We have always needed to know, both collectively and individually. Knowing not only in the ontological sense but also in the sense of what is happening and what is going to happen. This natural character of humanity has been exponentially multiplied in our digital age, in which we have the feeling that things happen every second and in which, thanks to the atomization and multiplication of information sources, everything is newsworthy at the same scale and everything happens in such a torrential way that it is impossible to apprehend. This causes us, more than ever, the feeling that a multitude of relevant things are happening at the same time and therefore, more than ever, we have a feeling of uncertainty, helplessness, and therefore we are even more eager to know what happens and what will happen.
“The life on alert – an unstable mix of unease, anguish and curiosity – is one of the great engines of human evolution.” Enric Juliana said in an article in La Vanguardia about the past crisis and the recurring use of The Leopard’s quote “for things to remain the same, everything must change”.
In this context, it happens that an event like a world pandemic generates a multiplicity of theories and predictions regarding its social effects in the mid-term. Attributing to it consequences for the future of humanity from the inauguration of a new world order, in a great gray scale that goes from a promising future of global regeneration to the most desolate of destinations, going through the digitization and “remotization” of practically all human activity.
To this avalanche of oracles have joined marketing consultants, and professionals and agencies of the sector, trying to give The Diagnosis on what will happen with the consumption and with the consumer of the future, based on the behaviour that we are having during this uncertain period, predicting that many of these attitudes that are adaptations to the circumstances have come to stay and endowing the Covid-19 with an unprecedented regenerative force for change.
It is legitimate to ask what is going to happen and try to glimpse an answer, but throughout the following lines we will try to explain why the direct and immediate consequences attributable to the virus will be the least in the field of consumption and consumer behaviour, and therefore that when, especially from the field of marketing and advertising, we say that “Covid is a factor in generating social change” we are missing the place to look, attributing to this event capacities for change that are either our projections of future utopias either issues that were already being incubated prior to the pandemic and that it has highlighted or accelerated.
It goes without saying that our intention here is not to deny the far-reaching consequences that the Covid-19 can surely entail in the long term, among which are probably a greater involvement of the states in the business muscle, through in some cases partial nationalizations such as those that have already occurred in Germany with Lufthansa or France with Renault, a strengthening of public health systems, changes in governments, impoverishment of the population and contraction of the spending power due to the loss of jobs, among others, or acceleration of adaptations of cities towards more sustainable spaces.
What are we really talking about when we talk about social change?
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, social change is considered in sociology as “the alteration of the mechanisms of the social structure characterized by changes in cultural symbols, norms of behaviour, social organization or the value system.”
Broadly speaking, it is true that we can consider any change in social relations as a social change since society is per se an ever-changing organism. In this sense, we must consider that social mutations occur at two levels: cyclical changes (in the mid-term) and unidirectional changes (in the long term). It is the evolution of the world that Heraclitus formulated.
To consider a social change as determining it must occur on a large scale and over a long period of time, otherwise new technologies, trends, or habits are simply intrinsic phenomena to society itself. Adding to this, and it is one of the issues to keep in mind, that social changes are never due to a single cause but to the interconnection of mid-term (cyclical) and long-term (unidirectional) changes that finally give rise to different social paradigms.
Among the processes that contribute to social change are: demographic changes, technological changes, economic changes and natural changes, such as a pandemic, but we will now point to this with nuances.
We have multiple historical examples of these processes: the change from feudal society to cities, the development of commerce, the industrial revolution, the workers’ revolution, the development of means of transport and the development of the entire universe digital in our era.
We all know too well these historical milestones that explain our present and that were not exempt from pandemics, such as the Spanish influenza that devastated Europe between 1918 and 1919, at the end of the First World War; However, when going through the decisive moments of social change that preceded us it is unusual for these pandemics to stand out as the engines that have brought us here, especially in the most recent history, since the late 19th century to the present day. This does not mean that they did not have their incidence and did not leave a great mark, especially in what refers to the lives of thousands or millions of people and the emotional consequences that they entailed.
But the incidence of all pandemics was not the same during history, this is mainly because as we improve our knowledge of nature, our scientific development, social rights are more guaranteed and the middle classes live more comfortably, the incidence of a pandemic will be less. For example, the Black Death pandemic that devastated Europe in the fourteenth century meant the final fall of feudalism, in a world where there was still no scientific development and any evolution of the world was attributed to God will and therefore the measures taken to alleviate it were more erratic; In contrast, the afore mentioned Spanish influenza “did not cause radical changes in the social structure […] it was essential to tip the gender balance in many countries.”.
“The socioeconomic conditions of human societies are a factor that accelerates or attenuates their ability to kill. People suffer from the disease, but later influence it through «their unequal situation in society, the places where they build their houses, their food diet, their rituals, even their DNA»”.
Thus, in relation to the Covid-19, the incidence of this in western societies will not be the same as those in countries where there were already precarious situations. In other words, it will be the size and durability over time and the socio-economic conditions that determine the influence that this pandemic will have in the course of our history. Note that in this article we deal with our western context and it is only to this that we will refer.
Short-term vs. Long-term
The predictions that we make in marketing and advertising are mainly concerned with the short-term factors of social change mentioned above: if social distance is here to stay, face masks will become a fashion accessory, working in remote is the future materialized or local shopping is the new way of consuming, to name a few examples.
In this sense, despite the predictions of ultradigitalization, changes in consumption patterns towards the local, the imposition of working in remote, etc. truth is that the most plausible forecast is that hardly anything will change substantially, at least at the short-term level. As Melissa De Witte of Stanford University mentions “Even in the worst-case scenario, the current pandemic will be far less lethal than the great plagues of the past, and therefore less disruptive.”
What the Covid-19 has done and is something that has already been mentioned at length, and into which we will not go in this text, is to highlight the precariousness of our system and what was already weak; going back to Melissa De Witte “ In the short term, it is almost certain to reinforce existing disparities. A divide has opened up between white-collar workers who are able to conduct their business from home and are less likely to lose their jobs and others who are either at the mercy of short-term relief programs or face greater risk of viral exposure in many of the jobs that remain”.
But the truth is that regardless of the social and economic movements that may exist from the factual powers, there will be little change in the social behaviour of consumers: “Right now, preservation of the status quo seems more likely. The forces that seek to maintain plutocratic and corporate dominance are very powerful and influential. But there is also a more counterintuitive reason. […] Yet in this case, science is poised to act as a brake on societal change: The more rapidly labs and pharmaceutical companies come up with effective treatments and vaccines, the less disruptive the crisis will be and the sooner we can revert to some version of normalcy. This deliverance is what we are all waiting for, and rightly so: It would be rather strange to hope for even greater misery to unleash transformative change.”
The system is all well underpinned for significant changes to be seen. To show the resilience of the system, think for example of the September 2001 attacks. This event meant the generation of a new collective consciousness: what was happening in the Middle East affected the USA, the West. The world became small, globalization was really evident for the ordinary population, and in the long term it implied the incorporation of video surveillance in cities as normal, increased control measures in airports and generated geopolitical movements that resonate even today. However, the immediate prediction generated by this attack: that we would stop traveling and tourism would fall was a wrong prediction. The immediate reaction was taken for the future trend.
Thus, it is true that during the first three months after the attacks, flights plummeted, especially to the United States, but after five years in 2006 international tourism was already increasing by 4%, and this upward trend has continued to this day, as we all well know. We have got used to tedious security procedures before taking a plane but we have forgotten why they were established and we continue traveling. This example indicates that the immediate consumer reaction is precisely that, the survival reaction, but that it does not have to be the one that remains and in fact it rarely occurs.
Similar predictions of a paradigm shift were made with the 2009 economic crisis, which predicted a substantial decline in consumption and the emergence of a more rational consumer: “« We’re at an inflection point with respect to the American consumer » said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com, who correctly forecast a dip in spending heading into the recession, and who provided data supporting sustained weakness.” Reported a New York Times article dated August 2009 that continued, ” Some suggest the recession has endured so long and spread pain so broadly that it has seeped into the culture, downgrading expectations, clouding assumptions about the future and eroding the impulse to buy.”
What our history teaches us is that pandemics or other traumatic experiences but of very short duration, do not produce immediate, palpable and lasting substantial changes on a social level.
Immediate changes are adaptive changes that last for the duration of the shock, and as we move away from fear we will return to the pre-shock state. Isabel Coixet, in a recent article for the weekly newspaper El Periódico titled The Falsehood of the Epiphanies, reflected on the non-existence of the epiphanies, which helps us illustrate the situation: “people who have gone through illness or serious accident, when he recovers, he not only leads the life he led, but he does it again with a bad predisposition and even worse attitude”.
With no trauma there’s no change
We are going to make here a controversial statement but that we believe correct in the reflection that concerns us: broadly speaking, the Covid-19 has not been a trauma for the majority of the population. Undoubtedly, there are many families who have suffered and there have been no more deaths because the appropriate measures were taken to contain it and it is not in any case the object of this article to despise this fact. But the vast majority of the population has been comfortably locked in their houses waiting for the danger to pass to return to their lives, to their normality. The prevailing feeling has been of uncertainty, fear of losing the health and fear of losing a job in many cases, and some people will have developed feelings of hypochondria, but the day a day has happened mostly between juggling on family reconciliation, videoconferences, drinks in remote, streaming platforms and home sports. That is, we have been filling our hours and trying to continue with something similar to our routine as we waited to return to the real routine.
The reason for this attitude of waiting for a return to normality is, to a large extent, the fact that we have not had real contact with the actual tragedy. No photographs have been released capturing the reality of the virus, the one that has been discussed at length in relation to collapsed hospitals, residences left to their own devices, patients suffering from an unknown disease, collapsed funeral homes. As an article published on June 13 in El Independiente very aptly pointed out: “The great mortality caused by the pandemic in Spain has been invisible in the eyes of freedom of information […] The death that has taken forty thousand people on excess of mortality according to the INE data, has become a statistical series with the shape of a curve that has kept all our senses concentrated in order to reach the desired new normality.”
Pierre-Philippe Marcou from France Press, in the same article points out: “there is a huge contrast between what has happened and what is happening right now, if you don’t teach people the truth, then you meet on the terrace as if a crisis had not happened with people affected in a terrible way.”
This lack of real information on the situation has meant that a great change has not been revealed in our day-to-day life for trauma to radically change our life perspective, beyond the impossibility of leaving our homes, – it is true that it is somewhat daring to make this statement at this point, and perhaps the future holds us back and has a bigger impact on our lives and we have to review these lines – but in light of current events, this seems to be the most plausible immediate future.
Much has been said about the post-covid consumer, but it is only necessary to watch the news these days of unlock-down, to a greater or lesser extent in all European countries, to observe what we have been pointing at: that we behave like we have been behaving. Beaches are full, terraces will fill up as they recover their capacity, there are queues at stores to go shopping and avenues and squares are overflowing with people.
We are a society much more used to constant change than the previous ones were. The proliferation of content, trends and habits of the digital environment in which we live and to which we pointed out at the beginning of this text have made us highly adaptable consumers, both individually and collectively, agencies and brands too. Let’s not forget that, after all, that we were already working remotely, using emails, video-calls, working kilometres away from our clients, and retail and brands, have been for some time now needing constant adaptation and test-error assumption of new communication and consumption platforms.
Possible scenarios and what we should do from communication
Thus, in the long term we may have a somewhat different world but essentially similar to the one we live in now. We may become sensitized to personal hygiene, to wearing a mask if we are ill, maybe we get used to disinfecting the table on the terrace where we will sit and that we incorporate more complicated logistics into public spaces such as methacrylate partitions. Perhaps we enter a more versatile world where we can work from remote or go to the office as needed, we may limit work travel, since in many cases we have verified that many of them could be video-calls instead.
But broadly speaking we will not stop being social, we often forget in our sector that “consumers”, that entity that stops having a personality when it is reduced to trends and data, we are basically social beings. We know it but at the same time we tend to forget it.
So what can actually happen? It is clear that again, when the hangover from the previous recession is almost over, we will enter into a new one again. A recession that on the other hand had already been announced long ago, so we will once again find ourselves with a society with a limited spend capacity, meaning consumption, and for a while we will be conservative consumers. We do not know if it will lead to a more rational consumer, as predicted in 2009, or it will be an adaptation time and in about four years we will start taking off again, as it then happened. But in the immediacy of the next 12 months, with the economy still slowing down and then surely accelerating rather slowly and the unemployment rate at its highest those who still keep their jobs will momentarily become conservative.
And while everything returns to that normality with new logistics scenarios and new sanitizing processes, what should we do from our brands and agencies?
In times of recession, brands tend to cut back on communication and “rationalize” their investment, with the centralization of agencies and cutting-backs being the most frequent reactions. From here I would invite brands to make two brave moves:
- To think long-term, which is always much more profitable than the short-term and, despite the initial panic, it is always more profitable. This means strengthening local communications, and more adaptability and versatility in each market. The world may be globalized, but the cultural nuances still exist.
- To take advantage of this opportunity to think differently, leave generalizations aside and be more consistent with the plurality that we pointed out above and that also occurs in specific groups of consumers. Consumers are not Gen-Z, or Millennial, or techies or any other category. They are (we are) many things at the same time. Perhaps it is a more tedious job to generate such ad-hoc communications but, again, the revenue will be higher.
“As global interdependence and a common world culture grew, so did the number of small local cultures. […] They are mixed; each one of them is scattered over wide geographic areas and is made up of people of diverse condition. Members of these communities are self-elected based on common interests: oceanographers, radio amateurs, cross-word puzzle addicts. Modern communications technology helps members stay connected…”
Advertising is no other than a reflection of the society in which it is deployed, and in order to target it it has to project its image. In this sector we do not get rid of the fear of being left out, of not seeing a trend coming, of missing out the “new consumer behaviour”, especially in a sector where everything is built on sales and consumption forecasts.
As we said at the beginning of this text, people need to know, in general. Companies need to know, marketing departments need to know, and we agencies and consultants tell them that we know.
Sometimes it is true and sometimes we are self-explanatory and others we have not taken the time to think before predicting and we miss the shot, due many times more to the urgency of the day to day than the lack of will.
If we already usually have a kind of obsession for predictions, what happens in extreme situations that catch us all unprepared? The greater the uncertainty, the more information we give, the more predictions we produce and the more urged conclusions we draw.
The current situation of economic slowdown and social lockdown has generated a flurry of reports on the future of consumption, the use of social networks, and on what changes brought the pandemic that came to stay, for two reasons: one, the economic situation predicts a future more than uncertain, two, nobody wants to be left out of the game.
But the truth is that we have to try to look at things with perspective and try to distance ourselves from this entire maelstrom.
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- Coixet, I. La falsedad de las epifanías. XLS Semanal. Recovered from https://www.xlsemanal.com/firmas/20200519/la-falsedad-las-epifanias-isabel-coixet.html
- Ordóñez, R. (13th June 2020). Los muertos invisibles, censura en la pandemia. El Independiente. Recuperado de https://www.elindependiente.com/politica/2020/06/13/los-muertos-invisibles-censura-en-la-pandemia/
On the author:
Sara Lucas is Publicist and Client Services Director. She has over ten years in advertising agencies managing integrated communication projects for both national and international campaigns. She also has a degree in Humanities and a postgraduate degree in Contemporary Art Theory and Aesthetics.