Socioeconomic status

Regardless of who you are or how you identify, socioeconomic status (SES) has an impact on a person’s access to resources. As such, it is an intersectional component of all individual’s identities, and can create very real issues related to privilege, power and control. Unfortunately, in the media, SES has often been used in portrayals of people that reinforce stereotypes and judgements across a broad range of groups and identities.

Built with input from community partners, these U.S.-focused insights are a starting point to help you create marketing that authentically represents consumers in an inclusive and considerate manner across a range of socioeconomic statuses. The insights below will help you understand some important nuances that exist within different socioeconomic groups so you can be more inclusive of those who have been previously under- or misrepresented in marketing.

Socioeconomic status is often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation. However, defining socioeconomic belonging is extremely complex (see Addendum), and these insights cannot cover all possible variables that signal each SES group or describe each individual experience. These insights can offer ways to address the main points when representing different SES groups in campaigns. To mirror reality, the insights will reflect the nuance of each group and experience while keeping in mind that an individual’s self-identification with a particular SES group may be based on a spectrum of factors. As with all aspects of personal identity, the most considerate and respectful way to represent a group is to show a realistic variety of lived experiences.


Do not conflate SES with other racial, ethnic, and citizenship identities

It is important not to assume that people’s nationality, race, or ethnicity are determinants of socioeconomic status or economic mobility. Instead, show a realistic variety of races and ethnicities within each SES group.

When it comes to citizenship and immigration status, be mindful of the role they can play in SES identification.

  • An individual who has immigrated to the U.S. may have very different experiences compared to a U.S.-born American citizen with other similar characteristics.
  • Remember to also take into account an individual’s migration generation. First-generation immigrants may feel the need to “reinvent themselves” upon arrival in the host country, while second-generation immigrants may achieve upward mobility.
  • Not all individuals who have immigrated are at extreme ends of the SES scale of either poverty or extreme affluence. Immigrant citizens can belong to a very diverse and nuanced range of SES groups, including the middle class.


Each individual’s experience of their SES may also be based on intersectionalities such as race/ethnicity, nationality, migration experience, or citizenship status.

Consider nuance within SES groups

People within the same socioeconomic group can have a vast range of life experiences, outlooks, and values based on other intersectionalities such as age, disability, family status, gender expression, gender identity, geography, health, nature of employment, sexual orientation, and more. All of these may affect lifestyles, aspirations, perspectives, and behavior. Consider these details when developing your work. When in doubt, use real stories to ensure authenticity.


Intersectionalities are an important way to understand and showcase the tapestry of SES experiences; however, you should avoid simply segmenting groups into separate units without establishing common ground. Find balance by revealing the sense of belonging and the shared values within a specific community or even across communities.

Here’s a list of intersectional identities to consider as a starting point, but be sure to perform your own research and partner with individuals and organizations from the communities that you are representing.

  • Age: Individuals’ ages can impact their identification with a specific SES group, having experienced a range of socioeconomic circumstances throughout different periods of their lives. For example, U.S. adults aged 18-35 in 2014 self-identified as less middle-class and more working-class than any other generation. For this age group, self-identification with an SES is complex. Despite achieving an advanced degree or working in typically middle-class professions, individuals in this cohort may be hesitant to self-label as middle-class due to their perceived lower income, debt, or lack of savings or investments. Be sure you understand these nuances when telling stories about people of different age groups.
  • Disability: Be mindful of the interdependent relationship between SES and disability, where a disability can both impact and be impacted by an individual’s SES. For example, disability can impact an individual’s income, employment experience, and opportunities. Income and SES can equally impact disability progression. It is important to note that experiencing a disability does not define an individual, nor does it establish any particular SES. When developing campaigns, consider the role of disability in each individual’s experience and strive to show a variety of experiences across different SES groups.
  • Family status: Marital status, number of dependents, and family structures – including structures such as single-parent families, those with children raised by a relative or outside caregivers, or multi-generational households – can impact an individual’s lifestyle. A single parent, for example, may have different social and life experiences compared to co-parenting individuals due to financial, time, and/or other resource constraints. In addition, individuals may not self-identify as being within the same SES as their family due to differences in education, employment, or income; this may also impact how they self-identify within peer groups. It is important to understand the diversity of family status within your marketing representations, but not default to stereotyped representations that conflate SES experiences with family structure or status.
  • Gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation: Recognize that the experience of an individual’s gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation can be different depending on their SES group. To that end, SES may impact how individuals express their sexuality, as well as the unique challenges they face in the LGBTQ+ community. As a 2015 article in The American Psychiatric Association (APA) Journal noted, “...lower-SES LGB individuals may face stricter standards for gender role conformity, experience isolation from the mainstream LGB community, and engage in higher-risk health behaviors than higher-SES LGB individuals.”
  • Geography: Avoid defaulting to a single SES portrayal based on geographic setting alone. Instead, aim to tell a range of authentic stories with varying SES contexts and lived experiences for that area. People of the same SES may also have markedly different experiences and outlooks depending on their geographic location. This can be due to lifestyle differences among rural, suburban, and urban areas, as well as the wider communities that make up those areas. Most U.S. counties have a mix of SES groups, so it is important to show a variety of experiences when developing campaigns showing a specific geographical setting.
  • Type of employment: While income is one of the defining factors of SES, an individual’s type of employment should also be considered when telling different SES stories. For example, an individual with a full-time position may have different life experiences, aspirations, and opportunities than someone whose income is generated through part-time or gig-style employment. Each type of employment can present a diverse set of challenges and benefits for members of different SES groups, so avoid inadvertently applying judgment and representing some types of employment as being more desirable or fulfilling than others.


Each SES group consists of millions of people and a diversity of intersectionalities, so it is both inaccurate and impossible to generalize and stereotype each group’s life experiences. Tell stories about individuals, not their groups.

When developing your campaign

Present realistic nuances in how an intersectional mix of identities will impact and be impacted by an individual’s SES group. Consider focusing on the common values or experiences within the SES group(s) you wish to highlight.

Work with people from diverse SES backgrounds

Socioeconomic status is not currently recognized as a protected characteristic under U.S. law. However, people – particularly those from lower-paid and working-class groups – experience discrimination based on their SES. For example, a candidate’s ZIP code, level of education, and way of speaking or dressing may impact an employer’s hiring decision. As a result, lower SES groups greatly benefit from better visibility and more accurate representations in the media. More accurate representations can best be accomplished by working directly with people with this background and context.

The majority of those in the marketing and advertising industry come from middle SES backgrounds – with 82% of marketers identifying as “middle class.” When creating campaigns and messaging, take time to question the norms your team may take for granted about milestones and experiences, hobbies, leisure time, and ambitions. These will not necessarily be the same for your audience, who may be from a different SES background. When internal diversity of SES representation is unavailable, strongly consider seeking guidance from affinity groups and organizations to better understand and more authentically represent a variety of lived experiences.

When developing your campaign

Do not assume that your SES-specific experience is universal or represents the “normal” life experiences and self-identity of others within the spectrum of SES. When unsure of your audience’s past or present experiences, defer to real-life stories and insights provided by individuals from the SES group(s) you are portraying for authenticity – and use data to analyze and understand your audience’s demographics and related psychographics.

Show a variety of SES groups

Certain socioeconomic groups are significantly underrepresented in marketing. Research has found that the majority of ads currently feature the middle SES group. Between 1950 and 2015, lower-income consumers made up only 3.4% of those depicted in mass-circulation print advertising, despite making up approximately 20% of the population during that period.


Although aspiration is an important part of marketing, unrealistic portrayals of a population or the exclusion of certain SES groups altogether can push people away from a brand message.

When developing your campaign

Do not assume that your SES-specific experience is universal or represents the “normal” life experiences and self-identity of others within the spectrum of SES. When unsure of your audience’s past or present experiences, defer to real-life stories and insights provided by individuals from the SES group(s) you are portraying for authenticity – and use data to analyze and understand your audience’s demographics and related psychographics.

  • Portray a realistic mix of socioeconomic groups. Depicting a homogenous society, or one in which working-class individuals are not represented, can alienate consumers.
  • Showing the reality of current events in marketing also resonates with consumers. For example, if society is experiencing an economic downturn and people are experiencing unemployment, consumers may not relate to content showing a society of abundance and leisure.
  • Give all SES groups a voice and a central role. Do not simply include people representing different SES groups – integrate them into core narratives. Make sure that intersectionalities are not only seen but heard.

To learn more:
No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class.

Avoid implying hierarchy

SES groups are often seen as hierarchical. Aspirational marketing can run the risk of suggesting that lower SES groups need to “improve” themselves by adopting specific behaviors, habits, lifestyles, or products that are typical of middle or upper SES groups.

What to avoid


Do not portray specific jobs as “unskilled,” as no job is truly unskilled.

Do not poke fun at traditions, rituals, cultures, mannerisms, behaviors, or ways of speaking of specific SES groups (even good-naturedly).

Do not portray people appropriating SES group-specific behaviors when they do not identify with that SES group.

Do not suggest that some people are more successful than others because of life decisions or behaviors.

When developing your campaign

Avoid portraying specific types of middle or upper SES lifestyles as a societal standard to which everyone should aspire. Instead, try to understand your audiences’ unique aspirations and priorities as well as shared emotional drivers and experiences (e.g., celebrating a birthday with loved ones, spending time with family or friends, discovering a new hobby).

Show balanced portrayals

Each SES group has positive and negative experiences that are not universally present across the group, but which can be misrepresented as identifiers. Avoid extremes or stereotypes of any SES group (e.g., people not wanting to work hard in lower SES groups, members of upper SES groups being greedy and selfish).

Similarly, avoid the opposite extreme of over-romanticizing or heroizing lower SES groups, playing down difficult experiences, or glossing over uncomfortable realities. Do not fetishize poverty or any type of socioeconomic struggle, and be mindful of poverty appropriation.


Some behaviors are shamed and criticized among lower SES groups but glorified or ignored when happening within middle or upper SES groups. Comments on behaviors and lifestyles should always be uniform and apply to all SES groups equitably.


In The Long Run, On My Block, and The Climb show warmth, community, and resilience within working-class neighborhoods, as well as the challenges those in these demographics face.

Consider the impact of circumstance

Avoid portraying an individual’s SES as being the result of behavior. Instead, understand that economic situations stem from a myriad of life experiences, opportunities, and challenges. A majority of the U.S. population agrees: a 2020 Pew Research Center Poll found that almost two-thirds (65%) of U.S. adults believe that wealth is achieved mainly through advantage and opportunity (not work ethic). And 71% say that those living in poverty have experienced greater obstacles and more challenging circumstances in their lives. Research has shown ( Amplified Advantage, Privileged Poor) that despite having access to the same education, students of different SES groups will have varying academic and professional success depending on their financial and social support networks.

When developing your campaign

When at all possible, avoid deficit-based language that focuses on what people lack as opposed to what they possess. When it must be used, contextualize any use of deficit-based language. Use language that doesn't place blame on individuals, and acknowledges the impact of living circumstances on outcomes. For example, say “opportunity gaps” instead of “achievement gaps,” and “not having an opportunity to complete high school” instead of “failing to complete high school” or “dropping out of high school.”

Depict a variety of inter-group dynamics

Dynamics across SES groups are complex and nuanced. Avoid depicting the two extremes of SES group dynamics: an “us-versus-them” attitude, or a harmonious relationship where the lower SES groups serve the upper SES groups.

When developing your campaign:

  • Portray a nuanced relationship between people of different SES groups.
  • Show a mix of SES within friendship groups, families, couples, professional environments, and communities. Even members of the same family can self-identify with different SES groups, and should be portrayed as such.
  • Depict a mix of SES groups supporting the same cause, working toward the same goal, or sharing the same passions. Show shared values that bring people together and equalize typically separate groups of people.

Consider taboos that impact conversations about SES

Conversations around SES are tied into broader conversations that may be uncomfortable. For example, talking about SES status also brings up conversations about money, inequality, economic fragility, privilege, entitlement, or worthiness, which may be taboo in certain SES groups. Additionally, there are stigmas attached to lower and upper socioeconomic statuses, making SES representations an extremely delicate task.


SES status and its identifying characteristics, such as money or power, are often portrayed as having moral or ethical values. For example, in the 2016 Journal of Poverty study of 36 children’s movies, researchers found that upper-income characters who were selfish were “punished” by becoming downwardly mobile, while poor and blue-collar characters who showed compassion and a strong work ethic were “rewarded” by becoming upwardly mobile. Avoid taking moral stances when depicting the lifestyles and behaviors of different SES groups, implying that economic mobility is a punishment or reward for values-based actions, or depicting SES group tensions or rivalry unless it is necessary for your story.

Build work without stereotypes

Social context


Show a balanced portrayal of each SES group’s lifestyles, without suggesting that the middle SES experience is the “norm”.

Depict a range of successes and failures within SES groups that do not necessarily lead to upward or downward mobility.

When portraying lower SES groups, avoid romanticizing, heroizing, sanitizing, or excluding experiences of poverty.

Portray a nuanced relationship of tensions and friendships across different SES groups, without suggesting a hierarchy among groups.

Include a diversity of identities, including ability, age, ethnicity, family structure, gender, immigration status, and sexual orientation. Reflect how these intersectional identities impact SES experiences and vice versa.



Respectfully reflect the richness of traditions and history across SES groups.

Show people across SES groups as having a variety of tastes, preferences, and interests.

Portray people across SES groups as having a variety of education levels.

Show a realistic variety of communication styles, accents, dialects, and language use across SES groups.

Depict a variety of parents and parenting styles across SES groups.



Show individuals in each SES group adopting a variety of dress styles without defaulting to style or appearance to represent someone’s SES group.

Portray a range of body types and health conditions within each SES group.


  • In the U.S., there are three broad categories of socioeconomic status: upper, middle, and lower SES groups. The concept of the “working class” often bridges the lower and middle SES groups. These categories are often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation. If one were to consider income alone, 29% of Americans lived in lower-income families in 2019, while 51% lived in middle-income and 20% lived in upper-income families. However, when secondary factors (beyond income) are considered, it is often difficult to establish an individual’s SES. Identification within a group depends on a myriad of other factors such as power (e.g., positions of influence), behavior (e.g., learned mannerisms, ways of speaking or interacting), heritage (e.g., historical contributions to society or culture), and extent of social networks. As a result, using a scale or “ladder,” rather than defined categories, can offer a more accurate way to define and portray an individual’s SES.