reading time: 4 mins

The power of the absurd

May 16, 2019by Andy Dexter

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

The Unknown Citizen – W.H.Auden

Imagine if you could know what people were really thinking.

Auden’s poem, written in 1939, purports to be a report about a citizen written by a government employee. It relates how he was regarded as an almost ideal citizen. He compliantly held the correct views; he went to war when required; and he had just the right level of consumerism. The end of the poem asks the “absurd question”, was he happy? It turns out that despite knowing all the details of the citizen’s life and habits the question of his happiness is an unknown afterthought.

Is the consumer research industry in the same state as the government in this poem? We know how frequently people buy shampoo, face wash, dog food, cars and the whole product set that permeates our lives. Yet the simple question of happiness, of hopes and fears and dreams, is largely ignored.

We want to know if the latest mango/peanut/durian/kiwi fruit scented shampoo sends people into paroxysms of pleasure. Maybe it does, momentarily, in its narrow context. But the question of peoples’ real life hopes and fears and dreams is not asked as a matter of course.

The rise of populism via the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit seemed, to many commentators, to come from nowhere. It wasn’t obvious that large sections of the population were deeply unhappy with the status quo and wanted radical change.

So imagine if you knew what people were really thinking? How powerful could that be?

If we are going to claim to understand ‘consumers’ we surely need to know as much about their emotional inner life as we can. We need to ask the next question: the absurd question.

So we ran a Cultural Weather omnibus in the UK a couple of weeks ago, and we supplemented this with a dive into social media.

The Cultural Weather is the system in which we each exist. This is the space where cultural shifts take place, whether cataclysmic (sudden change), seismic (large shifts that influence culture) or glacial (slow and steady evolution).

Whilst unrelated to any particular category, cultural weather affects everything. Understanding the trajectory of change via cultural weather mapping provides vital foresight and aids your preparedness for change.

What’s really on peoples’ minds?

Let’s share some snippets. Our Cultural Weather dive tells us people are, as ever, hoping for good health; financial security; great relationships; a home they can love; a positive future for their children. These are the universal concerns of all of us, all the time. These are the things people worry about, all the time.

I worry about the world I’m bringing my children up in and find it scary how terrorism has become a massive part of our lives. I am excited about watching my children grow older and venture off into the world.

My current hopes and ambitions are to start saving like mad this year to enable my husband and i to buy our dream home. I hope my unborn baby is healthy and for both of my children to be happy.

In our safely anonymised online space, people write us essays, richly detailed, deeply personal, and often highly emotional.

They tell us deeply personal stories about illness, death and bereavement. About their worry that they may not have children. About the nagging fear of missing out. That they may never find love, while their friends are getting married.  They tell us about frustrations in their careers, being overlooked.

Worrying about my cancer coming back, this happens quite often! Feeling sad that I’ve failed at so many things I wanted to do in my life.

Since redundancy I seem to be constantly looking out for sick family members: my husband’s aunt following a stroke who’s still alive in name only, then my parents had various health issues – dad had bowel & bladder cancer, then my husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  Following dad’s death it’s been sorting his estate, selling the house, looking out for mum in a care home.  I get depressed when I see all our greedy politicians ruining our country & making poor decisions while looking out for themselves first.  I would like to escape to a desert island or turn the clock back to the good old days.  We should allow people with no quality of life to die with dignity – better for them, the NHS, Bupa but also less distressing for family…

They tell us that the myth of so-called Millennials not wanting ‘things’ and being happy to just rent, not buy, property is just that – a myth. They tell us that the reality is they are concerned and angsty about money, careers, and their inability to have things that others take for granted. They tell us they are making the best of it, but they are not necessarily happy about that.

I’m worried I won’t ever be able to afford my own home. I think you should have different rules to be able to get a mortgage because renting is more expensive so it proves you can afford a mortgage. I have great friends and family so am very happy about that.

Think I’m going to struggle with work opportunities even with having an abundance of higher qualifications and experience it seems you need to have a PhD just to work in McDonalds. I don’t feel like I can settle down with a family and will forever be in debt. I can see the suicide rate going up a lot more than it already has especially as homelessness is on the rise. I fear I will be another statistic on that list.

They tell us that people across the board feel society is failing them, engendering a deep and striking sense of free-floating anxiety.

What will life will be like for the younger generation? There are so many knife crimes, so many drugs and other bad influences around. Social media has hijacked many and they can no longer communicate other than through a screen.  It saddens me to see our culture be diluted by outside influences and that we are often accused of being intolerant of other cultures in this country. These other culture’s countries are certainly not tolerant of many western ways and wouldn’t be so kind to us. I think we are very accepting of all beliefs and I hope that continues as long as we don’t lose our identity along the way. 

More broadly, people tell us about their worries for what is happening to the culture of the UK. They talk about decline – things have changed and are changing, and not for the better. They talk about knife crime in their neighbourhoods. They worry about the effect of social media on individuals, children, and society at large. They talk about their fears of crime, street safety, terrorism, and much else besides.

The emotional spectrum of what people talk about, in response to our not so absurd question, is part hope and anticipation for the future, but equal part anxiety and sadness. And there is anger too, a very real sense that things are starting to unwind.

I am concerned about the distrust in politicians to do the right thing for the country rather than for their own interests and promotion. The less well off in today’s society are punished at every turn from health care, prices and welfare provision. Saving the environment is important to me but big business seems to always win out over saving the planet.

I came to this country 47 years ago after marrying an englishman and settled very well, had children, held a job and contributed massively to my local community by volunteering. I became a british citizen.  Since the Brexit referendum I have found people hostile towards me, some very openly telling me to go back to where I came from.  I now wish that I had never come to Britain. However at my age it is too late to emigrate and I am stuck here in a country torn apart by self centred lying idiotic politicians who don’t care about people. All they care about is how to remain in power and fill their pockets. There is no future for young people in this country.

The culture in this country is rife with racism. I feel the country has never really progressed as it just has another form of racism than from years before. I am excited for some better technological advancements but fear this country is going downhill rapidly due to a very corrupt government. It does not matter who you vote for as all options seem equally as bad one way or another if you gain something with one u lose something else and always there is some politician/s making a lot of money on the sly…

In fact, our cultural weather dip speaks to an existential crisis about the direction of culture of Britain today, and deep seated fears about the future. The narrative cluster in the top right corner of the summary plot below is not one we’ve seen before. It is about a sense that everything is different now, and the language is dominated by fear.

Needless to say, more on this will follow.

So is it an absurd question, to be asking about peoples’ hopes and fears and dreams? Possibly. After all, you ask an open question and you are inviting people to say anything that’s on their mind, rather than ticking neat little boxes.

Imagine – they might not even mention your all-new pomegranate shampoo.

But isn’t that what researching and understanding real people is all about?

This is just a tiny taste of our forthcoming Cultural Weather Project.

If you would like to know more about our plans and reports, as we track peoples’ real-life hopes and fears and dreams at a scale of hundreds of thousands of datapoints each month, please get in touch and we will be delighted to tell you more.