Consumers will consume and cruise ships will sail again

—There may indeed be a “post-pandemic” zeitgeist that reshapes society, but ERIC BLAIS is skeptical.—

The last time a bug was expected to cause pandemonium, it never happened. We toasted a new millennium, made a few resolutions we later broke, and soon forgot about Y2K.

COVID-19 did cause pandemonium initially, when anxious shoppers stormed stores in search of toilet paper. But they soon retreated to their homes to help flatten the curve. Meanwhile this bug is having a devastating impact: People are dying. Healthcare workers are under siege. The economy is tanking. Unemployment is skyrocketing. And governments are going deeper into debt.

Our lives have been profoundly disrupted, yet most of us live eerily quiet, albeit anxiety-filled days with no definitive end in sight. The immediate future is uncertain, but somehow there’s growing certainty among some that the world as we know it will be forever changed in post-pandemic times.

Global consulting firm McKinsey admits it can’t predict the future, but it offers thoughts on the next normal: “One possible next normal is that decisions made during and after the crisis lead to less prosperity, slower growth, widening inequality, bloated government bureaucracies, and rigid borders. Or it could be that the decisions made during this crisis lead to a burst of innovation and productivity, more resilient industries, smarter government at all levels, and the emergence of a reconnected world. Neither is inevitable; indeed, the outcome is probably more likely to be a mix.”

Others adopt a more pollyanish view of the next normal. Rebecca Solnit wrote in The Guardian: “When this storm clears, we may, as do people who have survived a serious illness or accident, see where we were and where we should go in a new light. We may feel free to pursue change in ways that seemed impossible while the ice of the status quo was locked up. We may have a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, our systems of production and our future.”

Some, like Julio Vincent Gambuto, are taking advantage of ‘The Great Pause” to deliver this rallying call: “If we want to create a better country and a better world for our kids, and if we want to make sure we are even sustainable as a nation and as a democracy, we have to pay attention to how we feel right now.”

He adds this warning: “What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again. It will come from brands, it will come from government, it will even come from each other, and it will come from the left and from the right.”

We should pay attention to how the world looks and feels right now. The elks and deers now roam free in the streets of Banff. But they’re also defecating everywhere, and the businesses that rely on tourism are in deep doo-doo.

There may indeed be a “post-pandemic” zeitgeist like there was a “post-war” atmosphere that shaped society. But I’m skeptical.

Even without the dark forces banding together to make us feel normal again by buying stuff, our consuming instincts would kick in again. Why? Darwinism.

I’m thinking here about the work of Concordia University’s sometimes controversial professor of marketing Gad Saad, research chair in evolutionary behavioural sciences and Darwinian consumption.

He said this in a 2015 interview: “Some people think that advertisers and marketers have a limitless ability to create human needs and desires. Were it not for the evil of McDonald’s, we wouldn’t apparently crave the Big Mac and those succulent french fries. This is a silly premise. Evolutionary psychology teaches us that successful marketers are those who truly understand human nature, and as such, who offer us products that are congruent with our evolved preferences.”

So here’s a prediction I’m willing to make. Cruise ships—the floating palaces where hand sanitizer dispensers were ubiquitous long before they became COVID-19 incubators—will sail again, full of guests eager to enjoy an affordable, all-you-can-eat vacation.

It might require deep discounting at first to get Homo consumericus back on board, but they will quickly realize that the new normal feels a lot like the old normal.

Eric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec.

David Brown