Look at Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and ISIS, and you see a common thread: The idea that things will be better if we go back to the way things were. That the rose-colored past was better than the harsh present, and infinitely preferable to the uncertain future ahead.

If this is at all true, then we’re looking at a major frame shift that has the potential to upend the assumptions that help us understand the world around us, and the place in it that we and our brands inhabit.

The seeds have been there for a long time. Stagnant wages in the face of rising costs of living. The growing realization that young people may not have better lives than their parents, i.e., the boomerang generation. The disappearance of jobs open to non-college degreed workers. The demographic shift that’s browning America which, in turn, makes certain people long for a “law-and-order” candidate even though the evidence shows that violent crime is at its lowest levels in decades. An overall sense that the deck is stacked against the little guy or gal.

So it was with some fascination that I read a long article in Scenario Magazine, the magazine of the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies that explored this issue from an even more macro level. For the last 200-250 years, the dominant chronotope, that is, the social construction of temporality, is that the the future always heads towards some sort of evolution. Simply put, we’ve always been able to imagine where things will be “better” in the future.

However, the article suggests that there’s such great pessimism in the world now that how we think about the future is being decoupled from the idea of progress to one that’s ever more uncertain and threatening. One of the pioneers in this area is French social psychologist Dr. Nicolas Fieulaine, of Université Lumière Lyon 2, who works in a relatively new field in psychology – Time Perspective Theory – which examines how we see, experience, feel and imagine the past, present and future, and what this means for our behaviour.

Further, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a professor of literature and philosophy at Stanford University, argues that our optimistic view of the future

…is today losing more and more of its cognitive and interpretative power. A new chronotope is emerging where the future no longer is something we shape through positive choices and insights, but rather something threatening that is approaching. The big ideological projects trying to shape the future in our own image have long since run aground; either because they turned out to be destructive without historic precedent, as with Soviet communism or Nazism – or like capitalism and technology, which contain self-destructive aspects that may lead to climate crisis and an economic precariat. Gumbrecht speaks of our times as “ontology without teleology” – meaning existence and insight without goal or direction – and about how his grandchildren’s future won’t be about choice in a horizon of opportunities, but rather challenges they must attempt to survive.

Nostalgia as the mobilizing factor

What is motivating many people across the Western world is fear of an uncertain future. Rather than summon the courage to face it, to shape it, many are retreating to a comfortable past. And the piece cautions that it’s not about a lack of vision.

However, if we take a look through temporal-psychological or chronotopic optics, there are plenty of visions. They just aren’t futuristic plans for how we move forward to a better existence in the future; instead, they are nostalgic visions of how we avoid a threatening future by recreating a lost past. This is not just the case of the so-called populist right’s image of a threat from immigrants. On some topics, the progressive centre-left isn’t progressive at all. When for instance climate change is on the agenda, it’s not articulated as a future we need to reach, but a future to be avoided.

If the future is an unavoidable threat, the article notes, then it’s no surprise that zombies are so popular these days. After all, they’re a great metaphor for a world that no longer submits to human will.

Where we go from here

One of Gumbrecht’s colleagues at Stanford University, psychologist and professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo (who designed the Stanford Prison Experiment of the 1970s) has a possible path out of this. It’s nothing that will necessarily kick the economy into high-growth mode again. Rather, his idea is about a change in consciousness where more people see themselves as local heroes. Working through the non-profit he founded in 2011, the Heroic Imagination Project, he says, “…What we attempt to do with our heroism project is to reconceptualise people’s self-image, enabling them to see themselves as potential heroes. Not heroes in a classical religious or military sense, but in the sense that the hero always has been socio-centric – that is, acting for others than themselves. It is a matter of seeing yourself as an agent for social change.”

He cites the “bystander effect,” the idea that the more people who stand around and don’t help at the scene of an accident, the less likely is that the injured party will get any help at all. Conversely, Zimbardo notes, “as soon as one person helps, it only takes a few seconds before another also takes action. Our message to the young people is: Be that first person. It is an example of how you can do a lot of things in your near environment, in your family, in your school.”

Marketer implications

One option is to help foster escapism and fantasy. If the future is something to be avoided, then what experiences can help people forget their troubles? The article gives the example of watching sports all afternoon. Video games, augmented reality (Pokemon Go!), virtual reality (the new Ghostbusters experience at Madame Tussaud’s in NYC), provide that opportunity to tune out.

But I’m an optimist. I have kids, so I have to be. Given that, I suspect that ideas of empowerment and purpose will continue to resonate, perhaps moreso. How can brands help people reconnect things they can believe in? How can brands help people uncover the courage that may be buried by pessimism and fear? Of course, not every brand can authentically do this. But some brands are. It’s a great time, for example, to be Habitat For Humanity or an organization like Do Something! Unilever’s ongoing “Real Beauty” effort or Nike’s ongoing work through its Nike Foundation to help women and girls are also great examples.

The future may be less bright than before, but the lights haven’t completely gone out.

Thoughts?  Reactions?  LMK in the comments below.

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Posted by Rob Fields

  • Chuck

    Insightful piece Rob. Brands that help people solve problems and do things that they couldn’t do on their own, are the brands that we will win and own the future.l