What Do You Want to Fear Today?

Advertising reflects the fears and paranoia of the times. Sure, advertising has always thrived on an undercurrent of inadequacy and self-doubt. Why else would our choice of toothpaste or after-shave in the 1970s highly correlate with our “sex appeal”? But here we’re talking about a reflection of overall social angst — not just personal insecurities.

At the dawn of the 1990s, Greg declared “paranoia” the growth industry of the decade (like “plastics” in the 1968 movie “The Graduate”). Someone like Willie Horton and the people’s fear of crime could help get you elected into office. The Club became a hotter automotive accessory than cup holders — even leading to a home version.

Cars themselves were sold exclusively on the merits of how well they were built to destroy. It didn’t matter if the vehicle looked good or even had an engine; advertising simply sold cars on the basis of air-bag counts and how well they might survive a collision with an asteroid. “The only vehicle in its class with both a standard safety release and dual air bags in the trunk.”

Public responsiveness to this fear helped fuel the subsequent American SUV craze, and the industry helped package a trip to pick up the kids from soccer practice as a gauntlet-running commando mission to rescue them from Pablo Escobar’s drug compound.

Fear and Angst

The fear and angst that helped sell the Humvee as a family vehicle also made their way into the images of high-tech advertising in the late 1990s. Numerous high-tech print ads turned to images of people screaming. Sometimes these ads would also employ an above-the-shoulder perspective to give their subjects huge elephantine heads and diminutive Barbie feet, but the common theme was always of someone screaming.

On the mild side were images of Joe Average whining for increased bandwidth or his own dedicated-server hardware, crying babies with clenched fists demanding improved customer support, and well-heeled bosses demanding greater service uptimes. The more extreme cases employed grotesque images of people in extreme pain — suggesting the animal-rights fodder of monkeys with implanted brain electrodes (or, worse, some Californian who just opened her electricity bill).

These images formed a bizarre hybrid of cigarette billboards, Las Vegas-tourism TV commercials in which no one ever has a closed mouth (we dare anyone to find a single frame of any person with their traps shut in these ads), and those annoying TV ads for pain medications and the actor who tries to convince us of his simulated brain aneurysm. Until only recently, such images filled the back pages of industry magazines.

Why did advertisers think we’d be so responsive to such an extensive display of dental work? The Internet’s explosive impact on business magnified a sense of helter-skelter. It also created a fear of falling behind without ever being able to catch up.

I’ve Fallen, and I Can’t Get Up

Since then, once-vaunted dot-com business competitors that rose to multibillion-dollar prominence overnight have collapsed just as rapidly. Along with this collapse, Greg has noticed the drastic decline, if not outright extinction, of the screaming-customer ad campaign. In its place, more high-tech ads are employing a new trend: obsession with the word “agile.”

Microsoft recently launched a heavy promotional campaign designed to make its software synonymous with this word. Arthur Andersen recently invited Greg to a breakfast seminar entitled “IT Strategy for Turbulent Times: More Agility at Lower Cost.” Add the subliminal messages in the name of the recent HP offspring, Agilent Technologies, to the fray, and a pattern starts to emerge. Picasso at the Lapin Agile? Christine Aguilera?

So where’s the societal fear and angst behind an innocuous word like “agile”?

Word choice has often reflected the fears and paranoia of the age: for example, the “quality” hype of the Japanese-manufacturing-will-rule-the-world 1980s, the “clear” product purity fad of the why’s-that-carrageenan-lurking-in-my-ice-cream? early 1990s, and even the Internet-ready “e” prefix of the if-your-business-isn’t-online-today-you’re-too-late late 1990s.

The word “agile” plays on traditional information-technology fears of getting stuck with a product that’s not up to the task of business evolution. Compared with the fear of business obsolescence during the rise of the dot-com, this fear is much more mundane and hardly unique in the history of high tech.

If we count our blessings from the dot-com demise, one is that it’s nice to know we can go back to our old, familiar fears so that everyone can stop screaming and get some work done.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.