April 09, 2020

A Seriously Imperfect Species

I wrote this a few days ago but didn't post it because I felt uncomfortable about posting non-positive things during this unpleasant period.  However, after reading the great Mark Ritson's column today, and seeing that he isn't afraid to be level-headed, I decided to stand with him.

We are a seriously imperfect species, we humans.

For those who think the corona virus experience will "change everything," I have some dispiriting thoughts. It won't. Circumstances change but human nature doesn't.

Did the Bubonic Plague make our species more kind, gentle and selfless? Did the Spanish Flu? Did World War I? Did WWII?

At best, disasters lead to temporary outpourings of kindness, gentility, and good deeds. For those who think the CV-19 experience has made us less selfish and more community-minded, I invite you to come to California and try to buy some toilet paper.

One thing every sensible marketer learns very quickly is that as a rule people act in their own self-interest. You may think this cold and disheartening - and it probably is - but it is nonetheless true.

Are there examples of amazing people doing incredible things for others at the expense of their own safety? Yes, and we should be forever grateful for the existence of these wonderful people.

Are there examples of average people being especially thoughtful in their behavior. Yes, and we should be proud of that.

But will we be a changed and chastened species when this is all over? I doubt it. Our memories are short and soon after the CV-19 experience is gone, I am pretty sure we will revert to the usual norms of unpleasant, irresponsible behavior.

The same is true in advertising. For now, many of our major marketers are trying to put their best feet forward with responsible, gentle advertising. This won't last long. Nor will our industry's self-control. Soon the ad industry will be leveraging the CV-19 experience to our advantage. As I wrote 10 years ago in a piece in Adweek entitled Ads in the Age of Hysteria...

"...if there’s one thing we ad hacks understand, it’s the relationship between anxiety and cash flow. We’ve spent decades creating anxiety in consumers... Now we can apply the same principles to our clients. And so we have created an ongoing hysteria-fest called The Thing That Will Change Everything. The object is to keep marketers in a constant state of anxiety about the future.

The more we can convince them that everything is changing around them — and they need us to interpret the changes — the longer we stay employed."

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