Consumer Hubris

People always feel a letdown after New Year’s. Still, few years start out with a fizzle of millennial proportions. That’s what we had a year ago with the Y2K crisis that failed to materialize. Remember how worked up we were supposed to be about Y2K as 1999 came to an end? If the lurid predictions had come true, we’d now be huddled around campfires amid the debris of modern civilization, like characters in a Mad Max movie. More than in most of the preceding 1,000 years, then, people began 2000 with a lesson in the foolishness of paying attention to hype. Yes, just what the ad biz needed: a boost in consumer skepticism!

For better or worse, a grab bag of other trends and not-quite-trends contributed their two cents to the consumer consciousness of 2000. Among the most intriguing of these was last winter’s flurry of fascination with “authenticity,” due to the (short-lived) rise of John McCain and Bill Bradley as serious challengers to their better-funded rivals in the presidential primaries. George W. Bush and Al Gore, the talking heads told us, were in peril because they appeared less authentic than McCain and Bradley. TV commentators who couldn’t spell “authenticity” when the year began were suddenly delivering nightly sermonettes on its centrality to the American psyche. It didn’t matter that authenticity is an indeterminate quality: One can be authentically vicious or authentically nice. Nonetheless, had American culture gravitated toward authenticity in a lasting way, it wouldn’t have created the most congenial milieu for advertising.

Thank goodness, then, that pop culture took matters in hand. Authentic authenticity was quickly supplanted in the public arena by the “reality” cooked up for shows like Survivor. And fabricated reality was something advertisers knew how to handle. Reebok was the best at it, with its spots (designed to air on Survivor telecasts) about the survivalist misadventures of a stupid guy and his stupider friend. Poking fun at TV’s futile yearning to seem real, these commercials were ideally suited to the mood of the moment.

The presidential campaigns had other, mixed effects on the consumer mind-set. On the plus side, they made product commercials look credible in comparison to the political variety. A poll conducted for Adweek by Alden & Associates Marketing Research found 92 percent of adults saying brand ads are more honest than political ads. On the other hand, political rhetoric also made Americans more-demanding customers by pandering to their sense of entitlement. Everything we might want—better schools, subsidized prescription drugs, cleaner air, lower taxes, you name it—was described in political speeches and commercials as something we “deserve.”

Even before the politicians got into the act, consumers’ sense of entitlement was running amok. For this we can blame the booming economy (remember that?). With people spending money like mad, marketers weren’t shy about telling them they deserved the best. As it happens, many of us had already drawn that conclusion for ourselves, in part due to envy of the newly rich and their conspicuous consumption. If those parvenus deserved the luxe life, weren’t the rest of us entitled to whatever approximation we could afford? Record-low unemployment rates reinforced this sentiment. Such a tight labor market makes even mediocre workers feel (with some justification) that they’re irreplaceable, augmenting their sense of entitlement to the good life. All in all, economists will record 2000 as the year consumer confidence morphed into consumer hubris.

More broadly, it was a year of great self-satisfaction. The Harris Poll’s annual Feel Good Index found 91 percent of respondents content with “the quality of my life overall” and 85 percent content with “my standard of living.” A Gallup survey yielded similar results: 47 percent said they’re “very happy” and another 47 percent were “fairly happy.”

This sense of contentment helps explain why advertisers seemed to pull back from irony-driven advertising—you know, the sort that implies, “Isn’t it such a goof that an ad like me is asking a person like you to buy something!” Born in the heyday of slacker anomie in the early ’90s, the genre dominated that decade’s youth-oriented advertising. But it wasn’t well suited to a year in which a survey found 71 percent of college students and recent graduates saying they expect to become millionaires.

If people were too cheerful to feel in sync with affectless irony, they were also too full of themselves to feel in need of shopping advice from celebrities. In any case, the power of celeb-centric ads to cut through the clutter had been weakened by overuse. By 2000, celebs were the clutter. In notoriously dim-witted categories like fragrance and cosmetics, conventional use of celeb models was still commonplace. Elsewhere, though, commercials gave their demanding audience a celebrity performance piece instead of a mere celebrity endorsement. As one might expect, advertisers didn’t necessarily have the hang of this new technique. Think of the excruciating Radio Shack spots in which Teri Hatcher and Howie Long played the role of bantering couple. On the plus side, Priceline’s campaign gave us the entertaining spectacle of William Shatner playing himself—and doing so in the same hammy way he’s played any other role. Consumers named their own price for 30 seconds of their attention—give us a show!—and the spots delivered.

Consumers’ “seen-that, done-that” mood was inhospitable to another old method of grabbing attention: the shock technique. Years of attempts to shock consumers have finally left them unshockable. With a lengthy “outsert” on 26 death-row inmates, Benetton made the year’s most laborious effort to shock the public. After a brief controversy, though, the photo essay sank from public consciousness.

The moral here is not that people are uninterested in the death penalty. (In fact, polls showed interesting movement on that issue.) Rather, shockability is by its nature a dwindling asset. You can charm people over and over again. But once you’ve shocked them a certain number of times, they’ll be impervious to further such attempts.