Fear Economy – the world’s oldest profession

fear

Image by Kenn Munk

Traditionally, we leave the part of the apocalyptic prophet wandering through the landscapes of urban post-modernism to homeless bible-thumpers. But since the credit crisis has taken hold of our attention, intellectuals, politicians, columnists and even friends have turned into doom prophets. Thomas Friedman wrote in an NY Times piece:

“I go into restaurants these days, look around at the tables often still crowded with young people, and I have this urge to go from table to table and say: “You don’t know me, but I have to tell you that you shouldn’t be here. You should be saving your money. You should be home eating tuna fish. This financial crisis is so far from over. We are just at the end of the beginning. Please, wrap up that steak in a doggy bag and go home.”

Noel Roubini supplies you with a daily dose of gloom on his RGE Monitor:

“The global financial pandemic that I and others had warned about is now upon us. But we are still only in the early stages of this crisis. My predictions for the coming year, unfortunately, are even more dire: The bubbles, and there were many, have only begun to burst.”

And even Dr. Hope Obama uses the doom metaphor to get Congress approval for the stimulus package. 

These stories of doom and impending catastrophe are not new. Seven chapters into the Bible we read about Noah’s flood, people in the Middle Ages believed comets would destroy the earth. And if that didn’t pan out, we always had a ghastly virus to kill us all: Bird Flu, Black Death, Flu Virus. Over the years, we’ve become more sophisticated and came up with new threats that surely will take care of the apocalypse: Third-hand smoke, over-population, global warming, global cooling, Anthrax – the list is endless.

The world’s oldest profession is not what you think; it’s the business of fear. The Attention Economy has forced us to change those doom scenarios quickly, otherwise we’ll get bored quickly and instead of moving on to the next threat, we might move forward with our lives. We’re attracted by doom scenarios: Daily life can be fairly boring and pedestrian. Regular politics are mind-numbing, just like the business world. But doom scenarios are interesting, raise your blood pressure and get us all excited. All the doom sayers have the same mindset: We have sinned, we made huge mistakes. Now is the time to pay for it. Or, if there’s a chance left, we need to change everything. The way we live. The way we do business. The way we make decisions. There’s no gray. Just black and white.

Behind these scenarios is a longing: Humans should change radically. A crisis is a normal part of the human life cycle. We can work through a crisis by making rational decisions. Catastrophes are events we can’t control. A crisis asks us to work harder. To evaluate all options, to be diligent, to deploy small changes to avoid a repeat. Catastrophes need big gestures. Saviors. And it makes the individual feel small. And helpless. That’s why people love Al Gore: He’ll save us from a catastrophe none of us can fix. Or the Dalai Lame: He’ll save my battered soul. Or Hank Paulson: He was supposed to be the savior. What happened?

The economy of fear was always used to keep people down, to remind us that there are forces out there bigger than us. But, it seems, the doomsayers try to be bigger than us, try to tell us to change our way of living, our thinking, our whole existence. Or! They only focus on poverty, consumerism, our cheap plastic culture. Walmart! China! McDonalds! And they forget responsible entrepreneurs, improved living conditions, national parks, improved air quality/life expectancy and all these other improvements our rotten society has developed throughout times. 

We’ve been expelled from paradise a long time ago. And we won’t find our way back by proclaiming new doom scenarios every 2 minutes. We won’t be able to create a better society by believing in utopian ideals of no conflicts and a world without the possibility of a crisis. So, let’s work through this. Everything will change and nothing will change. Advertising is not dead. Advertising is changing. Media is not dead. Media is changing. It’s going to take a lot of work, dedication and passion to adjust brands, businesses and agencies to the new reality. It’s going to be ugly, glorious, amazing and disappointing. It is what it is. All it takes from all of us is smart thinking. And a lot of work.

Humans are a weird bunch. We’re not perfect. We’re not meant to be perfect. Every time we try to create a perfect world we create one thing: Hell on Earth.

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