Six Core, Real [Depressing] Consumer Insights

A lot is made of "insights" in the advertising strategy sphere. A lot of that lot is bullshit. 

Real insights should make you uncomfortable. There's a visceral truth to them, and they leave you feeling a bit naked. Moreover, they leave the folks for whom they're true looking pretty naked. You know how they say to picture your audience naked in a public speaking engagement? That's how you should feel looking at people when you understand a real insight about them. 'Millennial moms want authenticity, choice, and empowerment; they want to feel good about taking care of their children.' is not particularly insightful.

Most insights relate to specific groups of people or audiences. And that's all well and good. But if you can dig deeper and find more base-level mechanisms and factors that affect people's lives, you'll be able to more meaningfully understand the lives of larger swathes of people. And you'll come up with more powerful, more dialed in insights specific to your audience at hand.

Look, I'll cut to the chase: I'm a trained Marxist, and I stick to a handful of fundamental ideas that apply across all people within the United States. Capitalism affects everyone (differently, of course); we all live within its web. If you can understand your consumers' relations to the most fundamental influencers and consequences of their lived conditions (are they poor? how poor? Are they white? Where do they live? etc., etc.), you're off to a good start in figuring out how your brand and product can matter to them, and message to them. Build from the ground up and get inside consumers' lives. So let's walk through my core consumer insights. Are they depressing? Yeah. But that doesn't make them less true or less applicable. In the longer term, I'll devote myself to ameliorating some of these conditions. For now, I'm a sheep in wolf's clothing. Here's my suite of core, depressing insights.

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1. People are lonely

This one's pretty well established. Social connections have deteriorated: people have fewer friends, spend less time with family and the friends we do have, and a more scattered community. Blame the increased pressures and demands of work, blame technology, blame social media (do not blame social media), blame whomever (answer: blame Capitalism), but the fact of the matter is that people have fewer and less frequent meaningful social interactions, and we feel more isolated than ever. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone is rooted in this notion. Check it out. According to data from the General Social Survey (the largest ongoing survey in the U.S. about social life), the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has just about tripled in the last few decades. The most common response when people are asked how many confidants they have? Zero. In 2010, more than 1/3 of adults over 45 years old in the U.S. reported being lonely. In 2011, 86% of Millennials said they felt lonely. And those are the ones willing to say so in a study.

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There's a growing body of research that shows that loneliness may be killing you, but I'm not really here to talk about the embodied effects of loneliness. Rather, I'm a soulless adman here to put our loneliness to work for brands, changing people's behavior by tapping into their emotional and social voids. How so, you sick bastard? There are a lot of people who feel lonely,  who are vulnerable, and who are susceptible to influences that make them feel less lonely. Or feel anything, for that matter. If I can tap into this darker side of what you want to do, be, and feel, I can use that in brand communication to get you to pay attention, or (if true) to signal that what my brand offers will get you there.

Moreover, people in all of their loneliness are scared of rejection by others. This isn't all that new; it's central to taste- and group-making. It's why I can learn a whole lot about you and what you like by learning about your social circle, and what your friends like.

This is at the core of real, depressing insights. 

Sure, but I have lots of friends. I don't doubt that you do. There are plenty of people with lots of social connections. These insights don't all apply to everyone. None of them may apply to you, dear reader. But in the aggregate, these affect society at a systemic level. Look. I'm trained in a very Marxist vein of thought. The fact of the matter is that capitalism is isolating at its very core, separating people from the value of their work and lives. To do more work and create more value, they work more and work harder. But have they made more money?

2. People are poor

No. No, they have not made more money. There's a reason why that little Occupy thing popped off, and why the 1% and 99% have stuck in the American imagination. Wealth concentrates at the top as a fundamental practice within capitalism - workers have more value extracted from them and the work that they do. But they don't, on the whole, see the payoff.  My point here is that most people have  little money.

It goes both ways. Markets for luxury goods are capped - I'm talking legit luxury goods, not just material symbols of 'wealth' (more on that in a second) - yet enduring. The truly rich ain't getting poorer. In fact, if I were planning to start an agency in the near future, I'd do everything in my power to get good as hell at marketing the most luxurious of luxury goods to high status individuals. Wealth will continue to concentrate at the top, and that market is going to be robust until the very end (at which point all hell breaks loose. I will not be alive to see that.).

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Alright, you commie. But are we talking wealth or income? Well, both. Income and wealth are both disproportionately concentrated, but wealth is extra concentrated. And that's where real prosperity lies. Income concentration mirrors that of the roaring '20s (that's uh, not great), and wealth concentration is even more egregious. The share of wealth held by the top 1% rose from just under 30% in 1989 to a smidge under 50% in 2016, while the share held by the bottom 90% fell from around 33% to less than 23% in the same time frame. Yikes. About 50-70% of American wealth is inherited, so those who have continue to have, and those do not, well, end up with the same or less. 

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3. People are poorer than they let on

The story isn't over there. Americans are in financial distress. Credit card debt has hit a record high. Home ownership has hit a record low. 20% of mortgage loans granted in winter 2017/18 put recipients debt:income ratio at 45%, which is severely playing with loan default fire. The rate of increase in mortgage loans that put folks over that 45% threshold has tripled in the last two years, and it’s at its highest since the early 2000s. Oh yeah, student loan debt is also astronomically high.  42% of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement and will die broke. Damn. Yet, luxury goods and products that signal status - look, I'm not all that poor - remain high, and the housing market is quite tight. The economy is humming right along despite stagnant wages for the last 30-odd years for most American workers. People don't want to look as financially distressed as they are. We're all making it, see? Except we're not. People will still buy the stuff you sell, they just may not actually be able to afford it. Marketing application: understand where your product or service fits in consumers' lives. Are they stretching themselves beyond their means to buy what you offer? If so, why? What role does it play in their lives, and what do they use it to say about themselves? I feel so grimy writing this.

4. People are bored

Life is boring. American life is boring. Data on boredom varies widely, but anywhere from 30-90% of Americans experience boredom daily. Okay, but that's not that bad. It's just boredom. Yeah, I get that. But take a step back: boredom's the result of dissatisfaction and detachment from what you're doing. Nearly 100% of Millennials say they feel bored at some point everyday. At face value, it seems fishy that we're bored despite the nearly maximum amount of attention-grabbing stimuli and content available to us. 

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Again, blame capitalism. Folks are disaffected and disenchanted, at least for periods of time, which to me signals that people's daily lives leaves something to be desired. Americans are lonely, bored, and broke. That's a dangerous combination. But if you're in advertising, it underlines why it's important to create entertaining shit. People are looking for something to fill their time, even a second or two at a time, by consuming something that makes them feel SOMETHING. But back to this being a dangerous combo...

5. People are scared

So you've got broke, lonely people with time on their hands and fingers to use to point blame, and you've got the changing social landscape in which Americans live. In this case, 'people' means 'white people,' for whom the world looks increasingly different from them. But it also ties to people feeling the isolating effects of capital: People are scared of, and anxious about, a world that feels increasingly foreign to them, and to which they don't feel they may belong. That's scary, right? Not saying that they're right - they aren't - but if you want to understand xenophobia, and the rampant racism and othering that exists today, you need a little empathy to get to that startling conclusion. There are a lot of people out there who are concerned about not belonging to this country as it moves forward, and they feel like they are the ones who deserve to belong. Thus, racialized outlash. People are scared of a future they don't understand, that they don't want because they don't feel like they receive the advantage that they deserve, that doesn't look like what they're used to, and doesn't look like them. I'm not sympathetic, but it's useful to understand the frame in which people believe and do terrible things.

6. People are unhappy because of all of the above

People, especially Americans, are really damn unhappy. Poor whites, in particular. Consult the World Happiness report and you'll find an entire section on how to Make America Happy Again (MAHA). In it, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs writes that America, while the richest and most powerful nation  overall, is only the 14th happiest in the world because of “rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust.” Americans are at their most unhappy in the last decade. Why? Well, if nothing else, they're estranged from their communities, their fellow citizens, their family and friends, and themselves. They don't have money or time, or all that much interest in the world and activities that fill their lives. Zach, what happened to you in life? Why are you like this? Reminder: I'm a trained Marxist. I don't have the solutions to the depressing insights I've laid out (well, I have ideas, but I'll save progress towards that for another stage in my life for now), but if nothing else, they're there, they're present, and they're something you can use to develop a baseline understanding of people's lives.

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What does this mean for you, dear reader reaching for your nearest loved one? A lot of things, I hope. It enforces the notion that advertising should be entertaining, to make people feel something. You're trying to inject your brand and your message into the lives of consumers who could use a breath of fresh air. Notice that I didn't say anything about people being stupid in my list of core insights. People aren't dumb. People may be desperate, we may be misinformed, we may be susceptible to bullshit. But we aren't stupid. Yes, "flyover states" and Middle America included. That gets lost on coastal agency robots who either make advertising for the advertising hivemind, or  pander to what they think is the least common denominator and make pretty insulting shit. I say this a lot, but figure out how your brand and what you offer can fill gaps in people's lives - I mean really make people feel something in our bored, sad, quite possibly broke lives - so that you stick, and that you matter to consumers. 

Now go call your mother and tell her you love her.

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