Selfie power

Neil Douglas asks are young Irish consumers more self-obsessed than ever?

In research we hear a lot of people saying it is a generational shift and that millennials are self-obsessed. It is certainly tempting to see the selfie as a modern expression of narcissism. But rather than narcissism, we believe that what we are simply seeing is a continuation of a longer term trend towards greater individualism that affects all of us in society.

On Facebook and Snapchat we experience an altered reality. It is not ‘the real me’, it is the ‘curated self’. A selected personal version presented through social media channels. It is also a formative social context for kids. They find validation through their tweetable status. Their value in the foreground depends on taking visual ownership of the background.

But this is not just emerging among younger people. If we listen closely, it is also how we all talk to ourselves: how we justify things, how we validate our choices. Think about that Friday night pizza, or watching a fourth episode of Narcos on Netflix. How do we explain these choices to ourselves? Is it not “because I deserve it, wasn’t it a hard week, after all?”

So just how often are we post-rationalising choices we make? What is the reference point here? What guides our values? Is it simply an expression of personal conscience? Is it a sense of empathy with marginalised groups? Is it the fear of consequences?

Leaky strategy: Irish consumers should think more about how people engage with a message and consider whether there are learnings we need to apply. Take Ervia’s Irish Water infrastructure. Everyone accepts it is broken, but no one can agree on how to pay to fix it.

At the Zurich-sponsored Dalkey Book Festival last summer, jointly organised by economist and broadcaster David McWilliams and Sian Smith, Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell offered a compelling analysis by comparing the rigidly defined sense of right and wrong of the 1950s or ‘wrongfulness’ with the modern day sense of harm or ‘harmfulness’.

In the 1950s, people largely adhered to a sense of ethics defined by the church and tradition. The sense of right and wrong was fairly fixed. It created certainty, but it also meant that change was difficult. In modern times, we are much more likely to assess right and wrong on the basis of protecting rights and a sense of who might be harmed by draconian laws.

This makes change a lot easier and more rapid. For instance, in the 1950s in Ireland same sex marriage was seen as wrong. Things did not change for decades, but in modern times we understand the harm done to same sex couples and change to the law comes about more rapidly. But, if ethics is now about a sense of harm, there may be other implications.

Does this explain the tendency to have a more ‘nuanced’, or rather, a more entitled view on some things? Take an example that is quite commonplace now: streaming TV shows and movies from ‘questionable sources’. When people talk about this, what we hear is “why would you not?” or “where’s the harm?”, or perhaps even “it’s because I deserve it”.

So is this simply a bi-product of technology advance or the sign of a deeper trend where entitlement guides our decisions? Certainly, we do not often ask if it is wrong to download a movie, we just ask who is harmed. If we explore the idea of harm as a motivator in another way it is illuminating.  Look at the populist campaigns in Britain and the US last year.

Fear of immigrants stoked the Brexit campaign. Donald Trump focused on the many threats he felt America now faces in his visceral speeches on the hustings. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that stimulating a heightened sense of harm provoked engagement among a cohort who wanted to disrupt the elite which were in control in Washington.

What are the implications? We should think about how people engage with a message. We must consider whether there are learnings we need to apply if we accept that people engage more when harm (or its absence) is part of the communication. Take the water infrastructure in Ireland. Everyone accepts it is broken, but no one can agree on how to pay to fix it.

Perhaps, rather than raising valid arguments about the ‘national good’ (which ultimately is about wrongfulness), it would be better to dramatise the harm caused by infrastructure problems. For example, if the issue is presented in terms of specific and local harm, such as raw sewage being pumped into the sea, it does not this shift the focus from a discussion about the somewhat distant ‘national good’ to something more potent and individually relevant?  Doesn’t this start a more helpful debate about how we should deal with the problem? Individualism has taken on new forms and it affects more than just a ‘new generation’, it has implications for our own decisions and how we engage with communications. As marketeers,   we need to be aware of these changes and recognise when a new vocabulary is required.

 Neil Douglas is a director and qualitative researcher at Behaviour & Attitudes




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