Fags, booze, gambling and adult entertainment could be in for a boost if the dire warnings of the Governor of the Bank of England come to pass.
Sounding the death knell of the “nice decade”, Governor Mervyn King this week set out the shape of things to come. Inflation in food prices, gas and lecky stalk the land; jobs are being axed and the banking crisis continues; house prices are tumbling and growth will slump. “The nice decade is behind us,” King said. Nasty.
In troubled times, people often turn to those instant pleasures that help them forget their woes. This could provide opportunities for the purveyors of all sorts of vices. Some say we will return to the escapism of the thirties.
One marketer reminds us of the old adage that as times get tougher, hemlines get longer. He predicts the return of ankle-length skirts before the general election.
Then again, if the nice economy is finished, will it also mean the demise of nice marketing? The Millennium began with high hopes that the vulgarity and hedonism of the 80s and 90s would be brought to a close. Fuelled by easy credit and cheap goods from China, brands found it easier to make money in the nice decade. While most people’s incomes barely rose, galloping house prices allowed them to leverage their inflating assets to borrow cash and live the dream.
But the dream changed in decade zero and gave birth to a new consumer consciousness. Psychographically speaking, “inner directed” people had their day. Warnings first made in the 1950s about the damaging effects of the consumer cornucopia – environmental devastation, the warping of children’s minds, labour exploitation and the health dangers of mass produced food – went mainstream.
We could afford to be self-righteous, our credit card bills proved it. So what if organic food was 50% more expensive, or those smoothies cost nearly £2 for a couple of gulps? We had discovered responsible consumption and had the (borrowed) cash to pay for it. We eschewed cheap snack foods, smug in the knowledge that a gastro-pub was just around the corner. Of course it was worth drinking fair trade coffee at a premium and paying to off-set carbon emissions.
Now for the £50 billion question. Is “nice marketing” just a guilt-ridden response to an illusory sense of wealth which will disappear as fast as a Northern Rock credit note when the economy heads south? Or is it truly a revolution in our relationship to consumption that will redefine capitalism? We are about to find out.
Some think that the warm, green, “honest” and ethically-positioned brands of this decade will thrive in the downturn, whether it is Innocent Drinks or Marks & Spencer, Waitrose or Green & Blacks, Riverford or Eat Natural; or even Dave Cameron’s Conservatives. The faux-naivety and innocent charm promoted by these brands make them a pleasant refuge in times of trouble, allowing us to regress to a child-like, prelapsarian state.
Consumers will make sacrifices in other areas to ensure they can afford to pay the conscience tax required by nice brands, argue the optimists.
An alternative scenario is that people will become hardened in their attitudes. With their backs against the wall, they will stop worrying about the wider consequences of their actions and think more selfishly. They’ll be smoking, drinking, gambling, porning and eating fat-laden snacks to divert their minds from the bad news. The millennium brands will decline, becoming a faded souvenir of more optimistic times.
Alas, my crystal ball becomes cloudy. I foresee changing shapes in the world to come but for a definitive judgement on the longevity of the ethical revolution, we may have to wait another decade.