV spot called “Smiles” we created for Volkswagen that debuted around the presidential debates to lighten the vitriolic mood. It featured one of the most effective ways to create comfort. It showed a series of clips of real people laughing uncontrollably in order from infant, to child, to adult, to elder without a single word or car, ending on the logo and line: “It’s not the miles, it’s how you live them.”

Laughter is social bonding communication. It’s like saying, “I like you” or “I want you to like me.” Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar says that belly laughing may have worked like “grooming at a distance” for early ancestors, allowing them to maintain bonds within larger groups, which explains why humor in ads can bond people to brands. Laughter is an innate, cross-cultural response triggered unconsciously, which is why it is hard to fake or control. Shared laughter synchronizes our brains in emotional attunement, the hallmark of successful communication, releasing oxytocin and tension, firing our trust circuits.

This approach felt authentic and compelling only because the brand had earned the right. VW had a storied legacy to “think small,” not boast big; not through sales talk, but by speaking human. And they attained massive sales growth back then as well as today. That’s in part because they recognized that our purpose as people is to lead better lives, not to consume their products.

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also Executive Vice President at agency Deutsch L.A., where his responsibilities include Group Planning Director for the Volkswagen account. Van Praet’s approach to advertising and marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral economics to business problems.

[Images: Flickr users Kevin Dooley, Thomas Heyman, Todd Anderson, and Michele Catania]