Put aside the usual indicators of a strong economy -- a robust stock market, low unemployment -- for a moment. Think about the people around you; friends, family, people you encounter on your commute. Do they seem more stressed than they were even just a few years ago?
Thanks to research from Omnicom Media Group, we can confirm you're not just projecting your inner stresses onto the people around you. At present, Americans really are far more stressed out than in recent years. In fact, according to this new study from OMG, a whopping 70 percent of us are so stressed that we feel a general need to escape. How are we meeting that need? By consuming media.
The study, "Navigating the Nightmare: Medicating with Media," is the brainchild of Dr. Pamela Marsh and Priscilla Aydin, Managing Director and Group Director, respectively, of Primary Research at OMG. Marsh and Aydin said in an interview that they set out to quantify something they'd felt around them: that desire to escape.
"We saw there was very little research in our industry -- media or marketing or advertising -- about this consumer need for escapism," Marsh said. "What could it mean for marketers -- if they were even aware of it?"
So, Marsh and Aydin and their team conducted a national online survey of 501 individuals to find out whether people really are feeling the need to escape more than in the past, and whether there's something brands can do about it.
"We wanted to do something that went beyond the political landscape," Aydin said. Of course, some of the respondents' stressors, like their financial situation or healthcare or other societal issues, do have roots in politics, but this was a much more neutral framing.
The results cut across all ages and income groups, though Gen X and Millennials were more likely to say they felt the need to escape all the time. Contributing factors to this need for escape include their personal financial situation, healthcare, poverty and family relationships. Nearly half of respondents had more than 10 issues that made them feel this way.
Marsh is careful to point out that there's a difference between feeling the need to escape with actually wanting to bolt out the door and move to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. "They want to find ways to relieve stress and anxiety," she said.
"They're looking for some help," Aydin added.
Though the usual economic indicators are still somewhat strong -- unemployment levels continue to be low -- the survey respondents showed a preference for burrowing into media over other indulgences like travel (literal escape) or shopping. Those that did medicate via retail -- 29 percent -- were pleased with doing so, with 75 percent of the shoppers indicating they didn't regret their pampering. "It's viewed as an indulgence," Marsh said.
But more -- 49 percent -- are choosing to stay home and watch TV, an outcome that may be correlated with the fact that three out of five respondents to a different OMG survey said their generation's American dream "has been turned upside-down," perhaps leaving a little less income available for big trips.
Not all media is created equal; respondents looking to relieve stress are staying away from news and social media as much as possible and looking for video that offers comfort. A quarter of the respondents indicated they were streaming more video, and 40 percent said they were binging, while a nearly equivalent 39 percent said they just watch whatever's on. Nostalgia provides a desired level of comfort for 26 percent of respondents. "Consumers are looking for nostalgia in not just the content, but the ads as well," Marsh explained. "Eighty-two percent of people are open to hearing from advertisers. That's a big opportunity."
Marketers seem to be intuiting some of these insights. This year's crop of Super Bowl commercials featured a heavily dystopic theme, and even ads that weren't explicitly about dystopia seemed to comment on the overall "ugh" of everyday life, a la Hyundai's spot with Jason Bateman as an elevator operator taking people to undesirable life events like car shopping. But there's a long way to go: According to Marsh and Aydin's study, only 30 percent of respondents said brands understood their plight.
Marsh and Aydin aren't advocating for marketers to completely overhaul their playbooks; rather, they are calling attention to this widespread angst as an opportunity to develop closer relationships with their consumers, one built on empathy and understanding. "Make your customers' lives easier," Marsh said. "Focus on messaging that shows how your brand makes their lives better in some way."
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