Robert Morais – Advertising Anthropology

Robert J. Morais, Principal, WeinmanSchnee Morais

Advertising Anthropology

Anthropology conjures up images of exotic, non-industrial cultures but anthropologists study people everywhere. For the past three decades, advertisers have appropriated anthropological ideas and methods to understand their consumers and distinguish their brands. With marketplace pressures intensifying and media choices mind-numbingly vast, advertisers will tap anthropology even more in the future. Evidence of growing interest in anthropology’s applications to commerce is clear. LinkedIn sites with names like Business Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Media Anthropology, Ethnosnacker, Ethnography Forum, and Netnography seem to be proliferating. Books and articles on business anthropology are being published at a quickening pace. Two business anthropology journals were launched in the past three years. EPIC, which is an acronym for the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, meets annually; a new international conference on business anthropology was held during 2012 in Guangzhou, China; and the yearly meetings of the American Anthropological Association include sessions on industry. Business anthropology graduate programs have been established or are in the planning stages across the US and abroad, from Wayne State University to Fordham University to The University of Southern Denmark, to name a few institutions.

Contemplating these developments, I can envision how anthropology will shape the future of advertising. Over the next several years, more anthropologists will be employed by manufacturers, advertising agencies, and marketing research firms. We will contribute to the ways that companies define their customers, craft advertising strategies, and select media. Some organizations may create an executive position that anthropologist Grant McCracken has termed Chief Culture Officer. CCOs will help marketers and advertising agencies comprehend how consumer culture (social rules, personal values, beliefs, and practices) drives brand choices. Increasing numbers of corporations will hire anthropologists to guide them in formulating products, from the fuzzy front-end of innovation through highly focused R&D and design. Anthropologists will bring their unique skills and sensibilities to communications initiatives that target ethnic, sexual orientation, generational, and micro-psychographic segments.

Digital advertising has demonstrated the concept of punctuated equilibrium, a theory that originated in evolutionary biology. Punctuated equilibrium posits that evolution is a slow process except when major environmental events precipitate swift biological change. Like an asteroid igniting the evolution of new life forms, the internet has transformed the organization and methods of the once staid advertising industry. New agency species have emerged, and every agency understands that only the fittest will survive. All advertisers are aware that social media generates a multiplier effect for brand communications. Smart advertisers also know that the digital domain facilitates personal engagement with consumers. Anthropologists can conduct ethnographies online and help advertising agencies discern better ways to anticipate consumer needs and motivate them at deeper psychological levels than superficial brand promises.

We labor in an advertising age where brands cannot merely celebrate themselves; they must establish intimate and lasting relationships with consumers. Consumer/brand reciprocity is basic: Make my life better; I buy you. But engaging consumers with brands both emotionally and rationally is a complex task. Anthropologists are experts at analyzing the structure, content, and process of interpersonal relationships. We can do the same for the relationship between consumers and the brands they buy.

Cyber-anthropology is an emerging field that considers how our bodies and technology are becoming intertwined. Like cyborgs in science fiction stories, soon we will not just interface with devices; devices will be implanted inside our faces. At what point will interactive advertisements be connected with our brains? How will this change the culture of commerce, not to mention culture in the larger sense? Anthropologists will help advertisers grasp what this will mean.  We will help them adapt brand messages to new levels of technology, as ethics and the law permit.

Anthropologists perform better as ethnographers than as prognosticators. We excel at looking around, sometimes backward, and taking in culture holistically. We usually refrain from projections. But a 360 degree perspective can give us a vision of the near future.  In the coming years, advertising anthropology will be indispensible for purveyors of brands.


Robert J. Morais holds a PhD in anthropology. He spent 25 years in advertising and is currently a Principal at Weinman Schnee Morais, a marketing research firm in New York.  His most recent book is Advertising and Anthropology: Ethnographic Practice and Cultural Perspectives (Berg, 2012), co-authored with Timothy de Waal Malefyt.  Email: