WHEN WE WATCH advertisements, we tend to think of ourselves as stationary, with the marketers coming to us and then, if we don’t respond, heading elsewhere. Like an Einstein relativity paradox, however, we observers are also in motion, being coaxed toward the marketer, often without knowing it.
A good business knows its customer niche—and good marketers know how to speak to that niche. Customer niches are defined by demographic attributes. When I discuss these attributes with students, I bring up King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. But in this case, marketers are seeking their product’s GRAIL: gender, race or ethnicity, age, income and lifestyle.
Not every product pitch is delineated based on all five categories. Toothpaste is not marketed by race or ethnicity. Some distinctions are artificial. Yogurt is equally healthy for men and women, but it’s mostly pitched to women. To the extent that a product-pusher can say, “this is perfect for you,” potential customers respond positively.
Take money management. It’s potentially beneficial to all demographics. You might assume that the pitch for such services would mainly be a logical one that emphasizes, “We can grow your money.”
TD Ameritrade—or TD to its friends—is a big marketer of such services. Of late, it’s produced a series of ads called “The Green Room.” The ads are shot in a largely green setting, a comforting color that no doubt evokes wealth. An advisor-come-therapist talks to people in a semi-casual way about their aspirations and what TD can do to help. The label “Green Room” also evokes the name given to a studio prep room, where guests ready themselves for the big show.
The customers in the ads are surrogates for the real customers viewing the ads at home. In pursuit of the GRAIL, TD strives to have actors of different race and gender. Age tends be older. This makes sense, since the topic is typically preparing for retirement. Income is skewed higher, as TD’s services are geared toward those who have the luxury of socking away extra money.
The most noticeable marketing sleight of hand regards lifestyle. By making a series of ads with similar but slightly different appeals, TD can speak to the:
The changes in the actual sales pitch—what TD can do for each type of person—are accentuated by subtle changes in the setting. The non-detailed person’s background is dominated by photos and a large picture of a bull fighting a bear, while the tech person and sports analogy guy are surrounded by graphs. Most casually drink coffee from mugs, but the young professional’s ad has an obvious espresso machine. It’s all designed to have you, the potential viewer, place yourself on the green couch with the person you most identify with.
My goal here isn’t to single out TD Ameritrade. Other financial firms do something similar with their advertisements. What’s the overriding goal of such ads? TD and other financial firms may be selling rational money management. But their ads are working a different angle. As the viewer, your brain may be musing about money. But your heart is thinking, “That’s me.”
Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. His previous articles include Bored Games, Shame on Us and Under Attack. Jim’s book series on teaching behavioral economics and media literacy, Media, Marketing, and Me, is being published in 2019. Jim lives in Granada, Spain, with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com.