Blended Living: The Lines Blur
“Focus” is sacrosanct for marketers, but it has become more and more elusive in a world that gets blurrier by the day. Shaping brand communications with significant impact was never easy. Now we have a moving target in every sense of the phrase: Over-programmed, stressed out, on the run, multi-tasking, addicted to smart phone consumers. Factor in the effects of YouTube and Reality TV, along with the long, slow decline of once accepted, traditional values governing how we eat, live and relate to one another, and marketers have a real mess on their hands.
None of this is news to anyone not living under a rock, but it was etched into sharp relief for me at one of my recent focus groups. A respondent coined a phrase so wonderful that I will now steal it and call it my own.
This full time wife and mom of three teenagers, who also held down a part-time job, described the complete absence of mealtime structure in her home, referring to it instead as “Blended Eating.”
There were no lines drawn between meals and snacking or between sitting down at the table with the family and jumping into the car with a gym bag in one hand and a Hot Pocket in the other.
She said that it was not uncommon for her oldest, football-playing son to be warming up pizza rolls or bagel bites for his second or third “lunch” of the day while she was getting ready to put dinner on the table for the family. (He’d eat this too…his first of at least two “dinners” that night.)
Again, none of this is really a big shock to anyone with children at home, but it does put an exclamation point on the institutional demise of the family dinner as known by earlier generations.
It brings to mind the seminal 1993 article by the late U.S. Senator and statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan entitled “Defining Deviancy Down.” In this discussion of crime and social behavior, Moynihan observed that activities formerly considered “deviant” had become widely accepted, that the abnormal had become normal.
The demise of the family dinner is surely not in the same league as rising percentages of young men in prison, deadbeat dads or high school dropouts. But it does reflect a glacial shift in personal values. Relativism and rationalization are essential coping mechanisms of contemporary American society as we struggle with eroding living standards, economic stagnation, a constant, suppressed fear of terror and enormous social pressure to “keep up.”
As a result, we have become glib about our definitions of “nourishment,” “family,” “quality time,” “nurturing,” “good parenting,” “education,” “discipline” and so may other aspirations.
This blurriness can be both good and bad news for marketers. The good news is what we can get away with. We can stare consumers straight in the eye and boldly claim that Raisinets have “30% less fat” and are “a natural source of antioxidants.” The bad news is that while consumers may use these claims to rationalize a bad or misguided choice in the short term, they intuitively see right through the cynicism in the long run. The result is that all nutritional claims become less credible over time, creating even more of a blur.
“Blended Eating” is just part of the story. A contemporary pattern of “Blended Living” presents the bigger challenge. Blended Living is the ultimate blur, where it is difficult to separate real life from “reality,” virtual from live, online versus offline, truth from “truthiness,” play from play dates or fact from faith.
The media are replete with facts, figures and anecdotes about how smart phones, iPads and computers have taken over our lives. Many scientists now speculate that the human brain is being rewired as result. According to a recent Nielsen study, the average number of monthly texts for a 13 to 17-year-old teen is 1,742, or well over 50 a day. That’s just the start.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study reveals that kids age 8 to 18 are spending an average of more than seven and a half hours a day – seven days a week – using media. As a Kaiser spokesperson put it, “That’s more than 53 hours a week. That’s a full-time job.”
Still, this understates media usage, since “for almost three hours a day, kids are multi-tasking – like listening to music while using the Internet.”
As summed up on the CBS Evening News earlier this year, it all adds up to more than an hour a day playing video games, almost an hour and a half on a computer, more than 2 and a half hours listening to music, and nearly four and a half hours watching TV.
This is what we accept as a normal childhood. It is really what children experience, but is it truly real?
Lets now think about the contribution of reality television to the mix. My own reality viewing is limited to workouts at my gym where one of the three TV screens is contractually obligated to show Bravo. I never watch with sound, but I can’t help but watch. The other day, a rerun of one of my “favorites,” “Bethenny Getting Married,” provided a wonderfully surreal example of Blended Living blurriness.
Bethenny was on her way to her wedding, sitting in a limo, hair in curlers. As the car pulled up to The Four Seasons in New York, where the celebration would occur, it was hard to miss the Paparazzi who were lying in wait. Throngs of photographers – providing the attention and publicity she surely craved – were ready to devour her. Yet this reality star, one who has allowed her entire private life to be videotaped 24/7, sincerely fretted that she was about to be photographed with her hair in curlers! Horrors!
Along these lines, we often see teens text one another when in the same room. Sometimes these are snide comments about others present that they don’t want overheard, other times it is a result of multitasking. They’ve got earphones on and it’s not convenient to speak. I have also seen teen girls text their mothers when they are both at home. Rather than screaming – the old fashioned way – or walking into the next room, the less personal, lower touch, more filtered form of communication is preferred.
As Marshall McLuhan put it so aptly back in 1964, “The medium is the message.”
So it is with the news business as well. According to a study by the Pew Research center, The Internet has surpassed newspapers and radio in popularity as a news platform on a typical day and now ranks just behind TV. Historically, newspapers have always possessed distinct, editorial slants helping to select and define their audiences, but Internet and TV news seem to diminish objectivity, i.e. what might be thought of as “reality,” to a far greater degree.
Fox News and MSNBC, mouthpieces for the right and left, respectively, draw far many viewers than the middle of the road CNN. We choose our own reality to reflect our views, aspirations and fears. The Daily Show with John Stewart and The Colbert Report, self-described “fake news” programs draw about 3.5 millions viewers each night. The Pew Research Center claims that these shows have become a primary source of news for many young people!
It’s clear that the world has changed, and all of us in marketing have access to many of the underlying facts. We can analyze media, see where the numbers are and even go beyond the numbers to some extent. It’s why “Social Media” is so hot.
But with consumers living in what amounts to a living Twilight Zone where attention spans are short and the ability to focus on everything from a family dinner to the details of economic policy is in short supply, how are we expected to create products and messages with focus? That, in marketing-speak, “solve problems” or “fill white space.” Is there any “white space” even left for a packaged goods product to fill?
One thing has not changed. Perception has always been more important than reality in marketing. Brands – as evidenced by Fox News, MSNBC or Comedy Central – are still more important than ever. Emotionality will always trump functionality.
Still, the need to decipher this Blended Living phenomenon will be one of our great challenges moving ahead.