You’re a long time dead – starting next Tuesday

Knowing exactly when you are going to die is a powerful incentive to get on with your life – and the marketing opportunities will be terrific, writes Sean Brierley

The best media placement in recent months has to be the Teacher Training Agency’s “Can you explain inertia to teenagers?” poster campaign on London Underground.

It is brilliant for two reasons. First, travelling on London Underground does make you feel like a career change and second, the Tube is the best place to consider the meaning of inertia.

On reflection, I think the best way to explain inertia to a teenager is with an example. Let us suppose, Britney, that you sell one of your relatives’ kidneys to pay for a new gas boiler with British Gas, then find that it has been fitted incorrectly. You then spend forever getting someone to come out, taking time off work waiting for them to fail to turn up, until eventually it is fixed. Then, two years later, you find that the boiler has broken down and British Gas won’t come out to fix it because you are not a member of its “loyalty” club, which entails you paying £21 a month. Then it tells you that you can’t become a member of the club because, you guessed it, the boiler you bought from it is faulty and customers with faulty boilers can’t be a member of the club, anyway.

Inertia, Britney, is when, despite all this appalling workmanship, insensitivity, arrogant customer service and hours of wasted time, you continue to be a customer of British Gas.

Inertia is very powerful in our stoical culture. It is a major factor in service sector marketing, especially financial services, where most people cannot be bothered to change brands despite appallingly bad service. This is generally because of a lack of certainty about the future. We constantly put off today what can be avoided tomorrow.

But now the years of making millions from customer inactivity may also be coming to an end, thanks to genetic science. The two most significant moments in the film About Schmidt are when the fly hits the Winnebago windscreen – a metaphor for the stain that we leave on the planet when we die – and the part where Schmidt – a retired actuary in a life assurance company – reflects on the fact that now that his wife is dead he has, based on probability theory, nine years left to live.

I say this is a significant moment because as we all know, there are only two things that are certain in life – death and taxis. Generally speaking, most of us don’t have a clue when either of them will arrive.

I used to work with a guy who, at the age of 26, was told by a witchdoctor in Africa that he would die at 30. He was told exactly the same thing by a shaman in Thailand a year later. Anyway, he imparted this to me 15 years ago when we were trainee reporters. Last week he – or possibly his ghost – wrote a review of a ballet in the Sunday Times.

But now there is less art and more science about prediction. Though no scientific discovery is likely to make a taxi turn up on time, according to research published two weeks ago in The Lancet, a simple blood test can predict how long you will live past the age of 60 by measuring the length of your DNA.

There are obvious marketing opportunities here. Socrates famously decided to learn a new tune on his lute in his final minutes before drinking the hemlock, but others might wish for more glamorous ends. Luxury goods manufacturers could offer rental deals, selling dream destinations for the last hoorahs. And really could provide goods and services for your last minute.

According to leading evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, in the future we will be able to buy a printout of our own genome, which will tell us extremely accurately when we will die. He feels that such knowledge would create angst among the general population because it will seem like a death sentence.

Not knowing when we will die stops us from doing things; knowing when we are going to die will enable us to live a more fulfilling life because we won’t keep putting things off.

The market that will benefit most and give most to consumers would be pensions. The reason why people don’t take out pensions is because they have no idea how long they will live. We don’t know how long we have left after retirement to enjoy the fruits of our labours. If you knew you had 30 years left, you could plan more sensibly at an earlier age. If you knew you only had five years left, you might retire earlier and spend your time on more fulfilling pursuits.

If we knew how long our natural lives would be, it would be impossible to get life insurance for our natural death, but there would be a very good market in life insurance for unnatural demises. The unexpected always has a habit of interfering. A friend’s mother was on the phone to her sister-in-law in Australia. The sister-in-law said: “I have some terrible news. Your brother had a heart attack and died in hospital last week.” My friend’s mother was distraught. “Oh, my God! Oh my God,” she said.

Her sister-in-law cut in: “Yes, it was awful, but then they revived him and he’s out of hospital now. Do you want to speak to him?”

I asked my friend whether her aunt had ever worked for British Gas. She hadn’t. Too sensitive.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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