It was 1944 and the US was entering the final stages of World War II. It was in this year that a debut novel broke all sales records by selling 100,000 copies in its first week and then going on to sell more than three million, becoming the highest-selling book of the decade. All of this, despite being banned in 14 US states on its release. The novel in question was Forever Amber: a raunchy story of a young girl who becomes the mistress of King Charles II in 17th-century Britain.
Due to its titillating content, the Massachusetts attorney general attempted to ban the novel at the time, claiming it contained “70 references to sexual intercourse; 39 to illegitimate pregnancies; 10 descriptions of women undressing, dressing or bathing in the presence of men; five references to incest; 13 references ridiculing marriage; and 49 miscellaneous objectionable passages”.
It’s not difficult to see why this book was so popular. At the time the novel was released, men and women across the world had been living through six years of war. They were tired, battered, bruised and reeling from years of fighting, so it’s no wonder a raunchy novel set in 17th-century Britain sold so many copies. What Forever Amber offered people was 900 pages of unadulterated escapism. It was a moment that allowed people to be transported away from the pain and uncertainty of life in front of them.
Our hunger for escapism during times of difficulty can be traced back to other forms of art too. Look at the top-grossing box-office films during the last major recessions and you can see our appetite for escapism. We were obsessed with intergalactic warfare with Star Wars in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a cyborg sent back in time to protect the human race in Terminator 2 and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves saving Maid Marion in the recession of 1991. And most striking was the year after the Great Recession, in 2009, when we had a box-office top five consisting entirely of fantasy and sci-fi – Transformers at number one, Harry Potter at two, Up at three, Twilight at four and Avatar at five.
When times are tough, people don’t want reality reflected back at them. They want escapist entertainment.
The notion of “escapism” feels like an enormous opportunity for brands as we face a global pandemic and what is likely to be the worst recession in our lifetime. A recent exchange with fellow strategist Thom Binding summed it up well. He said “We need escape, not reminders”, and he think he’s spot on.
A recent longitudinal study by Morning Consult of more than 2,000 Americans to understand how expectations of brand advertising has changed throughout the pandemic is telling. Of those surveyed at the height of the pandemic in March compared with May, we saw a shift from 18% of people wanting ads to be “funny” rise to 27% – an increase of almost 10 percentage points in just three months. Compare this with 18% of consumers wanting to see ads that were “sentimental” at the start of the pandemic rising by just three percentage points to 21% in the same three months.
This data tells us what I’m sure we’ve all suspected: that people are growing tired of sentimental ads from brands reassuring them that “in these uncertain times” they are on our side. People are asking for lighter relief and escape.
But I’m not sure we’re listening as an industry. A recent Adobe survey of more than 1,000 consumers and 500 brand marketers looked to understand the kinds of messages that consumers wanted to hear during this global crisis. The study found that brand marketers were almost 20% more likely than consumers to say viewers want to see ads showing how brands are helping during the Covid-19 crisis.
We seem intent on reflecting a reality back to consumers that I don’t believe they’re necessarily asking for, nor want.
So what should we be doing “in these unprecedented times” (sorry)?
I’m not suggesting brands should adopt a tone-deaf approach to communications. But I do think we have an opportunity to create commercial impact by offering a moment of escape that lifts people out of a difficult reality.
And while escapist entertainment could be seen by cautious marketers as frivolous or “risky” in recessionary times, I’d argue its importance becomes even greater. It’s fundamental to people’s wellbeing. It’s why you had millions of Americans queuing up round the block to go to the movies during the Great Depression. It’s why Downton Abbey became the UK’s biggest export following the Great Recession and it’s why millions of people tuned in to watch the new series of The Great British Bake Off. Escapist entertainment sells.
So let’s stop thinking of ourselves as sentimental reflectors of reality and start thinking of ourselves as entertaining artists of escape.
Gen Kobayashi is chief strategy officer at Engine Creative