Saturday, November 01, 2008

In Defense of Mass Marketing

I almost called this posting "Undoing my Thesis." Seven or eight years ago, I was hunting around for a thesis topic for my technical writing master's program at UCF. I knew it would be something to do with space exploration advocacy, I just didn't know exactly what. I was looking for a new approach for space advocates to use to make their line of advocacy more of a mainstream activity like, say, advocating for environmental protection or affordable healthcare.

A lot of what fed the thesis was my dismay at the various National Space Society conferences I attended, where the primary audience was white males. Few minorities, few women. I managed to hit upon the notion of targeted marketing, and figured that environmentalists would also make a good, large audience for space advocacy messages. My advisor, Dr. Kitalong, was won over by my enthusiasm or by the sheer goofiness and strangeness of the topic. Obviously the fact that it had a real-world application to technical writers was the deciding factor. The general thrust of my thesis can be found here:, though other variants of the topic can be found here as well:

My basic premise was simply that technical communicators/advocates should focus on specific, target markets rather than try to use "mass marketing" sell space to "everyone" (or at least the entire voting public in the U.S.). Once I had my topic, I could find material easily enough. I had some problems with the approach, though, and those problems didn't go away just because I got my M.A. For instance, I do not consider myself a "groupist" or hyphenated American. Yes, I have English, Irish, German, and Polish relatives, but I consider myself--and was raised as--an American, a nationalist. That's it.

The problems with targeting specific groups, however necessary, are many:

  • It assumes that all individuals in a particular group (women, minorities, environmentalists) have the same views/opinions/outlooks on life.
  • It facilitates balkanization of the culture.
  • Arguments that appeal to one group might not appeal to another.
  • Targeting multiple audiences/markets runs the risk of trying to please everyone, in effect watering down the message.

It is probably (but not necessarily) easier to target age groups than ethnic minorities or other divisions. Ethnic targeting leads to excessive political wind testing and constant "tacking." For instance, I recall hearing about a corporate class in multiculturalism that had to constantly be rewritten and eventually scrapped because no two managers could agree on what "multiculturalism" or "diversity" really meant.

NASA, like the National Space Society, has to walk a fine line because it is supported by both major political parties. I also would like to think--though this might be naive--that the exploration and settlement of space offers benefits for all people, regardless of additional affiliations or even nationality. Mind you, I happen to be a supporter of the U.S. first, and I understand the American viewpoint(s) best, and I'd like to think that space exploration is something that Americans could share as a common source of pride, unity, and aspiration. So perhaps I ought to give up on the "targeted marketing" business. It's difficult enough trying to put out one message the appeals to one nation, let alone all the subgroups within that nation.

I can dream, anyway.

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