When I started out my career as a marketing professor, my first faculty position was at the University of Minnesota. On a ‘tenure clock’ of around six years, I had to start researching and publishing fast if I wanted to stick around.
One of my first projects was an ethnographic study. A new freeway was about to be built straight through a sacred Native American site on the outskirts of Minneapolis. The development generated a lot of publicity and the site had gradually attracted a small army of around 100 protesters, who made their home in the ramshackle camp that had been built there.
Along with Native American activists there was every other kind of counter-cultural force in attendance. Eco-activists mingled with animal rights people, who hung with straight-out anarchists.
The one thing all these groups had in common was a disgust and distrust of modern consumer culture. That made them a fertile place to study what I called ‘counter-cultures of consumption’. Just as consumer culture accomplishes its hegemony by linking together the traditional dominant forces in society, opposing consumption usually brings together those with a societal axe to grind.
But as well as a site for protest, the camp also had to work as a functioning community. And that was the fascinating part: studying a group who were opposed to consumption, as they attempted to survive and interact without the usual crutch of consumer culture. I spent an absorbing six months in a little counter-cultural bubble, observing and interviewing this rag-tag community as they tried, and occasionally succeed, to build a way of life that was separate from the consumerism surrounding them.
I dumpster-dove, I shoplifted, I got spectacularly laid (something that was not happening in the gleaming citadel of consumption down the road) and gradually got to see how those opposed to consumer culture tried to oppose it.
The concept of ‘pneuma’, the winds of change
One of the themes to emerge from the study was the idea of ‘pneuma’. It is originally a Greek word that means ‘breath’, but it was used by theologians to communicate the spirit of Christ that would lift up and transform a person or community.
As the world turned away from religion, it became clear to thinkers like Max Weber that the “prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together” would ultimately disappear.
The only thing that is going to really change dramatically after coronavirus is the number of columns from hacks predicting everything is going to change.
Counter-cultures are founded on their opposition to the mainstream and an optimism that it can and will be changed. Inevitably, therefore, most counter-cultures pin their hopes on a new form of pneuma – some transformational wind of change that will weld people together, allow them to see the folly of their ways and embrace a new way of living as a result.
This played out in the camp, because we were a year away from Y2K – the turn of the millennium – which many at the time were predicting would bring society to a grinding halt. As I talked to the various camp members, it became clear that almost all of them saw Y2K as a huge opportunity. If the Millennium Bug really did bring the system down it could then be rebuilt in a superior, more equitable manner.
The nature of that rebuild depended on the particular cause that each member of the camp supported. The animal rights people saw it as the moment that veganism would take hold. The greens saw it as the end of the mass-industrial system that was destroying the planet. Each group looked into the prism of Y2K and predicted the future that they wanted to see. It was their pneuma.
Pneuma bullshit abounds
And now, all these years later, I see pneuma again. Not around a cold Minnesotan camp fire but in the words of a growing army of idealistic and hopelessly naïve thinkers.
Clearly Covid-19 has introduced massive societal change during this odd period of global lockdown. But these authors are looking beyond the lockdown to a new post-coronavirus period in which the world changes in all kinds of hyperbolic ways. And just like my counter-cultural campmates, the nature of those changes reflects the perspective of the writer, not the reality of the situation.
You can already see this pneuma bullshit all around us. The media is filled with op-eds predicting that “X will change forever after coronavirus”. Take your pick as to what the X stands for. It could be leadership (Forbes), media (Vanity Fair), work (Campaign), universities (Wall Street Journal), sport (New York Times), how we live (Financial Times), globalisation (BBC), consumption (AdAge) or the world (Campaign).
And this is after only a few weeks. Just wait until the Covid-19 crisis comes to a close – it can only get worse. And as with all forms of pneuma these aren’t accurate predictions of a post-Covid future. They are fever dreams driven by the aspirations of the writer.
Digital marketers look into the prism of a post-coronavirus society and see the transcendence of digital, not because it will happen but because they want it to happen. TV people see a resurgence in traditional TV in the months ahead. Newspaper journalists see a return to the primacy of news media. Creative directors see a re-focus on creativity. People with long commutes and a second home in Cornwall see the end of office working. Hamsters see new wheels and more sawdust. The list is long, wrong and indulgent.
For once, empirical data isn’t much use as a correcting agent either. While I am a big fan of using surveys to ask consumers about their current attitudes and preferences, I draw a big red line between those insights and ones derived from asking consumers what they will do in the future if certain things happen. What people say, what people do and what they say they do are entirely different things, observed the anthropologist Margaret Mead. If only more marketers were aware of it.
For example, I get my suits done once a year when I come to London. In January, my long-suffering tailor was buried somewhere between my left testicle and navel taking in the full horror of the toll that the Christmas festivities had taken on my waistline. “Keep the new suits tight Phil,” I shouted as his tape measure extended to new found lengths. “I will have all of that weight off by Valentines Day.”
Phil stood up, pins in mouth, and looked at me with a sad, endearing smile. “If I had a quid for every customer that tells me that and believed them, I’d be a very rich tailor and you’d be walking to your meetings like one of the Bee Gees.”
Consumers are miserable explainers of their own behaviour and even more hopeless at predicting what they will do in the future. Good survey design gets around these limitations. Bad surveys ignore it and treat all consumer utterances as entirely accurate.
The Edelman Trust Barometer, for example, is a good, basic assessment of current global attitudes. As a predictor of future consumer behaviour it comes a distant third to Mystic Meg and Paul the Dead Octopus.
Asking consumers how much they agree with a statement like ‘How well a brand responds to this crisis will have a huge impact on my likelihood to buy that brand in the future’ tells us nothing, other than that Edelman need some help with their surveys. You could teach a whole semester on shit survey design with just this one question. Were they drunk when they devised it?
As much as I adhere to all the principles of market orientation and empirical market research as the basis for marketing strategy, this is a rare time when consumer research is going to give us all kinds of invalid insights. People are panicked, locked down, afraid and generally upside down. Their current behaviour is understandably aberrant and predictions of future behaviour are even more unreliable.
And that’s before you throw in a global pandemic and a series of completely ridiculous survey questions from a PR agency having a go at survey design. If the zombie apocalypse started tomorrow would you eat your neighbour or your cat first?
Most marketing writers are arsehats. They love drama. They are addicted to the pornography of change. They adore making specious, rambling predictions about the future because, as the Ad Contrarian blogger Bob Hoffman drily but brilliantly observed, “if you’re a marketing genius with a terrible track record the future is a great place to hide”.
Something as major as Covid-19 is going to send most of these “geniuses” into paroxysms of pneuma bullshit. They won’t be able to resist. And they will tell us, with great authority, that every facet of the media, marketing, digital and consumer life is going to change, change, change forever.
In reality, nothing will change. The impact of coronavirus right now is massive – on everything. But when we emerge out of lockdown the consumers, the media and marketing itself will quickly snap back to former heuristical norms.
That does not mean society and the consumer will not have evolved from the late 2019 period we now remember so fondly and innocently, but that the evolution that was taking place will continue, perhaps cataylsed slightly by the events of this strange period. But it won’t be drastically different.
We will go back to washing our hands for four seconds, not 40, buying our coffees at Pret and spending too much of Friday getting drunk with the other losers from work. The parabola of change might ratchet up a couple of degrees but it is not – no matter what you read in the coming months – going to turn 180 degrees and head in a different direction.
I appreciate that my take on things makes for a shit opinion column and far more boring headline compared to “Everything is now totally changed, fuckers, run for your lives!” But that does not stop it from being true.
Most marketing writers are arsehats. They love drama. They are addicted to the pornography of change.
Remember what Bill Bernbach said about those who found it “fashionable” to constantly talk about the changing man or woman. The great advertising thinker noted that it took millions of years for our instincts to develop and he predicted it would take millions more for them to change further. His advice – which today’s marketers would do well to follow – was to focus on the unchanging consumer and their unchanging desires.
Jeff Bezos said something similar more recently. He complained that most people ask him about what is going to change over the next 10 years. Bezos was far more interested, he explained, in what was not going to change in those 10 years because “you can build a business strategy around things that are stable in time”.
So, ignore the pneuma bullshit that will spring up in the coming months. The only thing that is going to really change dramatically after coronavirus is the number of columns from hacks predicting everything is going to change.
Instead we will head into a very severe, very predictable recession. We know about recessions and we know what happens to marketing and consumer behaviour when they occur. Ignore every column you read from now on featuring pneuma bullshit, and study the past to predict the only slightly different but certainly highly challenging future ahead.