4 January 2023
Why ‘eat the rich’ will be the dominant creative narrative of 2023 /
Pop culture villains tell us a lot about society's anxieties and fears, and right now they're telling us that people are no longer in thrall to the rich, says Weber Shandwick's Tom Beckman
The creative industry operates in the market for ideas. Success depends on our ability to understand what ideas are in demand. Or as Victor Hugo famously concluded: ‘No one can resist an idea whose time has come.’
So what is the idea whose time has come at the beginning of 2023?
A good place to look for clues is in popular culture. Film, art, fashion, food are typically reflections of their time. That is what makes it popular culture. People can relate. There is a demand.
And the more popular the piece aspires to be, the more it relies on contextual relevance. Like the James Bond franchise, for example. Bond films are designed to work in every market. So the threat, the villain, must reflect something in the zeitgeist. Something everyone, regardless of where you live in the world, can relate to.
Moonraker premiered in 1979, the same year the NASA space shuttle programme launched. View To A Kill in 1985 starred a microchip villain, the same year we saw the rise of Silicon Valley. Licence To Kill in 1989 plotted a cocaine crook as drug lord Escobar peaked. The latest Bond film was about a villain spreading a virus wearing an Asian mask . You get the picture.
There are countless books and scientific papers written on film villains and what they represent, especially about zombies and how they have mirrored our fear of everything from nuclear apocalypse to SARS, swine flu or letters filled with anthrax.
Jamie Russell writes in Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema (2010): ‘The monsters that dominate any particular culture or period offer an unusual insight into the specific fears and anxieties that characterize that historical moment.’
And Colson Whitehead writes in the Zombie novel Zone One (2011): ‘The times make their monsters. We have ours, the next generation will have theirs.’
So who are the villains now?
Before we get into that, let’s look at the villains of the last recession, since we need something to compare with; something that will help us understand how media, marketing and companies are affected.
The last recession, in 2008-2009, is called The Great Recession, as it was the most significant downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s. The Great Recession started with the boom and then burst of the US housing bubble, caused by the sub-prime scandal. In short, the crisis was a result of greed and foul play. Since it was caused by financial institutions, the global economic crisis led to a global reputation crisis for the symbols of capitalism, mainly corporations. And this reputational crisis took the form of a global consumer movement made possible by the rise of social media, happening at the same time. A movement perhaps most notably exemplified by Occupy Wall Street.
The theme of the Berlin Film Festival in 2009 was ‘Capitalism as Villain’, with at least 11 dramas and documentaries on the topic. This was also the year Avatar premiered – the highest grossing film of all time. The story of Avatar? The Corporation vs Nature.
In Duncan Jones’ directorial debut Moon, also from 2009, the protagonist, facing a difficult dilemma, summarises the biggest story of the time in one single line: ‘Look, it’s a company, right? They have investors. They have shareholders. Shit like that … Do you really think they give a shit about us? They’re laughing all the way to the bank.’
As a response to the development, scholars debated the evolution from Shareholder Capitalism to Stakeholder Capitalism. Michael Porter, at Harvard Business School, introduced the concept of CSV, Creating Shared Value, as the next generation of CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility. In the Harvard Business Review article Leadership in the Age of Transparency (2010), Julia Kirby and Christopher Meyer argued that the ‘key to becoming a contemporary corporate leader is to take on responsibility for externalities – what economists call the impacts you have on the world (like pollution) for which you are not called to account.’
And sure enough, these leaders started to emerge. Nike launched its Better World platform in 2010, Paul Polman, then of Unilever, became the poster-CEO of sustainability. Howard Schultz of Starbucks made it hard to draw a distinct line between business and politics. And soon the rest followed. Purpose was born.
Some years later, the Financial Times initiated its first major brand campaign since the global financial crisis: The New Agenda. The launching line? ‘Capitalism: time for a reset.’ The message? Encouraging business leaders to find opportunity in the new normal and promote stronger corporate purpose.
Thasunda Brown Duckett, CEO of financial services company TIAA, together with 200 other Fortune 500 business leaders, committed as members of the Business Roundtable to ‘lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.’
In sum, the last recession made capitalism the villain, and a global distrust in corporations led to the birth of purpose – the single most transformative change in the recent history of marketing and branding. Bigger than content, bigger than earned media, bigger than big data.
That is not a small thing.
So back to today’s villains; the villains of the imminent recession. And let’s be fair, you already know who they are, even if you haven’t formulated it for yourself yet.
Writer and university lecturer Fiona Sturges formulated it as the ‘Succession effect’ in the Financial Times in December 2022. Pointing out that recent TV and film blockbusters have one thing in common – they are angry about the rich. Beyond the HBO series Succession, there is of course The White Lotus, Palm D’Or winner Triangle of Sadness, the film The Forgiven and Netflix’s I Came By, both about the rich untouchable elite, and the new series Riches from Amazon Studios. All with the same villains.
In December 2022, comedian Dave Chappelle introduced Elon Musk on stage in Musk’s home turf of San Francisco with the words, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, make some noise for the richest man in the world.’ Musk was booed for ten minutes straight. Surely because of his controversial takeover of Twitter, but also because we don’t celebrate money in public the same way anymore. We don’t update Instagram or Facebook with our latest outfits or restaurant visits as much. In fact, most people don’t update those channels at all. Instead, one of the fastest growing social media phenomena is BeReal – a platform designed to portray your regular, everyday life.
Ugly food was the Autumn/Winter ‘22 thing in London’s trend-obsessed restaurant world according to GQ magazine. Meanwhile, Nigella Lawson, one of the most influential chefs in the world, declared her love for ‘brown food’, making the trend oracles predict the return of traditional, cheap home cooking.
A standout ad campaign of 2022 was Non Artificial Mexico from Burger King. Sure, the campaign was about real ingredients, but more so it was about real people. An industry known for food styling and shiny happy people suddenly put burgers in the hands of garbage collectors, street bums and people under the influence. In short – real people. Their real customers.
Documenta, taking place every five years in the German city of Kassel, is by many considered to be the art world’s most important event. It’s an event that, although years apart, somehow always manages to capture the zeitgeist. The theme of Documenta 2022 was ‘Lumbung’, the Indonesian word for a community rice barn where surplus rice is stored for people in need. And the Indonesian art collective in charge of curating the festival constituted a stark contrast to the historical uplifted genius cult of the art world.
Around the same time, at Art Basel Miami, the art collective MSCHF displayed their ‘ATM Leaderboard’ installation. It’s a fully functional cash machine that shows a leaderboard of users' current account balances, in addition to a picture taken of whoever was using the machine.
‘ATM Leaderboard is such a pure distillation of the environment at Basel, and this was readily apparent to pretty much everyone who saw it,’ said Kevin Wiesner at MSCHF.
There seems to be signs in tech, art, marketing and food that we are witnessing a new form of normcore. This time not as some postmodern fashion statement, but rather as a way to deal with the identity crisis more and more people are experiencing dealing with the reality of the big divide.
Tom Beckman, Weber Shandwick
In his recent book Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, marketing professor Scott Galloway argues that the pandemic did not necessarily result in new trends but rather accelerated existing trends. Like digitalisation, obviously. Or the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Joseph Stiglitz wrote in Scientific American in March 2022 that ‘the pandemic’s most significant outcome will be a worsening of inequality, both within the U.S. and between developed and developing countries. Global billionaire wealth grew by $4.4 trillion between 2020 and 2021, and at the same time more than 100 million people fell below the poverty line.’
Still, capitalism was not the villain during the pandemic; instead capitalism was more the victim. Most of us can relate to supporting our local mom-and-pop stores or a favorite restaurant during lockdown. Initiatives like ‘Helpy Hour’ in Belgium turned Happy Hour upside down and allowed you to pay for two beers and get one – all to help keep cafés and bars afloat. Regular folks helped small businesses, and governments helped the big ones.
During a decade of purpose, brands and corporations restored much of the trust lost to The Great Recession. And the pandemic made people understand the necessary function of big and small businesses for the overall health of the community. No, companies are no longer the villains they were in the aftermath of The Great Recession.
Today, the rich, and their detachment from reality, are the villains. They’re not touched by hard times, on the contrary – the luxury industry projects significant growth next year. But outside that very niche industry, the American dream turns into an ever more unachievable myth. According to the World Economic Forum, Americans born in 1980 had only a 45% chance of out-earning their parents at age 30, compared to 93% for those born in 1940. The American dream has been cut in half. Add to that a middle class that has been shrinking for five decades straight, and social mobility at an all-time low, and suddenly the entire media and marketing universe, which was designed to cater to the middle class and their dreams, needs a new playbook: from bourgeoisie to post-bourgeoisie. Because just as the American dream is more and more unachievable, so too are the brand myths. The myths about a better life. There is no demand for those ideas. The polished and the pre-tested aspirational brand fairytales were designed for a big middle class moving up in the world, not the 99 percent stuck in the big divide.
In hindsight it appears as if Cannes Lions 2022 gave our industry a sneak peak of what’s to come. A post-bourgeoisie playbook for the 99 percent. An entirely new and very gritty brand voice we haven’t seen before. Garbage collectors eating hamburgers, Vienna’s museums on OnlyFans, sport retailers partnering with inmates, a subway operator handing out Hemp Tickets. Numerous initiatives breaking laws. And many of them winning Grands Prix.
And for us, who learned the fundamentals of business from The Sun Also Rises, know how it falls apart; ‘gradually, then suddenly’. This recession, suddenly, the rich are not the aspirational icons of our dreams, they are the villains in our films. This recession, people and brands will celebrate social realism – that is the biggest story of our time.
Tom Beckman is the Global Chief Creative Officer at Weber Shandwick.
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