Do Target Demographics Reflect “Purchasing” Reality?


(By Bob McCurdy) I recently came across a 2015 Google/Ipsos MediaCT study that concluded 40 percent of all baby-product purchases came from households without children. To say that this statistic was counter-intuitive is an understatement; so I accessed Scarborough to see if it supported Google’s findings. It did.

According to Scarborough, in the seven markets below, 47 percent of those individuals who bought “infants” clothing in the past year came from households without children.

A typical demo for an avail targeting infant clothing buyers would likely be “W18-34 or W18-49 with infants.” These demos would not even be in the ballpark of reflecting purchasing reality.


Next, I quantified infant clothing expenditures for those households with children and those without children. We can see from the following chart that those without children spend $68 for every $100 those with children in the household spend on infants clothing.


I then looked to see if a similar phenomenon existed with children’s clothing buyers. A typical target demo here would likely be “W25-54 with children under 17 in the household.” As with the infant example, this demographic would have been dangerously off base, as one out of three children’s clothing buyers in the past year had no children under 17 residing in their household:


For every $100 those with children under 17 in the household spend on children’s clothing, those without children spend $76.


I then moved on to those who purchased cosmetics/perfumes, or women’s casual clothing in the past year:


Here, one out of four individuals who purchased women’s cosmetics, perfumes, or women’s casual clothing in the past year, were men!

Finally, I delved into the grocery category in Boston, where I aggregated the market’s top radio stations. A typical target demographic here would be W25-54. This too seems painfully misguided as W25-54 only accounted for 28% of the annual grocery spend in the market.


There are a number of important takeaways here:

  1. The authors of the book How Brands Grow were onto something when they wrote:

*Reach all consumers of the brand’s/product’s service category — they are all potential buyers of the brand.

*Examine all marketing options in terms of their ability to cost-effectively reach as many customers as possible.

*Avoid narrow descriptions of the brand’s target market that are out-of-sync with who really buys the brand.

*Stop talking about your average buyer– there is a wide variety of consumers.

  1. Some flexibility when it comes to strict CPP adherence might be advisable as meeting stringent CPPs might end up delivering “less for less.”
  2. Targeting that is too narrow might actually negatively impact sales.
  3. Demographics are incredibly unreliable proxies for product consumption.
  4. There could be extraordinary competitive opportunities for those advertisers who understand who really purchases their product/service.
  5. It is always good to re-evaluate what I “think” I know.

In light of this weak correlation between demographics and purchases, maybe it is time that we start thinking of “purchases” as the target, not a demographic.

A strong case could be put forth in support of planning, buying, and scheduling commercial messaging to “intercept” purchases, not “intercept” target demos that at best are only weakly correlated to sales. Target the purchase and not the person, which is the essence of the recency planning theory.

This approach has the potential to positively impact the overall effectiveness of numerous ad campaigns and speaks to the importance of reach as well as the role the nation’s #1 reach medium, radio, can play in making that happen.

Bob McCurdy is The Vice President of Sales for The Beasley Media Group and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. This is rich.

    We are just discovering that non-prospects talk to prospects about products?
    Moms tell their daughters that they heard about something?

    We should market to other than left-handed Methodist women ages 22-27 who drive Volkswagens and attended 3.1 years of college?

    It all goes back to the famous summary: ” Advertising is a fairly simple matter made confusing by complicated people.”

  2. Yes! Excellent demo of how we sometimes think prospect targeting is an all-or-nothing game. ONLY the target will buy! And, I think the most important point you’re making is that demographics are interesting, but “behavior trumps demo’s”. Just because someone doesn’t look like the average buyer, does not mean that they will not behave like a buyer. Our advice is that if you’re paying $500 per thousand for a direct mail piece, target conservatively. However, if you’re using a cost efficient, mass audience vehicle like broadcast or digital … cast a wide net.


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