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The Pitfalls of Nascar Blindness

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Just four years ago, the late playwright Arthur Miller wondered, "How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?"

So it's been fairly amusing (to me, anyway) to listen to many of my adland friends react in horror and utter amazement to the news that John McCain is not all that far behind in the polls. Or maybe even closing in. (It all depends on whose polls you listen to.) Because after all, no one they know is actually voting for McCain -- so who, they're curious to find out, are all these people in the GOP column?

This reaction is a common symptom of something that greatly afflicts people in the advertising community: Nascar blindness. This disease is the strongly held belief that if no one in your little bubble of upscale, artsy Bobo friends is into something, then clearly no one else is, either.

It's what led advertisers to completely ignore Nascar for so many years, dismissing it as some bizarre redneck affectation akin to eating squirrel meat, thereby missing the opportunity to bond with the millions of middle-class fans who enjoy auto racing.

Nascar blindness is why so many completely dismiss the appeal of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. It's as if they can't even wrap their heads around the notion that sentient beings could feel inspired by her. Even pointing out the fact that she seems to have inspired a whole lot of people sets their mouths frothing. And it's not just ad folk: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd can't seem to stop herself from mocking Palin's supporters for what she sees as their poor fashion choices and snigger-worthy religious customs. Not exactly what you'd expect from a Pulitzer-winning writer.

We can find Nascar blindness in our own industry in the complete dismissal of MySpace as yesterday's news. Which is yet more blindness to the actual size and passion of the audience that uses the social-networking Web site. Listen to digital (and other) agency types, and you'd think that the only reason people are still on MySpace is that they've just been too busy to migrate over to Facebook.

But as cultural anthropologist Danah Boyd has pointed out, the split between MySpace and Facebook is often a class-based one, and those on the lower end of the class divide tend to favor MySpace. Which doesn't make it worthless or on its way out. It just makes it different. And those MySpace users (whose numbers still far outweigh those of Facebook users) are every bit as passionate about MySpace as Nascar fans are about Nascar. Caveat emptor.

Ditto TV. Ad people and their friends don't watch a lot of TV and, when they do, they often watch it via On Demand, iTunes, DVRs and even DVDs. So the natural assumption is that no one else is watching TV, either, that TV is dead and that the popularity of shows like American Idol, How I Met Your Mother, Desperate Housewives and Dancing With the Stars is some sort of fluke fueled by elderly Midwestern couples whose children have neglected to buy them iMacs.

Nascar blindness causes us to ascribe our tastes and preferences to the rest of America. So we're both shocked and dismissive when focus group participants in Des Moines don't know that pinot grigio is a type of wine -- let alone a dry Italian white one. Or when they need to see the word "next" adjacent to the right-facing arrow on a Web page to figure out what it is they're actually supposed to do with said arrow. Here again, it doesn't make them stupid. It just makes them different. And if what we're creating is specifically aimed at them, it makes us stupid if we insist on talking to them in a language they can't relate to.

Now the cure for Nascar blindness is a relatively painless and simple one: listening. Which is one of the most underutilized tools in the marketer's arsenal, but also one of the most valuable. And while it's not our job to blandly re-create all that's popular in American culture, we do need to bear in mind that when making a sale, it's best to talk to your customer on his or her own terms.

Even if those terms include Nascar.

Alan Wolk, author of the popular Toad Stool blog (http://www.toadstoolblog.com), is a New York-based social media strategist and creative director. He can be reached at alan.wolk@mac.com.