Did you know that the nation's first income tax was signed into law by a Republican President in order to pay for a war (Lincoln did it in 1861)? How about the fact that the Bubonic Plague was the world's first "network virus" because it traveled vast distances aboard ships? Were you aware that the average American in the 1950s spent more time being socially engaged in community and religious institutions than we do involved with our various digital tools today?
Welcome to a present in which we're woefully unaware of the past, almost as if our technologies and institutions have conspired to keep us so. We're complicit, though, happy to defer to the quickest and most brief means of accessing and sharing information, the less substance the better. Why endure paragraphs of reasoned argument when a pithy 140-character headline will do? Isn't a picture worth a thousand words? Since everything is so new now, it makes anything old somehow suspect, perhaps irrelevant, especially since the Internet has taught us that there are no facts (there never were, in spite of what you may have thought) but only opinions and viewpoints instead. Better yet, if we simply skip interpreting things altogether, we're not impeded by that which we don’t remember.
I know there are exceptions, and many of us think we know lots. But I'd wager that the general understanding of history is pretty piss poor.
This is a problem, not just for commerce but governance, as people who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, or so the Santayana quote goes. You can't expect folks to make reasoned choices if they have no context in which to make them. Promote freedom and empowerment all you want, but an unaware public is less able to act in its best interests, and more likely to be manipulated and abused. Today's exploited customer is tomorrow's angry customer.
We all have a vested interest in improving history awareness but doing so isn't really a moneymaking endeavor. Schools and museums do it as non-profits. Entertainment media use history as the basis for plot, but usually throw in a healthy dollop of interpretation (that's why it's considered entertainment, and not history). What could brands do? Here are three thought-starters:
- Expand & improve corporate histories -- These sections of most websites are thinly disguised fantasies, casting company pasts in the most favorable light possible. I'd imagine the percentage of company employees who know those histories is low, however fanciful, and those who know the truth or its context even lower. What if brands took responsibility for researching and providing thruthful and detailed narratives of company histories? Perhaps they could include contextual information about time and place? It sounds so boring as I write it, but it might be a nice place to start.
- Provide better context in marketing -- I know the point of marketing these days is to keep consumers locked in a permanent now, but we know that they're unevenly aware of past events, especially yesterday's product successes or failures. Why not reference the things that consumers already know in more explicit and thoughtful ways? Reaffirming the past's context, and the purchase decisions made therein, might provide useful reference point for today's decisions. How new is the latest announcement of a "new" product or ingredient? Is the latest somethingoranother all that different from the last one?
- Become collectors -- With so much of our immediate experience evaporating in a digital wash as soon as we’re done with it, there's an argument to be made that all of us desire more objective proof and affirmation of our past. There’s no history with digital content other than our records of it, whereas the physical objects of history -- products, dispensers, boxes, conveyor belts, trucks, whatever -- exist in more real and durable ways. Why isn't every brand a museum of itself? Consumers could interact with it (either as visitors or contributors/co-curators), and it would give brands another platform for engagement. Some already do this (like Coke).
Talk about an ROI challenge. I don't know if there’s any money in doing better history, but there sure is a cost for consumers not possessing better historical knowledge.
What do you think?
(Image credit: this is what we think we know)