GENERATION I: THE FALLACY OF INDIVIDUALITY

It’s time for marketing to stop promising false notions of individuality. 

Saher Sidhom

Saher Sidhom, sahersidhom@googlemail.com.

The fallacy of individuality.

Individuality is overrated. In fact it’s become a distressing, destructive and depressive idea. Earnest psychologists such as Oliver James, author of the Selfish Capitalist, propose and provide evidence, that it actually causes a variety of mental illnesses from anxiety, to isolation to depression. In short it can make you mad. Alain de Botton, this time a philosopher, eloquently described our society as one that champions impossible ideals and puts people in perpetual anxiety over whether they are ‘occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall into a lower one’. Even hard nosed economists have woken up to the fact that the overly simplistic Adam Smith’ principals of the ‘invisible hand’ in business have led to a collective failure of financial systems commonly known now as the ‘the recession’. The ambitions of the few are the cause of the suffering of the many. Regardless of which pet discipline you like: psychology, philosophy or economics it is clear that this business of individuality has gone too far.

As marketers we have to acknowledge our responsibilities.

Naturally, these problems are due to a number of factors; politics, schools, t.v. media etc, however I will discuss how marketing contributes to this mess. Marketing and advertising still continue to play a significant role in the psychological, social and economical implications of selfish capitalism. I believe that it is a particular, type of marketing that is responsible. It probably began with a strategy that eventually became the archetype for many others. It promised individuality, granted permission for humans, who are normally social animals, to become selfish capitalists. It declared that you should: ‘Have it your way’.

Individuality often built on insecurity has been drummed into consumers minds, sunk into their hearts and shoved down their throats for decades … here is a small collection from Wikipedia:

“Have it your way” – Burger King
“You. First” – Banglalink GSM
“Expect great things” – Lucent Technologies
“Expect the world” – New York Times
“Express yourself” – Lavazza Coffee
“How many bars do you have?” – AT&T
“If you don’t get it you don’t get it” Wash. Post
“It’s for you” – BT
“See what you can do” – O2
“Broadcast yourself” – YouTube
“Yours is here” – Dell
“Where do you want to go today” – Microsoft
“Be extraordinary” – E-Trade
“What’s in your wallete” – Capital One
“Accelerate your life” – US Navy
“It could be you” – National Lottery
“Be the first to know” – CNN
“So where the bloody hell are you?” – Tourism Australia
“Thousands of possibilities. Get yours.” Best Buy
“The power to be your best” – Apple
“Live your life” – American Eagle
“Entertainment your way” – SKY
“Hear what you like when you like” Rex Records
“Drive your way” – Hyundai
“Your Airline” – Air India
“Make yourself heard” – Ericsson
“Because you are worth it” – L’Oreal
“Your Fragrance, Your Rules” – Hugo Boss
“You Gotta Have it” – Lisa Frank
“You are the one who’s number one” – Pathmark
“It’s time for U” – UPN

Generation I: A definition.

Marketers have often built this promise of individuality loosely on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. ‘Self-Actualization’ that appears right at the top of this hierarchy is a result of individuals fulfilling their potential. Fine in theory, but has horrible implications when practiced in marketing. The idea that consumers should engage in a relentless race to own and consume products & services that promise selfish individuality have created what I will call Generation I.

Generation I is the ‘Insecure’ generation. For decades marketing has largely used Maslow and other theories of individuality as the basis for setting aspirations and expectations that are generally impossible to match in reality. It has in fact created a viscous circle that played on and fed people’s insecurities as Chuck Palahniuk explained once:

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”

My contention is that Generation I is – in reality – far from the self-satisfied, self-proclaimed individual, independent and influential rulers of their cocooned universes. It is an insecure generation that is caught in a perpetual race of trying to keep up with the Joneses and engage in mindless materialism. Of-course some materialism is necessary such as homes, clothing etc but the kind of materialism discussed here is insecurity based. It’s the type that is a response to the enormous pressure in western and developed societies to be an individual. To stand out. To equate one’s progress with their possessions.

Czech Dream

A couple of documentary Czech film makers launched a campaign around a spoof new mega mall in Prague. They’ve literally built an ad campaign promoting the non existent store. The film charted the journey from the ads to thousands of people who’ve come to the store on the launch day. After the collapse of the soviet system and years of lack of western style materialism there was an insatiable appetite. The filmmakers were essentially firing a warning shot, asking the question do we really want this? Should we jump head on into mindless capitalism? On the opening day of the fake store thousands turned up all hoping to buy a new t.v. set or perhaps to fill a deeply set insecurity.

Individuality is the basis for isolation which breeds mental illness.

Plato stated the obvious eons ago, hinting at the dark side of individuality:

“Winners stand alone”

The irony is that even at it’s moment of supposed triumph, individuality becomes isolation. Standing out, is by definition, breaking away from the group and the community. This is even more worrying. Multiplied by millions of marketing messages, un-supervised financial institutions and disappointing politicians, societies become a fragmented collage of highly macho and individualistic dreams. A collection of individual-group-thinkers. The so called triumph of selfish individualistic capitalism becomes society’s collective failure.

The trouble with marketing is that most of it is still stuck in a selfish capitalist mode.

Let’s consider how consumers today are claiming back their rights to be the social animals that they are. The astronomical explosion of social media online in many ways is consumers’ way of claiming their rights to simply connect and belong. To co-create and collaborate, meet and organise themselves and others around them. Technology have not only made them more inter-connected but also inter-dependent.

On an another level research from the Future Foundation has shown that at least in western societies where women have been making great progress into public and professional lives this has resulted in a move towards the more feminine values in culture of sharing, socialising and collaboration.

Meanwhile in ad land, brands are still peddling archaic macho strategies and toxic notions of individuality. Desperately failing to grasp the full implications of what consumers are doing online and where culture is going. They are being autistic in choosing not to hear what consumers are saying which is: ‘thanks we actually want to hang out with our friends if you don’t mind’. Or as a respondent in a group recently told us more aptly:

“I want to be independent like all my friends”

Individuality in a way is only a route to what people need – that’s belonging. Belonging is perhaps the more ‘human’ way of building brands.

The future is co-operative & collaborative – our survival – no less – depends on it.

From the environment, to poverty, from medicine to technology, social systems that are designed to bring people together, brains together and above all collective actions are exactly what we should champion and build in marketing. The reality is that in the wake of the recession the business world needs to look into more co-operative and collaborative forms of progress that go beyond the selfish capitalism of the few to the greater good of the many. The far more interesting model for a better form of capitalism is to think of ways where contribution not mere consumption is the objective. Brands that selfishly existed to make the customers consume more without a further contribution beyond their product are at a grave risk of becoming nothing more than a cost without a care. Some of this thinking is captured in co-opportunity – a new a book by John Grant. In it, he discusses the nature of new types of models where it isn’t communication anymore once you add the social dimension – it is actually a social innovation. The co-operative mentality I am proposing and the actions described by Grant are all indications of what social could mean to brands, it’s not individuality that they promise anymore it’s the genuine actions that demonstrate true commitment to their consumers and society at large. The basis of this commitment is not a fake promise of ‘if you buy this you will be individual’ it is the higher healthier delivery of what people really want and that’s not individuality but rather interdependence.

How can brands be built around interdependence instead of false notions of individuality.

Is it possible to create collective identities where the objective is not the selfish, lonely and impossible illusion of individuality? The answer is yes:

Firstly, the fundamental shift that marketers need to make is that a brand is not an image that could be managed simply by changing the ad campaign. It is an experience. An experience in it’s widest sense of the word. A brand like IKEA is not managed by simply changing the ads it’s a brand that is fundamentally an experience in every aspect from the product to the packaging to what you could do with the product eventually. At it’s core is a social idea – democracy of design – this is translated into every aspect of that brand. It is an ethos, a commitment and an intention to improve the lives of the many people. (for more on my thinking on brand as an experience read this article).

Secondly, brands that build their marketing around bringing people together instead of pushing them apart by encouraging, facilitating a sense of belonging between it’s customers will be better placed to survive in the hyper connected world of today. See box.

Thirdly, it is fundamentally about ‘doing’ not ‘saying’. Delivering the ethos of interdependence has to be something that the brand ‘does’ in order to show that it cares enough about its’ public to do something about it. Brands should be living up to commitments not producing campaigns.

T-Mobile: Life’s for sharing Campaign UK.

In a really competitive telecoms market T-Mobile needed to differentiate beyond price and offers. A strategy was established built on how life is lived live and broadcasted instantly to friends, family and strangers using mobile and web. Telephony was changing how people related to one another. Everything was lived now and shared now.

With this as the backdrop the idea was to create iconic and spontaneous experiences that gel together friends and strangers. The events were designed to be amazing enough to compell audiences to share. DANCE was the first out. An outbreak of spontaneous dance in Liverpool street captured the imagination of those present with random people joining and broadcasting the event on multiple digital media live and as it was happening. This campaign and it’s sibling SING in Trafalger Square were hugely successful for the brand on all metrics. But most importantly it delivered on the brand idea, the consumer reality and the commercial objectives. Above all it was a genuine brand experience that was worth sharing. A good example of the ethos that brands should do not say.

Life’s for Sharing.

What if?

What if we didn’t sell stuff based on a fake sense of individuality and ultimately isolation?

What if we didn’t give consumers the poor substitute of a mental experience instead of a real life one?

What if we didn’t aim to make consumer run towards goals that they can’t achieve and consumerism that feeds nothing except insecurity?

What if we stopped playing on people’s insecurities and started working on building their confidence and self esteem?

What if we stopped telling people have it your way when what really matters is a way for everybody to succeed co-operatively?

This is ultimately not a question of which advertising strategy we should pick, it is a question of can we take our responsibilities seriously enough to ditch toxic notions of individuality and start delivering on inter-dependence.




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9 Kommentarer
    Olle 8 mar, 2010

    Over all, I agree. But I think this individuality vs. collective discussion is being much too simplified.

    It is one thing if we (and brands) decide that we no longer want to play on insecurities. That’s fine. But in the brand world we have belonging brands (T-mobile example) and individuality brands (versace). If individuality brands, and our desire to stick out a bit, yet being part of a collective (otherwise there’s nothing to stick out from…), wasn’t true we would never have hyped brands that become mainstream and less wanted. WESC for example). Jeffrey Miller’s book SPENT is a nice read and great for digging in to our inherent want/need to stick out – and signaling something. Positioning quite simply.

    THe discussion, from a brand and communications perspective (wanting to sell) cannot take place without taking cultural differences into account (in intercultural studies individualistic vs. collective cultures is an ever present ”phenomena”. Check out the Hofstede framework for more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hofstede).

    Individualistic ”messaging” is never about being out of a group. It’s about positioning within a group. We are social animals, but we also (want to) signal success and individual traits/style etc. That is nothing new, and it’s not ”dangerous” to use.

    The first ”what if?” is; it would become very problematic for brands built on the fact that not everybody can afford them. Remember; we advertise/communicate to the buyers and the non-buyers against whom the brand is positioned and its meaning created.

    The rest of the what-if’s are indeed very interesting to think about, it’s just that from a brand communications perspective it would be very problematic (I know the article wasn’t about advertising strategy only, but still). It would be turning our backs on a few human truths. And it would be turning our backs on what we do; sell. From an individual perspective it’s genuinely very good thinking. It’s a tricky article to come from an industry who sell. It is genuinely thought-worthy.

    Svara
    saher sidhom 8 mar, 2010

    Hi Olle,

    I agree that people inherently want to stick out.

    However, my contention is you don’t necessarily need to do that by buying a Versace.

    Firstly, you can still stand out and ‘position’ yourself within the group without having to resort to hammering your credit card yet again. Things like individual real skill, talent and the stamina to make something of oneself are a lot harder to achieve when there is a credit card in your pocket and a Versace store beckoning nearby. I don’t know about Sweden but in the UK personal debt currently stands at £1463 BIllion and every 3.69 minutes someone is declared bankrupt. By the time you finnish reading this reply somebody will be on their way to the dole queue. I fear there is a huge emotional hole in culture that is filled by the sugary illusions of brand-bought individuality.

    Secondly, the real issue I have is that media, marketing, politicians (e.g. Thatcher in the UK) etc are collectively guilty of basically nurturing a culture where consumption is the only and main means of individual expression and ‘positioning’. Think of how many brands have the same strategy of ‘express yourself’.

    Thirdly, it is indeed ‘dangerous’ strategy because:

    a. there is too much of it around and cases like T-Mobile I referenced are actually the exception not the rule. In fact from a marketing perspective individuality is a commodity strategy – hardly a differentiator.

    b. consumers are beginning to realise -all be it slowly – that there are other things to do with their money and their lives than buy yet another positional good which incidentally by Hirsch’s definition is a ‘status symbol’. The current financial, environmental and social crisis have jolted people into re-considering. In a series of groups we’ve done for a client the two things people asked the brand to do were to be more responsible environmentally and socially. Somebody is waking up and it’s the consumer.

    c. I throughly disagree that individualistic ‘messaging’ is to stand out within the group – stand out is stand out. If it wasn’t so dangerous how come instead of the respect and admiration (by your definition of ‘within’ the group) we have depression rates, divorce rates and single person households are all way above the 50% mark? So much for the well dressed group hug that you imply. This is hardly the collective joy of a people that are going around congratulating each other on their latest acquisitions from Armani. Sure they stand out but I suppose if you are Armani you’d be happy that they are at least well dressed in their empty flats.

    Finally, I refuse to believe that our role as in industry is only to ‘sell’. To begin with most markets are oversupplied we are not selling we are just trying to shovel more stuff so that it doesn’t end up unsold in landfill somewhere. But from my perspective as a planner my first and foremost responsibility is to do right by the consumer. Yes our paymasters are clients who want to sell but I would be doing both parties the biggest disservice by assuming that the only relationship a brand can have with a consumer is one that’s based on a petty transaction.

    Svara
    Olle 8 mar, 2010

    yes, again I agree over-all. And believe me you have another industry person here with not only thoughts but also doubts about what we’re actually doing. Frankly I wouldn’t mind working with only clients whose product was cultural experiences such as galleries, theatre etc. I’m an industry planner who is a minimalist. I hate buying. I hate things. I own extremely little (when friends visit they don’t really understand how cupboards can be so empty :). But, and this is why I find your article very thought challenging and actually interestingly contradictive coming from an ad person (but I do mean that in a refreshing way. I genuinely do.) is that, most clients ARE about selling new new new. Really hard core selling. Their whole business wouldn’t work if they didn’t (except added services). I can go as far as saying that many of them could have repair servicing. As in ”don’t through an old friend out”. Like Howies do. But that’s about it. But of course it’s not just about clothes and cars. If Coke don’t sell more, well.

    Now the group response you mention is something I can undestand. And as I didn’t understand your article as being strictly about selling but rather more about the individual vs. group, and the exploiting of that – I still believe that asking for products from brands who take a (genuine I hope) responsibility socially and environmentally is also a way to position yourself. To signal something to the rest. It’s the versace (let’s keep that example) that others in the group don’t have, but instead it’s about you being responsible. Taking responsibility, and supporting it. Standing out will always be there. It’s a version of the symbolic interactionism going on as we shape our identities and understand who we are growing up. It doesn’t stop. We see who we are and why by the reactions and comments of others. We always wear things and do things at the same time as we analyse the reactions and affirms or change our own understanding of who and how we are. Anyways.

    A good thing is that experiences (travel, food, clubs etc) is up as far as I can see. Hopefully theatre and art exhibitions does too, and that people are more content signaling something via intanglibles…

    Svara
    saher sidhom 8 mar, 2010

    Hey Olle,

    Ok so I think there a couple of very good thoughts in your reply that I’d like to pick on.

    You hit the nail on the head with Howie’s. It’s not a brand that’s in the business of disposable fashion. It’s not new new new as you say. They’ve actually worked out a model whereby they have a product (that’s honestly not cheap) but is a good product never the less. Add the services and the shops and their environmental credentials and you have a brand that is considered and even caring. It has a civic duty stitched into it’s seams.

    The trouble is as you rightly pointed out most brands are in the business of new new new. Now there is a bigger implication here – what if it wasn’t about the advertising bit (what the brand says) but it was about the entire company and what it does? Conspicuous consumption is not sustainable. Given the environment the economy etc we do need to rethink perhaps what is it that we are selling in the first place. What if we worked back into the value chain of the company and perhaps started thinking about slightly more interesting and innovative ways for a business to make money that don’t depend on sugary individuality wrapped in a 30sec spot? The former is a churn model the latter an entire business engineered from the r&d all the way to the experience of the product in the end. Let’s consider Coke. Whether it’s myth or reality I don’t know but apparently they had a thing called ‘share of throat’. The idea of that was – as you’d imagine – to get the biggest share of all liquids going down your throat. Now what if they weren’t in the share of throat business but in the – drinks that are good for you business? Slightly different – and if you’d excuse the pun ‘easier to swallow’.

    Now for the new status symbols, positioning goods and the intriguing business of the Versace leather jacket. Yes I couldn’t agree more that the socially/environmentally oriented brand and indeed buying it is also/can be a statement of standing out.

    Brilliant. Imagine a world where we only paid for brands that were like that. That’s a race I’d like to be in. Whereby to stand out we are racing to support brands that are trying to create a bigger meaning and in the process we show our credentials and our status not as consumers but as citizens of this lonely planet of ours.

    A good citizen versus a good consumer mmm … I agree it is not as sexy but it’s a hell a lot better than the other race to the bottom whereby we race to consume fake identities that change every season. Yes there is a lot of logic to say that you know ‘what’s in’ by buying the latest design from our friends at Versace and signalling mild smugness that a. you can afford it and b. you’ve ‘researched’ the latest collection online somewhere … but the essence of my argument is that this is a race to the bottom with miniscule rewards along the way and a major dent in a credit card bill.

    Now to that poor jacket. Since you have very little in your cupboards even the Versace jacket might get some reprieve from me – given that you are a minimalist and you are not mad about having a lot the Versace jacket makes perfect sense in your case. It’s expensive, you are likely to keep it and you are not likely to buy lots given your principals. It’s a little luxury that you might want to keep longer and presumably it’s also better made.

    The trouble is there will be the next season’s collection – and those pesky Joneses next door would you resist? :-)

    Svara
    Tomas 9 mar, 2010

    A truly fascinating dialogue on top of a truly thought provoking article. My compliments to the both of you.

    Now, it might just be me misunderstanding things, but it seems like there are three concepts floating around here, and one is a bit vague:
    1. The Insecure Generation, and the resulting consumerist mindset (a brilliant conjecture that I completely agree with).
    2. Standing out. Which varies in meaning between ”signaling success” and ”being different”.
    3. The ideal to be making individual choices independent of the pressures of society, culture and marketing efforts.

    The first can be viewed as an empirical fact (buying power rising and clinical depression following suit), and the third as a subjective standpoint. But the second is where the action happens. The status-brand examples being quoted suggest that it is only the ”signaling success”-function of non-commonness that decide the value of individual choice in a social context. I mean, if you want to be different that’s a whole other ballgame. Now, why this nit-picking about concepts?

    Well, as I see it Saher is completely correct in his diagnosis of the symptoms. We are anxious because of our mental model of consumer salvation, and it sure is a learned behavior installed by marketing procedures along with social forces over centuries. But the problem isn’t individuality. It’s the opposite.

    The problem is that we have been sold an ideal of CONFORMITY! To the extent that the only way to gain recognition for individual performance, expression and existence is to do and buy what everybody else does and buys, but better. Here’s where the subtle core of the curse of Generation I is established: You have a genetically installed need to express your uniqueness, but you’ve been trained to do so only in terms of consumerism. It is the only language available. Living at the more up-scale address, buying a hotter design sofa, upgrading from a 5-series to a 7-series BMW, or in Olles case, communicating his insight through minimalism ;)

    What Saher is saying IS important. It is a terrible thing to be staying in a shitty job to be able to afford stuff you don’t care about because it is the only life you know. And we as marketers should think twice before circulating ideas that enforce this anxiety spiral. But the solution lies not in downplaying the need for individualism, but in liberating us all from the learned constraints of what it means to express that individualism. To stop living by a script someone else (e.g. a marketer) wrote.

    Free someone else’s mind, and their ass will follow :)

    Svara
    Mats 9 mar, 2010

    Very stimulating discussion. A couple of reflections

    1) Insecure generation and consumerist mindset: I believe there is a masochistic tendency in the debate that basically says that we in the marketing profession should assume guilt because we have made people insecure. I feel we shouldn’t be so worried. As mankind is a social animal, there is always the pressure to be accepted, respected and hopefully even revered. As with most other animals, the individual with the biggest (insert attribute here) has higher status, so I don’t think is a learned behaviour but something that lies much deeper in our genes. But of course there is a matter of ethics and self-control for us exercise in steering consumption towards ”sensible” consumption – efficient, eco-friendly etc – and creating perceived consumer value in those attributes.

    2) Conform or stick-out? I don’t subscribe to the need/desire to express uniqueness as this inherently means a clear differentiation – which in turn means uncertainty, but definately a need to express success/achievement status. And with that I also buy into Tomas’ graded (or relative) conformity – your individuality is expressed not so much as being different as by being better (whether this is a truly relative scale vs all others, or just a ”past the post” success is probably a minor detail). In other words, agree with conclusion, but not necessarily foundation.

    3) Even in a collaborative world, collaboration tends to work best if different team players play different roles. The proverbial football analogy still applies – a team with goal-keeper, defenders, sweeper and forwards tend to beat a team with 11 forwards. Hence, even in a collaborative world there is likely to be differences within the team, both in terms of what people do and what status rank they have within the team. So even in a collaborative world there will be status markers – but then again maybe they are more to do with skills rather than possessions. Or maybe not?

    Svara
    Olle 9 mar, 2010

    About the share of throat; I have two questions I ask all clients. Always. What’s your product(s)? What’s the meaning? As in what meaning do you have as a company and for others. That’s a good one because you can find new stuff apart from just the products.

    Thomas; I liked this ”…but in liberating us all from the learned constraints of what it means to express that individualism”. And that’s what going with environmentally friendly products is about (or no products at all, as in my case…). Express yourself by thinking, by taking responsibility. Yes, that’s something brands should promote.

    But my overall point is still this; we have very few clients who don’t want to sell sell sell. So unless we can help them make more money by selling less, or selling environmentally friendly replacements (that they DO want to sell, because an even better alternative they wouldn’t accept is of course NOT to replace whatever you have at all, and that’s where they frown). I mean I hate it; but we’re about selling. We can also be about innovating. But a Panasonic screen that consumes less energy is still meant to replace a panasonic screen that consumes more. And what’s the impact of manufacturing the new one, shipping it, marketing it, delivering it, and throwing away the old one. I don’t know and I don’t expect an answer. I’m just saying; we sell, or else. Unfortunately(?).

    One more thing; I think the best way (trying to see this from an helicopter view) to get this ”revolt” against over consumption, and get more people thinking about how we express ourselves, is probably MOST brands continuing the way they do (consumption havoc) which results in more reactions like this, because I do interpret this article from you Saher as an individual standpoint, and you’re less and less alone. Because those brands are the common enemy to more people than ever.

    And I agree with Mats; very stimulating discussion.

    Svara
    Tomas 9 mar, 2010

    Olle, yes I confess. I dodged the client issue ;)

    Svara
    saher sidhom 15 mar, 2010

    Hello, here are some reflections on your comments gentlemen:

    Olle’s
    I agree that we should take the helicopter view and contemplate the bigger picture too. But I firmly believe we should start somewhere and there is no better than right here, right now, with the very clients you mentioned who just want to sell sell sell. For the simple reason that it would be utterly irresponsible of us planners to just blame it on clients limited and immediate view of sales and not find the insights, make the point and fight the causes on behalf of consumers. Isn’t that our job as planners anyway? Change can come from anywhere and especially from within. There is no need to ‘dodge’ the issue as Tomas said we can take it head on but how?

    Well you already hinted at innovation as a start and to work from a supply side of things. Sure we can push for the environmentally friendly stuff – but even that is not enough in my view. We need to look at the bigger picture and in my mind this means looking at the business models of clients, re-invent their product & their meaning as you call it.

    Innovation should be (rather than could be) on an economic, social and environmental level. Imagine a three legged stool and this is what I have in mind. The trouble is the economists had their way for so long and that should change. Without taking the environment and the social impact of mindless materialism (e.g. Generation I) we’ve built a version of consumerism that is a one legged stool – it simply cannot stand on it’s own – human progress cannot be just measured in sales and things bought. If that’s all the ambition brands had and consumers had then I cannot imagine a poorer ambition.

    Here is an idea that might sound romantic to the hard nosed people who have been contaminated by business schools (I am one of those). It comes from the country of Bhutan. They’ve adopted a more holistic measure of progress. Instead of the one legged stool of GDP they went for Gross National Happiness. GNH covers wellbeing and social progress on a number of levels: ‘sustainable development’, ‘cultural values’, ‘conservation of the environment’ and ‘good governess’. Sure some of these are hard to measure and hard to put a reductionist ROI on, but, here is a new What If: what if brands & their agents – such as us – took all those four pillars into consideration? We may get rid of the greenwash rubbish and pick up a few more real and genuine ways of doing things.

    Not just a better panasonic t.v. but better models of consumption and better experiences. This is the subject of my next article in which I will deal with innovation and it’s potential to find alternatives to one legged primitive consumerism. I am by no means alone in the quest for alternatives by the way. From Ad Agency chiefs such as Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP who explicitly said we should find alternative models to consumerism to government policy makers / advisors e.g. Nicholas Christakis at Harvard, psychologists such as James Oliver and of our own planners such as John Grant author of the amazing book Co-opportunity and Richard Cordiner of Y&R.

    So helicopter view it is indeed in many ways but we shouldn’t abdicate our responsibility and blame clients. We know what is happening in the demand side of things – the consumer world – and that is a responsibility we simply cannot ignore. It’s not a question anymore of what we ‘could’ do around the edges (better t.v.) it’s a question of what we ‘should’ do. Anything else would be in-authentic. We have to be true to ourselves and not let the professional over-rule the personal one. The waiter cannot over shadow the person underneath that would be the biggest irony.

    Mats’
    I just want to clarify a couple of things. There is tons and tons and tons of evidence that points out a direct relationship between materialism and it’s glossy face (advertising etc) and depression. Oliver in the Selfish Capitalist provides endless evidence to back this based on a wide a variety of studies. From big global stuff to studies that were done in the fifties comparing the impact of television when it was first introduced in some places v others that haven’t had television yet. And he is not the only one, Robert Putnam in his equally gripping book: Bowling Alone succinctly summarised the problem: ”there are more people watching friends (on t.v.) than have them”.

    The common misconception which I fear you allude to is to simply pass the buck to mother nature saying that we were engineered this way and blame it on some evolutionary psychology extrapolations. If mother nature is anything as she is meant to be it turns out that she didn’t programme her children to hurt themselves – at least not this way. This is a myth that we like to believe because we can do a Herod and wash our hands from the impact of what we in this business do. Oliver and others provide plenty of evidence that nature shouldn’t take all the blame.

    I will cite one of the studies that Oliver covers to make some of the points I refer to:

    ”One study, of forty different cultures, suggested that materialists tend not to subscribe to values which make for good relationships, such as loyalty, forgiveness and helpfulness. In making decisions about people, including in their social lives, they put the pursuit of status or money ahead of decency or other attributes likely to result in intimacy or friendship. This is illustrated by an experiment with four to-five-year-old boys. Half watched a programme with no advertisements and half watched the same one, but with two ads for a toy. They were all then shown pictures of two equally attractive looking boys, one of whom was holding the toy and described as ‘not so nice’, the other holding no toy but said to be ‘a nice boy’. Twice as many children who had watched the ads said they wanted to play with the boy holding the toy, despite his not-niceness….. forward a few years later and by the end of childhood the average American child will have seen 200’000 TV advertisements.

    Fast forward even further to adulthood and America – the world’s foremost promotor of individuality and consumerism – has of course progressed materially but you know what – they are also at the top of league tables of depression almost across all ages.

    On an a personal note the biggest irony for me is – and I know I am going to get shot for saying this – every time I go to New York I am gob-smacked to see how hard everybody seems to try to – in Tomas’ definition below – to ‘conform’ to whatever the latest thing is. I’ve seen more actual individuality in Sweden (e.g. Olle) than in the collection of cliches that seems to make up New York. We buy a product to make us ‘relatively’ ahead but by doing so we are just conforming to the primitive rules of the herd.

    Of-course not all marketing is bad and not all advertising seems to aim to turn us into individuals chasing the next ‘hit’ of differentiation with the next upgrade of a product. But my attack was on the kind of marketing and advertising that effectively gets it’s success from trading on and feeding people’s insecurities and the brands behind that.

    It is a powerful tool but what if for a change we didn’t get people to upgrade their products but instead helped them upgrade their dreams?

    Svara
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