Annenberg professors examine middle America

Annenberg lecturer Lisa Pecot-Hébert wants to burst America’s bubble. Pecot-Hébert, along with adjunct professor David Measer, spent eight months researching America’s “alt-middle” — the 100 million people in between the two coasts — and whether or not stereotypes about them hold up.

Pecot-Hébert and Measer delivered the lecture “100 Million People You Don’t Know, But Should” to students and faculty on Tuesday, two weeks after the pair gave the same presentation at the South by Southwest media festival. The study was backed by the advertising agency RPA, where Measer is a vice president. Pecot-Hébert examined the topic from a journalism perspective, while Measer studied it from a marketing one.

Measer began the presentation by asking who in the room had seen Westworld, then who in the room had traveled out of the country in the last few years, and eventually, who had seen a recent Daytona 500 victory. Some people in the audience raised their hands at first, then nearly all of them, and finally none.

He explained that this room mirrored the crowd of 1,000 people at the South by Southwest presentation, and that those who live in America’s top 21 most populated cities are all in a similar bubble that follows the same trends, one that makes it difficult to see another person’s point of view.

“It’s very easy to form affinity groups among like-minded people,” Measer said. “It’s very easy to share experiences, preferences and attitudes with people who you see eye to eye with.”

Measer and Pecot-Hébert argue that living in these coastal states skews our perception of America.

“There’s a prevailing gospel in this country that was forged post-9/11,” Measer said. “This narrative showed that we derive our strength as a country from our diversity.”

Measer played the ad “I am an American,” which featured people of different ages and ethnicities repeating the line. This melting pot idea is true in Los Angeles, Measer argued, but as more Americans saw coverage of Trump supporters, a much less diverse image appeared, putting a crack in the “differences make us great” narrative.

For this study, Measer and Pecot-Hébert wanted to know what happened when they took off these top 21 cities and examined the narrative in the rest of America, which “coastal elites” might dismiss as flyover states.

After looking at quantitative data, Measer and Pecot-Hébert reported seeing trends — the top 21 cities had more white-collar jobs while the alt-middle had more blue-collar. The top 21 watched Game of Thrones; the alt-middle watched Big Time RV. But the pair said they were discouraged by these stereotypes, which seemed to pigeonhole 100 million people into cliches. They decided to switch to qualitative data, and took to frozen corn fields and farmers’ living rooms to interview over 40 people in six states in Middle America from Kansas to North Dakota.

According to Measer and Pecot-Hébert, these interviews created a more concrete view of the alt-middle, one that Pecot-Hébert said blew her stereotypes away. The two condensed what they had learned into four categories of what everyone should know about these 100 million people, including that they “thrive on human connection” and then explained how what they learned translated into their respective fields.

Measer explained that in marketing, this data was invaluable — when advertisers mirror their world, they isolate and lose the rest of the audience. He said that interviewing people tells a lot more than just Googling.

According to Pecot-Hébert, journalists can learn something similar. She hopes that reporters learn to publish stories that are representative of more than just the top 21 cities.

“Or the top five, if we’re being real,” Pecot-Hébert said.

Pecot-Hébert explained that she wants to train journalists to be non-judgmental and reflective of all Americans because “coastal” papers like The New York Times are papers of record. People all across America hear stories from the coast, but people on the coast rarely hear stories from the middle of America, she said.

In the future, Pecot-Hébert and Measer wish to replicate their study in the South and hope to make a podcast and take their research on the road. They said they want to continue compiling information that will inform journalists, advertisers and Americans across the country.