The Collective Consciousness

“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” I’m sure those words have already got some of you humming — at least those of you who remember the can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head tune sung by a multicultural group of braided, bell-bottomed and impossibly sunny youth as they shared the commonality of Coca-Cola on a hilltop in Italy nearly 40 years ago.

Somewhere along the way the mood shifted, and this idealistic early-’70s version of a harmonious collective in all its “real thing,” fizzy glory gave way to the era of the individual. From the decadent ’80s, epitomized by Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko and the gold-gilded Trump Tower, to the famous-for-being-famous, blinged-out oughts, best personified by L.C. and The Hills crew, the last two-plus decades have been almost exclusively about “me.” The rise in personal everything — from computers and mobile devices to coaches and shoppers — only exacerbated this self-centered mentality. 

It’s safe to say that the pendulum is swinging back. Today, thanks to the ubiquity of online technology and a new global-mindedness, people are thinking less about “me” and more about what “we” can do to address the challenges of modern society.

This collective consciousness denotes a mind-set that’s particular not to an entire society or nation, but rather to a group of global citizens who share an ethos of responsibility and cooperation, and are using technology to connect, swap ideas and organize events. Yes, groupthink and herd-mentality behaviors are potential downsides. But the upside is enormous: that the worldwide collaboration of smart, engaged citizens will produce viable solutions to some of the world’s most difficult issues, such as poverty and global warming.

Our collective consciousness is a manifestation of several factors: the desire and ability to join communities based on fluid identities; the ease with which the Web allows people to organize collectively; a new generation’s desire to be more active and engaged; and the growing realization that large-scale problems need large-scale, collectively driven solutions.

While Barack Obama’s presidential campaign stands as one of the most innovative and successful examples of collective offline action facilitated by online social media, there is a wide range of others.

The Alliance for Climate Protection has rolled out a “We Can Solve It” campaign, in which Americans are urged to ask policymakers to switch 100 percent of America’s electricity to clean-energy sources. Using traditional advertising plus social networking applications, the campaign has so far recruited more than 2 million people to the cause, according to the Alliance’s Web site.

Currently, the United Way is being so blatant as to ask us to “Think of we before me” in its “Live United” campaign. And Avon is imploring us to “Walk as One” by supporting its national Walk for Breast Cancer events.

I can hear it now: This is all very noble, but we’re in a recession. Doesn’t self-preservation trump the “We’re all in this together ethos?” My response: They shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

In Finland, for example, a government campaign calls on citizens to put aside their self-interest to keep the economy afloat by spending. Posters feature a demonic-looking piggy bank that reads, “Don’t feed the recession.” Sure, it’s a hard sell during a time when the pig is getting plump on all our knee-jerk binge saving, but I applaud it. By appealing to the power of the collective, the Finnish may successfully avoid what economists call the “paradox of thrift” (the vicious cycle wherein people respond to a recession by curtailing spending).

Marketers can tap into the collective consciousness to create a movement around their brands and/or causes. But they cannot rely on virtual spaces alone; instead they must consider their consumers’ online and offline worlds as one integrated whole. Thinking broadly, brands should enable ways for consumers to show passion for and engagement with the product or category. While this means giving up a certain measure of control, the rewards can be enormous.

Certainly this bottom-up community building might not be as harmonious as the image conjured by that iconic 1971 hilltop — let’s face it, sometimes it can be downright cacophonous — but the end result may be unimaginably better. Businesses that can successfully tap into the collective consciousness will have the ability to connect and form allegiances with consumers that go much deeper than the superficial and transactional. And in today’s climate, that is music to any brand’s ears. –with contributions from JWT trends strategist Lois Saldana

Ann M. Mack is the director of trendspotting at JWT. You can e-mail her at or follow her @annmmack. She posts regularly to JWT’s AnxietyIndex blog.