Advertising folk, it’s time to rethink what we’re selling
Lisa Merrick-Lawless, co-founder of Purpose Disruptors and the Good Life 2030 project, and Ally Kingston, Good Life 2030 creative lead, share why now is the time to reimagine what a good life in the future really means.
People dream of feeling more connected amid the cost-of-living crisis / Adobe Stock
What does a ‘good life’ mean to you? A decent car? Adventures in far-flung places galore? Hitting peak career goals? Having anything we desire at the click of a button?
The question of defining a good life might seem simple. But it’s one of philosophy’s oldest debates. For Socrates and Plato, a good life was all about virtue - at the expense of pleasure, wealth and power. The Stoics saw a good life as in agreement with nature, while the Epicureans put pleasure first. And today, we’re no less preoccupied with the question. Around Europe, in the language of buen vivir, das gute Leben, Felicidad and hygge, we see endless cultural interpretations of what a “good life” really means.
If this feels obvious to you, that’s because you too are in the business of the good life. As architects of desire, the advertising industry shapes our cultural understanding of a life worth wanting. Every time we step on a bus or open a social media app, the invisible hand of our industry is there to build demand for new products and services that might make life better. And with up to 10,000 ads floating into our consciousness every day, how can we resist?
We’ve built a narrative that the good life means aspiring to more – stuff, status, wealth – but it’s hitting two major flaws.
Firstly, our planet’s living systems cannot keep up with the pace of producing more, more and more. Our species is woefully dependent on a narrow band of soil and air for all our needs – and right now, we’re demanding far too much of it. For context, we’d need three planets if everyone consumed as much as Europeans consume (and for Americans, it’s upwards of five.)
The rising demand for material goods is, in part, fuelled by advertising: our recent research showed the advertising industry’s success is adding a whopping 32% to each of our carbon footprints.
The second flaw with our vision of a “good life” of more, more, more is a less tangible one. It just doesn’t seem to have made our lives any better. Of course, we need “enough” to live well - shelter, food to eat and so on - but when we shoot past “enough”, things start to get murkier. The average US home contains 300,000 objects. How many of these are easing the anxiety and disconnectedness that so many of us are reported to feel?
Studies show that those who are more focused on acquiring material wealth - in other words, the most faithful disciples of our industry’s good life - tend to report greater unhappiness.
So what is the new good life we need?
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Imagining a new version of a good life
One thing is clear: we advertisers can’t solve the problem we made ourselves. So we’ve spent 18 months in conversation with 25 everyday people, who sit in the middle ground on climate (sometimes called the ‘persuadables’). They’re fully awake to the realities of the climate crisis, but don’t identify with those fighting for change. Anxious but inactive, this segment is ‘Conflicted Future-Fearers’, and they represent 42% of the UK population.
We’ve been working with this audience to unearth not their opinions, but their visions of the future. With carefully crafted exercises, we’ve asked them to imagine their good life in 2030 – a timeframe that’s far enough to allow for some creative leaps, but close enough to allow for detail.
We just published our second citizen report detailing their responses for 2023, and the consistency of their visions is remarkable. What they’ve told us, loud and clear, is nothing matters more than feeling connected.
Within the overarching theme of connection, there are consistent threads. People are yearning to be more connected to themselves: to step out of the rat race towards a slower pace of life, with less precarity, and greater opportunities for self-sufficiency.
People are dreaming of being more connected to others, too. They want to strengthen and protect family relationships, build more nurturing support systems, and share routines and rituals with others.
And finally, people are dreaming of being more deeply connected to nature. They talk about wanting to be more embedded in the natural world, to live more resourcefully, and help protect and conserve nature.
Creating a new story
What comes up for you when you read these desires for 2030? Did you, like us, find yourself nodding along in agreement? We’ve been talking to people about a good life for nearly two years, and we’ve not met a single person who didn’t wish this for themselves.
The best thing is, living in a way that’s more connected has all kinds of benefits for human and planetary well-being - not least, a reduction in resource use & emissions. Turns out that if you connect more, your appetite for consuming stuff just isn’t there.
What’s more, the results of our latest research seem to align with a wider story that’s emerging about the importance of connectedness. For example, the benefits of nature’s connection to mental health are becoming mainstream knowledge, with many acquiring lived experience of the phenomenon during lockdown. Elsewhere, the growing four-day workweek movement signals a greater desire to resource oneself more effectively – and has now been proven to improve productivity, well-being and environmental care too. We draw on these and more signals in the full report.
But the picture isn’t all rosy. Our chaotic times are making it harder for many to entertain – let alone realize – these visions of a different, more connected good life. While citizens are clear on their visions in the safe conditions of a focus group, out in the wild, the beat of ‘more, more, more’ dominates.
As advertisers, it’s our gift, and our responsibility, to craft a new story about what a good life looks like. One that can correspond with the desire for connectedness people feel deep down, instead of counteracting it. And one that can live in alignment with our living systems, instead of depleting them.
Building a coherent story of a new good life isn’t something we can do in a day. But we can all consider what impact our communications have in the wider culture, and which story they’re supporting in society. Is it the one where we all need more stuff, or the one where we get to rest, build community, and be in nature? There is a window of time for us to collectively build something new. A 2030 Good Life is ours to create.
Lisa Merrick-Lawless is the co-founder of Purpose Disruptors and Ally Kingston is the creative lead of the Good Life 2030 project.