Why social media is constructing a reality unworthy of your anxiety

Social networks are fuelling social anxiety on an unparalleled scale and brands are in the firing line, writes Nicola Kemp.

Why social media is constructing a reality unworthy of your anxiety

Facebook and its ilk are making us miserable. These days, the notion of "keeping up with the Joneses" has been taken to a new level. No longer content to silently ogle the neighbour’s car, today’s savvy consumers are using social-media platforms to compare their lives with those of people they barely know – and coming up short. Through a heavily filtered lens, they are given snapshots of others’ great, albeit highly edited, lives, and are made to feel that they are missing out.

The constant stream of curated aspirational identities filtered through Instagram is creating a collective anxiety about where we are in life, according to Lucie Green, editor at trends consultancy LSN:Global. This is particularly prevalent in millennials, who are not only the heaviest users of social media, but also the most ambitious, with a strong notion of self-entitlement – and with the highest expectations.

In effect, social media is creating a driving, self-propelling force of anxiety that motivates us to want more, do more and be more," she says.

Impossible targets

The "discrepancy monitor" is described as a process that continually evaluates our current situation against an imaginary gold standard. Facebook fuels this phenomenon, and the cultural belief that social networking is fostering a new kind of social anxiety is gaining significant traction.

Neil Dawson, chief strategy officer Europe at agency SapientNitro, says that in periods of great change, anxiousness can go viral and become a social malaise. "The digital age has contributed to our current period of high anxiety by rapidly accelerating change and, undoubtedly, by helping our individual anxieties go viral," he contends.

In the digital age we are not becoming enslaved to anxiety, we are just anxious about new things.

He is not alone in arguing that our ability to track, quantify and compare our lives with others has led to an increase in unease among consumers. For many, big data equates to binge-eating on a digital scale – GPs, for example, report that "self-diagnosing" consumers are a massive drain on the NHS.

Rebecca Moody, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather, says that we are born with only two anxieties: fear of failure and fear of abandonment. Everything else is learned.

"Our minds adapt to the environment, teaching us new fears so that we can protect ourselves. Stone Age man learned to fear big animals; modern man is learning to fear big data. In the digital age we are not becoming enslaved to anxiety, we are just anxious about new things," she adds.

The fear factor: scare marketing

From the traditional British obsession with the weather to national neuroses about house prices, health and crime, a vast range of indicators suggests that this anxiety is on the rise. Among UK consumers, the "fear factor" is in full effect: 17% of Britons, for example, believe they will become a victim of violent crime, whereas in reality fewer than 4% will. These disparities are evident across multiple sectors, particularly healthcare, food and drinks, where overall standards have risen, but so have fears.

There is no doubt that brands are adding fuel to the fire. Advertising is an industry that has, in many ways, built itself up by capitalising on consumers’ insecurities. In such a climate, a backlash against this apparent fear-mongering has grown, and brands must be wary of being seen as simply adding to worries.

As a letter by street artist Banksy, which subsequently went viral, declares: "They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you."

This is, of course, an overtly simplistic argument, and there is far more nuance to how brands are simultaneously trading on, and attempting to reassure, anxious consumers. Nonetheless, brands cannot afford to ignore the dissenting voices around them. After all, people boycott brands they believe are acting badly, quicker than you can type a 140-character tweet.

Rather than ignoring consumers’ fears, smart brands are using their advertising budgets to provide relief from them. One example can be found in a short film by Unilever, entitled "Why bring a child into this world?". It shows several expecting couples watching a short video depicting war, violence and natural disasters. The film then counters with "illnesses that today affect millions of children a year will be prevented by simple, everyday products". The final part of the film implores consumers to "breathe calmly", claiming that "there has never been a better time to bring a child into this world".

SapientNitro’s Dawson says brands that explicitly recognise and empathise with people’s anxieties, and promise to help resolve them both at a practical and emotional level, will thrive. Those that have successfully embarked on this path include Sainsbury’s with its "Live well for less" campaign and Aldi with its "Like brands. Only cheaper" activity.

Another, more controversial, example is the recent success of UKIP, according to Dawson. "Whatever you think of its opinions, UKIP has fuelled some people’s anxieties about immigration to gain support at the expense of a political class who appear reluctant to openly discuss the topic," he says. "Marketers, and indeed politicians, who don’t recognise and [promise to] help consumers resolve their anxieties will pay the price – people will ignore them if they can, or punish them if they can’t."

Consumers on the edge

Trust in Britain’s biggest brands is at an all-time low. Not content to take Johnson’s baby shampoo’s brand promise of "No more tears" at face value, a mother posting on parenting website Mumsnet confessed to testing the claim by "putting some in my own eye" before using it on her first-born.

Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet, believes that the vast access to information is a double-edged sword. "We shop while we’re on the bus; we chat to old school friends at midnight; we see lots of funny pictures of cats. It has also given all of us access to a limitless supply of information now that we are free to find whatever we want, whenever we want," she says.

"It can mean more and better information, but it can also lead to an overwhelming volume of things to consider: links to sources of dodgy information, and anxiety about things we might never have previously worried about."

Anyone can be an oracle – and anyone can be a charlatan, which may only serve to exacerbate anxiety.

Life always brings moments of heightened anxiety: a job interview, your first child or first date. In the digital age, simple acts such as booking a holiday can fill consumers with trepidation. "In the past we would have asked our mum or a friend, or a nice man from Thomas Cook. Now we seek out websites, forums and self-professed gurus," says Ogilvy’s Moody.

A legion of holidaymakers appears to travel the world with the primary purpose of taking photographs of unusual-looking stains in bathrooms and posting them on TripAdvisor. "Anyone can be an oracle – and anyone can be a charlatan, which may only serve to exacerbate anxiety," adds Moody.

The search for authenticity

Emma Laney Smith, founder of brand consultancy Syren, believes that the recession has changed consumer behaviour forever. "Trends emerged during the recession that have altered the way consumers behave now that we are in recovery. Gone are the days of lifestyle branding – consumers now search for authentic brands," she says.

This drive for authenticity is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the marketing industry. Despite the fact that, to a large extent, advertising is still focused on creating the right image via traditional channels, consumers are demanding something more tangible.

In The Social Brand, a book written anonymously by the marketing director of one of the world’s biggest brands, the author outlines a need for brands to forge genuine relationships with consumers, who are increasingly mistrustful of their motives. He or she writes: "More and more I believe that people will no longer accept advertising that just tries to create a great world filled with happy actors using such a brand. People will demand that your brand does real things."

So, just as consumers are demanding that brands do something real, a reappraisal of the impact that the unforgiving glow of the screen is having on their lives is beginning to take shape. The generation that was brought up with the promise that information is power is re-evaluating this belief in the light of the sheer relentlessness of the web.

For those consumed with anxiety fostered by the great life they are not living would do well to remember that the filter of social media is a constructed reality – one that real life, with all its glorious flaws and challenges, should never aspire to attain.