We're living in a time pervaded by fear. On one side of the current election, there's heavy conversation surrounding fear of immigrants, foreign powers, terrorism and the loss of what makes this country "great." The other side doesn't dispense that level of fear rhetoric, but they share a fair amount of social chatter about how it's simply all over for our nation and our future if the opposition wins.
And while we may condemn the fear both sides generate, marketers have to ask themselves what role they've played in setting the stage for this sort of national discussion. To what degree has our industry pushed for fear—and what can we do to turn things around?
We have to acknowledge that as marketers, we have enabled, even encouraged, a persistent state of panic. And as a society, the technologies we are adopting are exaggerating this condition. I'm not saying it's right; I'm also not saying it's avoidable. This line of thinking is not an analysis of "crisis culture," or acceptance of it as a permanent state of being. Rather, we're acknowledging that crisis culture in marketing is real and pervasive.
But I want to make clear that brands should genuinely help improve people's lives in the culture, despite the culture we have historically chosen to foster. This Means War (because everything means war).
When I was born, in 1970, things were simpler. We only had wars where people killed each other. Then President Nixon declared a "war on drugs." This notion was later popularized and amplified by politics, media and marketing. The idea of "war" went downhill from there. Soon, we declared war on things that were a far cry from sovereign entities. Cholesterol, fur, obesity, disco, French fries, The Noid. Our list of enemies has grown long and bizarre.
This idea of constant combat shifted the business/consumer dynamic dramatically, opening the door for brands to play in the emotional exhaust of the crisis culture they created and capitalize on feelings of fear. Brands realized that by marrying consumer behaviors with crisis, it yielded urgency that would make consumers take notice of their product—or else! Think about how many times you hear there's only a few left in stock or that a special offer is only good for the next hour.
There is a relentless pursuit to be cognizant of, and involved with, the market at all times, to attend the biggest shopping events or bid for the newest merchandise. Missing out on deals means falling short on the full potential for happiness.
New crisis emerges
This fear of missing out pervades our lives, which only gets amplified by technology. Your phone and wearable tell you your heart rate is too high, you need to stand—you've been sitting too long—and you need to replace an injured player on your fantasy football team. These messages are the embodiment of our crisis culture, enhanced and personalized for your enjoyment (or dread).
This phenomenon will only intensify. New technologies are coming—bringing rapidly approaching parity between bits and atoms. Our ability to control and manipulate the physical world will become facile and the barriers to universal communication will fall.
The connection to protean marketing
Not only do marketers confuse consumers with warnings of crisis, they also confuse their audience with split communication and a blurred identity.
I've spoken about the idea of Protean Marketing. Essentially, the idea is that brands should learn from the Greek myth of Proteus, who loses his identity based on his seemingly powerful ability to shift his own shape. Unconsciously, marketers confront this Protean dilemma; we shape shift to adapt our identities to wearables, biotech, VR and computer-aided gamification. Yet by doing so, we take on every form to reach every self in every space—ultimately, fracturing our identity.
With the emergence of new technology, our identities have become diluted by the splintered personas we have created. Before, we had just one notion of the "self." Now, we have many. This makes the challenges more interesting, yet the solutions more layered.
We also have to consider the related idea recently shared by Google's Ray Kurzweil: "People think the world is getting worse … That's the perception. What's actually happening is our information about what's wrong in the world is getting better." It's not that these urgent areas of our lives weren't always there; it's that technology is highlighting every facet, often with a lens of anxiety.
An era of responsibility begins
I'm not saying this "crisis culture" is right, but it's definitely a thing. And it's not to say marketers are creating fictional problems, but they're shape-shifting into reflections of these problems. Ultimately, we have people with new identities connecting with marketers facing the same fractured sense of self—with tech increasing the urgency of every connection.
But maybe everything is not as scary as it seems. Maybe panic can be minimized—if we, as marketers, take it upon ourselves to strike the right balance. That's not to say that we will lose all urgency, but simply that we should provide the right solutions at the right time—when sometimes we're a comforting blanket instead of a flashing siren. Maybe the responsible thing to do sometimes is to help.
And perhaps, in this context, provide utilities to bring the fractured pieces together again.
Not everything has to be crisis. Not everything has to be war.
We can do better.
This story first appeared in the September 19, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.