I’m writing this while America is embroiled in one of the most gut-wrenching debates in its 231-year history. No, it's not the war. And it certainly isn’t the 2008 presidential race. It's the early release of Paris Hilton from jail and her subsequent return. Huh? What's going on here?
The answer lies in an ubertrend I've insightfully dubbed "voyeurgasm." It's rooted in an age-old consumer desire: we like to watch. But the trend has taken off in the past 20 years or so, propelled by the proliferation of digital technologies and jump-started by the Rodney King beating in 1991.
Since then, we've seen an explosion in high-profile events captured on video, including Central Park’s notorious "wilding" incident, the Concorde crash, September 11, the Mt. Hood rescue helicopter crash and Madelyne Toogood's child beating, plus a never-ending string of police-car chases and other fabulous foibles.
Our national obsession with celebrities led New Scientist magazine to conclude in 2003 that one-third of Americans were suffering from something it called "celebrity-worship syndrome" (it's probably around 50 percent by now, judging by the massive amounts of publicity that blogs like Perez Hilton and TMZ have attracted with celebrity-peeking adventures).
Voyeurgasm is an appropriate trend to lead off a marketing story with because it's already having a major impact on media consumption. Reality shows have become a standard staple among TV viewers. Our look-at-me culture has fueled a dizzying array of TV shows, ranging from the bizarre to the outrageous. My decadent favorite? VH1's "Flavor of Love," starring Public Enemy's Flavor Flav. Anyone who caught last season's "spitting" incident will agree that "voyeurgasmic" has become a bon mot.
Expect this trend to completely remake media, as the YouTubes, MySpaces and Flickrs of the future conspire with billions of camera phones, digital cameras, camcorders and surveillance cameras to create a world where just about everything is recorded digitally.
Another change precipitated by voyeurgasm is the growing importance of transparency in everything we do. From growing public disclosure to glass-walled bathrooms to see-through restaurant kitchens, the world is rapidly vaulting towards a future where being able to see one's innermost processes will be de rigueur. Marketers need to take note of this, and should aspire to inject the as much transparency as possible in their campaigns and communication initiatives.
Next: Digital lifestyle
The growing proliferation of consumer electronics -- the average U.S. household now owns an average of 26 consumer electronics devices according to the Consumer Electronics Association -- is the whirlwind force that's fueling a whole new consumer culture, one that's changing the rules of the marketing game.
As Jay Leno observed on "The Tonight Show" this past November, "The only time, kids go camping now is front of Circuit City waiting for a videogame.” While this tongue-in-cheek comment may overstate the case somewhat, it's not far from the truth. Children now begin using consumer electronic devices at an average age of 6.7 years old, according to The NPD group's recently released "Kids and Consumer Electronics Trends III" report. That's down from the average age of 8.1 years the research firm found in a 2005 study.
Those same kids are changing the rules of social interaction by fueling MySpace's incredible growth. With a membership that already exceeds some 181 million accounts, MySpace could be compared to the population of Brazil, the world's fifth-largest country (with 188 million people).
More importantly, the growing role of social networking signals a significant shift in internet use and suggests that the consumer dialog is changing. The effects of this lifestyle change are becoming more evident as social nets rewrite the rules of social engagement.
The latest media consumption data show this trend clearly. NBC's average prime-time audience of 4.8 million people ending June 2 was the smallest since at least 1991, reports Nielsen Media Research. You'd have to go back to the days of black-and-white TV to find a smaller figure. Meanwhile, "CBS Evening News" reached only 5.5 million people that week, its smallest audience since 1987. While poor TV network ratings have been the story of this spring, there's clearly a bigger force at work here.
Meanwhile, newspaper readership is falling all over the world. Even in the newspaper-crazy U.K., the overall yearly decline for dailies is almost 4 percent. Asked why people do not read newspapers, more than half of survey respondents to a Harris poll conducted in six countries (including the U.S., U.K., France, Italy, Spain and Germany) pointed to lack of time (in Spain the figure was lowest, at 44 percent).
A new Media-Screen report sheds light on this trend. Broadband users, the heaviest consumers of media, spend an hour and 40 minutes -- 48 percent of their spare time -- online on a given weekday. The digital lifestyle is affecting that precious commodity of time, which brings us to the next ubertrend that's impacting media use in a profound way.
Next: Time compression
Sometime toward the end of the 80s, people started answering the greeting "how are you," with "busy" instead of the usual "good" or "fine" answers. The state of mind had become state of time. It was a trend that went hand in hand with the introduction of the cellphone, computer, fax and voicemail.
Today, our world revolves around fleeting images that are so 70s... so 1999... so last year... so yesterday... so one minute ago. It's becoming abundantly clear that time and its related meanings are morphing in a cloud of time-tunnel dust.
About one-fifth of Americans now vacation with their laptops, while about the same number check office messages or call in to see how things are going, a recent AP-Ipsos poll revealed. And when 5 million BlackBerry users lost their ability to send e-mail in April, the chorus of complaints and conspiracy theories resembled that of true addicts... "CrackBerry" addicts, that is. No wonder we sleep on average two hours less today than we did in the 1920s.
And the prognosis for getting more sleep looks doubtful. In fact, I predict that we'll sleep another hour less on average by the time we reach this century's 20s. Combine this with the fact that sleeping pill prescriptions have soared 60 percent since 2000 while energy drinks have come from nowhere to become a $7 billion global market, and you have sobering picture of life today.
It's abundantly clear that time compression has created a supercharged society of multitasking consumers enamored with instant gratification. Marketers should respect this ADD world by offering services that allow consumers to better manage their increasingly more valuable disposable time.
In January, Apple dropped "computer" from its name. This prescient move signals a not-too-distant future in which the mobile phone will become the primary online access device, virtually doubling the size of the internet by the early part of the next decade. Telltale signs abound. The New York Times reports that in Manhattan, where the population is growing at an annual rate of about 10,000, the 2007 Verizon White Pages was 142 pages smaller than the 2006 edition, as more consumers give up landlines.
The surging use of wireless devices to keep us connected is leading to a "instant on" culture. Gartner predicts that an astonishing 1.15 billion mobile phones will be sold this year, up 14 percent over 2006. And the growing popularity of smartphones is recasting texting-inept America, with the CTIA reporting that wireless carriers delivered 12.5 billion text messages in the month of June 2006, up 72 percent over the 7.3 billion messages sent in June 2005.
That explains why Apple's Steve Jobs believes the future lies in the mobile phone. That hi-res, 480x320-pixel iPhone screen is made by Germany's Balda. That Apple, which prefers to source components from multiple suppliers, is getting this display from one source speaks volumes about the importance of showing off dazzling videos on the iPhone. It's a message that is not lost on Nokia either, which is advertising its latest N95 überphone with the headline "It's What Computers Have Become."
In December 2006, mobile phone users in the U.K. accessed the internet via their handsets about 15.9 million times, says the Mobile Data Association, an increase of 1 million unique sessions over November 2006, the prior record. Meanwhile, according to Bango, a global exchange that detects mobile use from more than 190 countries, the U.S. is now second to the U.K. in mobile internet use.
Another change that the unwired ubertrend is ushering in is the rapid spread of a singles-dominated society. The combination of marketers hammering the point home that you can "have it your way," and technologies that are quickly spoiling consumers, is spawning a control freak trend that has everyone seeking to free themselves from wires and the "surly bonds of earth."
America's 89.6 million singles now head up more than half of U.S. households (50.3 percent, according to a recent 2006 U.S. Census report). As singles, young and old alike, adopt new media habits and begin socializing on the internet, this trend will have major repercussions for marketers who cater to a "couples" lifestyle. Double occupancy anyone?
Next: Generation X-tasy
Besieged by 3,000 marketing messages daily, inundated by 60 million SKUs and trampled by the growing overtures of a highly competitive global economy, consumers are increasingly adopting a "been there done that" mentality, a phenomenon that reared its ugly head around the same time that the word "busy" showed up in personal greetings.
The "Generation X-tasy" ubertrend is warping society's norms. If Oscar Wilde were somehow to return, he would find plenty of evidence that his 1893 observation that "nothing succeeds like excess" rules today's world. Marketers leveraging this ubertrend by creating passionate experiences for consumers who seek adventure, indulgence and variety in their otherwise mundane lives are growing in number.
Las Vegas is unquestionably the capital of Generation X-tasy, and Steve Wynn is its chairman. Sin City's incredibly successful tag line, "What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas," is testament to a growing realization that in a society that works as hard as America, playing hard is goal numero uno. Cancun's success as a tourist destination is due in part to the more than 100,000 spring-breakers who descend on this Caribbean playground each year.
Then there's Macau, which has already surpassed Las Vegas in annual gambling revenues. Or Dubai, which is building an astonishing fantasy island in the middle of the dessert, one that in all likelihood will be dwarfed by what the United Arab Emirates is creating in Abu Dhabi. Is it any surprise that analysts predict that Emirates will be the world's largest airline by 2020?
As consumers become ever more experiential and spoiled by their own exploits, witness the global spread of our Halloween tradition, which has become decidedly x-rated in many quarters of the globe; or the gift bag syndrome that now rules birthday parties of even the smallest children; or the fact that the average wedding today costs $30,000 -- up 100 percent since 1990, according to Condé Nast Bridal Group -- and you have a brave new world that's very difficult to please.
"This is not 'Leave it to Beaver' America anymore," Frozen Food Age Publisher Christopher Loretto once remarked. I wholeheartedly concur. Wake up, Wally!
Michael Tchong is a trend analyst and transformational speaker on phenomena that are sweeping America and the rest of the world. He can be found living on the information superhighway at the ubercool.com exit. Read full bio.