Stop hiding behind ‘consumers’

There’s a lot going on at the moment; the world is burning, antibiotics are being rendered useless, millions are dying of hunger whilst tens of people bathe in £50 notes. All of these issues need solutions. The solutions are hard and unpopular.

How do we know they are unpopular?

Whenever solutions are raised, a similar refrain is heard from every person of influence, “Consumers aren’t interested. They won’t buy it”.

And so a handbrake is firmly placed on progress and we return to the inevitable route we were already headed on.

The problem is, it’s not real. The argument that consumers won’t be interested in something is circular as hell. It’s a product of our own making and it’s a crap reason not to push for progress. I believe that if we wanted to, we can move quicker and more decisively in the direction of solving climate change, ending inequality and stopping needless deaths through vaccinations and antibiotic misuse.

To do this, we need more responsibility and more leadership from media. They need to be the grown-ups in the room.

Now for some pretty basic statements. (There are many assumptions here and so I’m keen to hear rebuttals)

Basic statement 1. Newspapers write for their audience, to increase the time people are spending with articles on the site.

People are influenced by the news media as a filter for what’s credible and not. ‘If it’s in the press, it must be true.’ This is obviously on a spectrum with some titles considered more credible than others but newspapers still have the weight of authority behind them.

Obviously, this is just one source of information, but given our tendency for confirmation bias we’re always likely to search out stats that back up our position and ignore those that don’t. The press are then more likely to provide articles to support that statement, building a feedback loop.

The risk of this happening increases as we are better able to see which articles are being read more, encouraging editors - even subconsciously - to focus more and more on the things that increase dwell time.

Without some external influence, there’s a serious risk of readers taking extremely polarising positions on subjects. This is pretty much what’s been seen on Brexit and climate change to this point.

So where does this feed into positions on vegetarianism etc? Well…

Basic statement 2. For any product or initiative to succeed, the key drivers are convenience and status.

Rarely do consumers want to go out of their way for a cause and they certainly don’t want to do it if it makes them look like a weirdo.

Convenience is largely led by price and availability. These in turn are led by investment from companies or organisations into product development and distribution. But…

To decide whether to invest, these same companies or organisations do some initial research into consumer interest, the potential size of the market and what people would be willing to spend. Which is all well and good except that we’re all totally irrational. We’re really bad at giving useful answers. Our claimed behaviour is often a million miles from the truth.

We say what we think we’re suppose to say, what’s the ‘right’ answer based on status and our own internal biases. This answer is likely determined or at least influenced by what we have read, watched or been told.

A great example of this is our diet. Obesity is going up, reaching dangerously high levels, and yet if you look at national surveys, we all believe that our diets are as healthy as they were 5 years ago, if not slightly healthier. Across a range of metrics we say we’re exactly the same as we used to be, except our behaviour doesn’t match.

Why? Because it’s never been cheaper or easier to access sugar or fat and these products are increasingly being found in higher and higher status foods.

Unfortunately, it’s also never been more convenient or more popular to make all sorts of bad decisions, whether that’s fast fashion, long haul flights, mass meat consumption or glitter bombing (a personal choice but a legitimate one).

We will never counter this behaviour unless we make doing the opposite cheaper and more convenient, which requires Govt intervention or market intervention. For anyone to invest in it requires a belief or a determination that it will prove popular, which brings us back to our original statement.

Believing that consumers won’t accept something is a nonsense. It’s a construct that we all have a role in changing.

  • Consumers need to take more of an interest (something that will be hard to change)

but more importantly…

  • Editors and journalists need to take more responsibility, and be legislated to focus properly on the truth, whether that be vaccinations or climate change
  • Companies need to build what is right and not what is popular. If they can’t then what is the point of capitalism anyway? It becomes a nasty race to a catastrophic end.
  • Govts need to think beyond electoral cycles and their own self-interest.

We all have a responsibility to make the things which we all agree are right but ‘won’t be popular’, the most convenient, obvious and popular choice.

It is in our — and especially the press, govt and company hands.

Media Strategist