Big Sort

Enough Already With Political Categories Like “White Women”

Let’s get something straight. There is no “women’s vote.” Women vote, of course. But

reporters write about the “voting bloc”

of white women as if it has meaning. It doesn’t. Elections aren’t about demography. They are about ways of life.

Marketing people have known that large demographic categories like “white women” are meaningless since at least 1973, when a New York adman asked in the

Journal of Advertising

, “Are Grace Slick and Tricia Nixon Cox the same person?” Both were white, young, urban, rich, former Finch College alums and women. Conventional market research in the early 1970s would have plugged in all this demographic data and concluded that, yes, the blond-haired daughter of the president and the lead singer for the psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane and author of the acid anthem “White Rabbit” were the same.

All of which made conventional market analysis meaningless, wrote John E. O’Toole, president of Foote, Cone & Belding Communications. It was so obvious the two had nothing in common that you didn’t even need to go ask Alice. Tricia Nixon married a Republican White House aide on the White House lawn. The one time Slick was invited to the White House (a reception for Tricia’s Finch classmates), she brought along her “bodyguard,” Yippie founder and Chicago Seven defendant Abbie Hoffman. The two said they intended to spike the iced tea with LSD. The Secret Service didn’t let them past the front door.

O’Toole wrote in ‘73 that statistics on income, age, and education—all the demographic “facts” we still use to divine presidential elections in 2008—had lost relevance because there had been a “Revolution of the Individual.” People weren’t living according to class or education or age. They were “forming liberation groups: black, feminist, gay, consumer, anything.” Marketers had snoozed through the revolution and insulted people by discounting “their intelligence in favor of some vast common denominator.”

People didn’t define themselves by demographic markers, O’Toole wrote. They lived in groups “united by common attitudes or lifestyles or perceptions of themselves.”

Marketing people long ago abandoned most of the demographic data that we still use to talk about politics. I talked with Chris Riley, a Portland, Ore., marketing guy who has worked for both Nike and Apple. Riley said people were forming communities of interest that had nothing to do with categories such as single, white, college-educated women. “I’m not allowed to use market research information, by dictate of (Apple founder) Steve Jobs,” Riley said. “They don’t trust it.”

They don’t trust it because demography—classifications such as a favorite from the Democratic primary, the “white working class”—doesn’t get at how people live. “There is no (demographic) category for somebody who shapes his entire life around his concern for the environment,” Riley explained.

After all, how many white, single women describe themselves that way. A San Diego woman told me recently that she was an “ocean oriented person.” That’s a more accurate political description in 2008.

Young ministers in the 1970s began designing churches for what one marketer called “image tribes.” They created the modern American megachurch by catering to ways of life, not demographic types. Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church wears flowered shirts in part because his “target” audience, “Saddleback Sam,” “prefers the casual and informal over the formal.” Megachurches tailor their services to lifestyles. One California megachurch advertises different lifestyle venues for its Sunday morning service—a “Country Gospel” hoedown, a gathering known as “The Edge” (with Starbucks coffee and Mountain Dew), and a “Traditions” hall with music from a baby grand piano.

The Bush campaign in 2004 was the first to catch up with marketing techniques that had been refined over the past three decades. Bush identified individuals by how they lived—the cars they drove, magazines they read, television shows they watched, ring tones they downloaded.

John O’Toole in 1973 told marketers they misunderstood society by continuing to “shout at a crowd rather than talk to persons.” Bush’s campaign was the first to run a campaign aimed at individuals rather than crowds.

Barack Obama has essentially copied the Bush approach, identifying the “image tribes” we travel in rather than the bleak and only occasionally meaningful demographic categories that appear in exit polls and are coughed up in stories about politics.

So why do women seem to like Obama more than men? (Pew had women favoring Obama 54 percent to 37 percent at the end of September, while men backed McCain 47 percent to 43 percent.) We’ll take that up tomorrow, and also answer the eternal happy hour question “Where are all the good men?”