How to advertise to a lonely nation
As people build vast networks of weak relationships, we ultimately come to value our own company more highly, writes Heather Dansie. How should brands react?
In ancient Greece, an idiot meant someone who did not (or could not) contribute to public life. The words stems from idios meaning “private”, “one’s own”. It was a dishonourable position. Public life reflected neighbourhood, duty and social benefits. A private life implied a greedy selfishness that promoted only oneself.
However, today in the UK under the principles of modern capitalism, idiocy is celebrated. One should make their own decisions, focusing effort on their own goals. Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist, conducted one of the most comprehensive studies on national values, of which individualism, building your self-image around “I” rather than “we”, is a key metric. The higher the score, the closer the nation values this trait. The UK scored an impressive 89 out of 100 on individuality. Only Australia and America scored higher.
Rather than promoting the collective, our society has, certainly since the 80s, championed independence and 'standing on your own two feet'. ‘Know thyself’ - because you can’t rely on anyone else, running your own business, being single at any age and raising children as a single parent - are no longer exceptional but rather the norm.
Parents become stakeholders
Families too are aware of the need for self-preservation. With house prices soaring, and an unstable job market, parents know they are responsible for supporting their offspring.
This dependency goes beyond the functional as ONS 2018 data reveals that whilst children’s relationships with friends are weakening, their relationships with parents (particularly between fathers and daughters) have never been stronger.
This functional and emotional dependence creates an interesting dynamic for parents. One study found that the more aware parents are of the cost of having children, the more they exaggerate the joy of being a parent, in order to justify the cost.
The bystander effect
Globally, more than half of the population live in urban areas and 1.5m people are added to the urban population every week (PWC). So why do we have a loneliness epidemic?
In busy areas, people are less likely to take an interest to others around them due to the Bystander Effect, which has two key components - ‘the Diffusion of Responsibility’ and a desire to ‘Behave in Socially Accepted Ways’.
Conversations lie at the heart of overcoming these distancing effects. In her book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explores why young people preferring messaging to talking. Talking can reveal too much about how you feel. But when you text, you can edit and delete with a greater sense of control.
Yet moments of vulnerability are crucial to build emotional bonds. In one of the most watched TED Talks of all time, Brene Brown emphasises that to be known you have to be really seen. And you can’t do this, behind an edited script and a screen. This needs to happen in real life.
Solo moments requires flexible, intimate communications
Brands and media can connect best to individuals when they become flexible. As people build vast networks of weak relationships, we ultimately come to value our own company more highly.
These moments are often highly creative and reflective, and brands can take advantage of these more engaged frames of mind. But increasingly people expect content to work around themselves, not around other people’s schedules.
Almost all emerging media and content are geared for maximum flexibility and user control. Audio and visual media increasingly allows viewers to customise, and contribute to their programmes. Virtual and augmented realities allow viewers to be their own directors, promoting the individual’s angle over the collective. For example, Uncle Ben’s allow customers to explore their rice supply chain on their pack via AR.
To conclude, all relationships start as a value exchange, whether it is a biological yearning or a rational compromise. ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. This is the basis of all business brand relationships and of course with agencies and our clients.
And yet the greatest relationships are formed when they aren’t counted and measured. Because, a friend in need is a friend indeed. Real relationships exist when the value exchange loses its importance.
Heather Dansie is Insight Director at Starcom UK