The last post: blips vs. curves

If you believe the headlines, humanity is going to hell in a handcart. Over-population, climate change, ISIS, Ebola, race riots … the list goes on. But for all the negativity seen in the news, the data tends to tell a different story over the long term. 

People are healthier. Life expectancy is up hugely. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient. There are fewer wars and violent deaths. Race and gender issues are getting more airtime. The global inequality gap is closing and the number of people living in poverty is decreasing (since 1981, the proportion of people living under the poverty line of US$1.25/day has decreased by 65 percent and in China it’s gone from 84 percent three decades ago to ten percent now). 

None of that is an excuse for complacency, of course, and there are a number of huge problems that require action to try and solve. But, as The Spectator wrote last year: “At the current trajectory, the World Bank’s target to all but eliminate poverty by 2030 looks like being achieved early. Most people alive now can hope to see a time when the concept of famine is consigned to history.” 

Similarly, Auckland University’s study of New Zealand secondary school students has shown significantly declining rates of binge drinking, marijuana smoking and sex-having since 2002. Sadly, it’s quite rare to hear about about the improvements. But, as Bill Gates, who has given away US$30 billion since 2000 through his foundation wrote in his annual letter: “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been … You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated, but in fact, Melinda and I are struck by how many people think the world is getting worse.” 

As an example, in 2013, 50 percent of New Zealand survey respondents thought the world was a worse place today than when they were younger, and only 17 percent thought it was better. For some, better is a subjective term and economic development is a doubled-edged sword, because with more wealth comes more consumption, more demands on resources and the environment, more first world diseases like diabetes, more inequality and, ironically, in a world of hyper-connection, more loneliness. Of course, whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, there are always plenty of stats to back up your position. 

The overall perception of business also tends to be fairly negative. Future generations may look back on this era and shake their heads at the rampant quest for profit over almost everything else, but global trade is seen as a big reason for the world’s upwards trajectory and, as Dave Trott points out, the profit motive of big businesses like Unilever is transforming health outcomes in poor regions—and advertising is playing a part. He’s undoubtedly preaching to the converted, and possibly assuaging some guilt, but, as he says: “In the third world, two million children die each year from diarrhoea and pneumonia, but soap can cut diarrhoea by half and pneumonia by a third if everyone washed their hands when they use the toilet … Real behavioural change takes constant communication, constant reminding, day-in day-out. Who has that amount of money plus that degree of incentive? The answer may surprise you. It isn’t the governments and it isn’t charities. It’s the soap companies.”

This can sometimes go too far, of course. Budgets very rarely go down, so the profit motive means new growth is demanded, leading to plenty of arguably unnecessary products that are sold by creating desire and/or fear among consumers. 

It’s easy to cast corporations as villains—and sometimes it’s entirely warranted—just as it’s easy to see the drunk teen on the street as representative of the whole. But it always pays to look beyond the immediate. And the same is true for marketers. 

As Wieden + Kennedy’s head of planning Martin Wiegel said in ‘Brand building in a digital age: A compass for uncharted waters’: “We know that advertising’s ability to create value is most keenly felt in the long-term. Time, in other words is vital to success … And we know that longer-term goals such as share growth or reduction of price sensitivity demand sustained brand building.” 

In an age of disruption, confusion, democratisation of information, short-termism and rampant prognostication, he says marketers need not despair. 

“Look beneath the veneer of rhetoric, and one sees that the old imperatives still hold true.” 

And, as the annual period of reflection arrives, that’s worth remembering. 

Thanks to all the readers, advertisers and supporters of StopPress, NZ Marketing and Tangible Media. We won’t go into too much detail about our business, aside from saying we had plenty of wins in 2014, with the highest ever monthly traffic for StopPress (69,000 users in October, according to Google Analytics), the fattest ever edition of NZ Marketing (get your hands on the latest issue, which features stories about the rise of YouTube, personalisation and other futuristic themes, here), a record number of entries and attendees at this year’s TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards and the launch of a new section devoted to longer-form content. But, in keeping with the theme of this post, as Mr Wiegel says, “it is the curve that matters, not the blip”, and, overall, around five years after launching this website, the curve is still going in the right direction. 

We’re back at the coalface on January 12, but we will be trying to lure you back to the site over the break with some easily digestible holiday reading, including the responses to our perennially popular Year in Review questionnaire and a series of opinion pieces from industry high-rollers about what they see in the tea leaves for 2015. 

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