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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

At what point did communication go so wrong?

You can’t move – pardon the pun – for people talking about the “petrol shortage”. Although the briefest of glances into the situation tells us that it’s drivers we’re short on rather than fuel, that’s not the story people have elected to hear. And this has left many wondering in turn: at what point did the communication go so wrong?

Full jerry cans have become the new toilet rolls – arguably, they’ve also become symbols of a society that’s dangerously close to shelving notions of community and collectively working under the “I’m alright Jack, pull up the ladder” attitude. Every man (indeed, every can) for himself isn’t a good look.

It’s become human nature to panic about things we might not be able to have. Perhaps that’s an innate human quality, about survival. But there’s no doubt that it’s been intensified by years of increasingly sophisticated marketing messages.

Over the past hundred years or so, it’s become the norm that we’re bombarded with “solutions” to problems we didn’t know existed. We’re cajoled into a worldview that expects surfeit and promotes acquisitiveness. Both the causes and the reactions to these recent revelations of shortages have shown just how dangerous and ultimately unsustainable those values are.

That mindset and the branding, advertising, and marketing messages that have shaped it are not only dangerous on a personal level, but on societal and ecological levels. The current mode of capitalism has been a significant catalyst of the climate crisis.

In August, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was leaked that stated that “we must move away from the current capitalist model to avoid surpassing planetary boundaries and climate and ecological catastrophe”. There is little or no room for further growth creation.

What needs to happen now is a radical shift in how the skills and tools unique to those in the branding, insight and creative industries are wielded. The people who can demonstrably change behaviour; identify emerging needs; create new languages; and persuade people to rethink their lifestyle choices are in the perfect position to focus those abilities towards helping people rethink how they live, what they buy, what they need and where they shop.

Obviously, there are significant consequences to these shortages. But they are also an opportunity for us to holdup a mirror to ourselves and think about our own solutions. They have some potential to encourage fresh conversations around shopping locally; buying local produce; electric vehicles, and other more climate-friendly transport solutions.

Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to spend the time (or often the money) forgoing the big shop at Asda for small, local producers; nor is everyone fortunate enough to be able to think about, say, cycling to work instead of driving. But once these issues become more urgent than ever – both in terms of government agendas and individual choices – progress is possible from chaos.

A refocusing of our discipline away from purely driving economic growth to a new North Star – towards regenerative business models – offers unparalleled opportunities for those marketers who are willing to radically innovate. We will require some new language to help us express why we exist as a profession; we’ll have to actively work together to repurpose our skills and create a new set of metrics and value systems to replace the ones we’ve been using for the past half-century that are not just outdated but damaging.

And paradoxically, if anyone can help shape those conversions, perhaps it’s the marketers.

Fiona McNae is Co-Founder and CEO of Space Doctors, a global cultural and creative consultancy fuelled by the very best of semiotics, cultural insight and analytics. A certified B Corporation, they help organisations become more impactful, meaningful, and relevant by connecting them more deeply with culture. Their Expert Network includes some of the world’s leading semioticians, academics, design strategists, conceptual designers, anthropologists, ethnographers, data analysts and most interesting thinkers.


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