Although I usually prefer to boycott all sporting events (not as an ethical statement-- I just think they're boring), I watched this year’s Super Bowl for two reasons.
One, I am incapable of refusing any situation where I can eat my weight in guacamole and hot wings. And two, I didn’t want to miss Lady Gaga’s halftime performance (and she did not disappoint). But between my 18th hot wing and “Poker Face”, something else actually got my attention. I recognized a trending theme in several of the broadcast’s biggest ad spots: pendulum marketing.
I first heard about pendulum marketing from one of my favorite podcasts. The pendulum theory is the centerpiece of a book published in 2011 by Roy H. Williams and Michael R. Drew entitled Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future. Williams (also known around the world as the Wizard of Ads) actually traced this theory back 3000 years to prove how all of western society’s values and interests swing back and forth between two extremes : “we” and “me”.
These “we” and “me” phases cycle through time in 40 year rotations, each experiencing an upswing in the first 20 years (when the cycle’s message and values are embraced) and a downswing in the latter 20 years (when the values are considered too extreme and the message begins to break down).
Here’s the timeline of each era, according to Williams’s Pendulum:
So what defines a “me” or “we” society?
A “me”-driven society’s values are rooted in the individual and each person’s unique and unlimited potential. The years before and shortly after 1963 ushered in a new “me” era, along with the Civil Rights movement, and iconic musical artists like the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys to name a few. It also brought us the Pop Art movement heralded by Andy Warhol, and the conceptual, minimalist, performance, and feminist art movements.
But as a “me” era begins to break down (its downswing), it becomes too materialistic and its values are considered too plastic. The downswing of “me” eras in the past glorified the rise of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, Studio 54, and Saturday Night Fever. Our last “me” society (1963-2003) crashed the economy in 2008. Financial excesses of the preceding “me” era (1883-1923) sent us spiraling into the Great Depression in 1929.
Once the pendulum has completed its downswing out of a “me” era, we enter a “we” era. A “we”-driven society characterizes itself as a singular and united group. A team. A tribe. A collective. A singular message that ‘our sum is greater than our parts’.
Think back to defining moments of “we” eras in the past, just before and right after the 40 year cycles began. America’s entry into World War I and the Allies’ subsequent victory. The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression and the popularity of his “Fireside Chats”. September 11th’s aftermath and the ubiquitous “United We Stand” rally cry.
Image: El Mago de la Publicidad
In five years, we will officially have reached the zenith of our current “we” era. This is when the "I'm ok, you're not ok" sentiment that seems to be escalating daily will be at its height. If current events are any indicator, tension is already building against these values as they become more legalistic and more extreme. And advertisers are tapping into it.
Take these ads for example, both of which aired during Super Bowl spots and got tons of attention:
Video: Lumber 84
Both companies, though they denied to be taking any sort of political stand, are embracing a message that is very much indicative of the downswing from a “we” era:
Who do you exclude and who do you stand against?
According to The Pendulum, the next 20 years of effective marketing will need to learn to capitalize on this message.
For instance, if you’re someone who believes the current presidential administration’s attacks on journalism are unmerited, an ad like this one from The New York Times, which first aired during the Academy Awards broadcast two months ago, will really land with you and maybe even convince you to subscribe:
Video: The New York Times
Or for a company like Hyatt, a leader in the hotel and travel industry, whose business would be adversely impacted by a travel ban, an ad like this one promoting kindness and mutual respect is a smart message to send out to its international clientele:
Of course, companies are starting to catch on to this message, and realize they need to jump on it for their marketing campaigns to be effective, an attempt that Saturday Night Live shrewdly spoofed in this sketch a few months ago:
Video: Saturday Night Live
Interestingly enough, this “us vs. them” message taking off in marketing is so electric right now that even when done very, very poorly, it still wins. Pepsi aired their newest commercial, clumsily entitled “Live for Now Moments Anthem”, to crickets. It was lambasted for being tone-deaf, insensitive, and just plain ‘trash’ (the last one a quote from civil rights activist Deray McKesson).
Video: Kendall & Kylie
But even with no one coming to its defense, this ad has been a hot topic of conversation for the past week now. It was spoofed on Saturday Night Live, dissected by several esteemed publications, and ultimately deemed by The Atlantic as a “success” for Pepsi— because at the end of the day, no press is bad press, right?
The core message of our “we” era’s downswing— who do you exclude and who do you stand against— is king right now in marketing. Give your customers something to join — a cause to rally around, a stand to take, an avenue to express themselves— and it will give your marketing and your business a communicative advantage.
What do you think? Any pendulum marketing examples I should add? Do you think Pepsi will benefit from their latest PR disaster? Or are you like me and just remain a Coke person all the way?