Dog whistle marketing

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In the UK, the term ‘dog-whistle politics’ is used to refer to campaigning that contains a deeper message only audible to a certain audience. In politics, the hidden message is often something that’s not quite acceptable. Michael Howard used it in the UK’s 2005 election campaign to appeal to voters concerned about immigration but without explicitly mentioning his plans.

You can get a more benign form of steganography in marketing. You know the big, glossy full-page adverts in tech magazines? They’re not always aimed at you, the technical audience. Their audience is often venture capitalists and private equity firms. The message isn’t ‘buy our software’. It’s ‘buy our company’.

There are other examples of dog-whistle marketing out there too. Adverts can contain messages to regulators as well as to consumers (do you really think those drink responsibly messages in tequila adverts are aimed at you?). Sometimes the message is really aimed at a competitor – in the UK, Ryanair, Virgin and Easyjet have all run campaigns whose hidden aim was to rile British Airways.

You need to be careful with dog-whistle marketing though. It can backfire. Do it too overtly, or use the wrong hidden message, then you can alienate and lose your audience.