In recent weeks there have been a number of events – mostly in the political sphere – that have highlighted a new trend. Us and Them refers to the different standards expected of public figures and private citizens. The twist is that the focus of scrutiny is on private individuals who, for whatever reason, insert themselves or find themselves inserted into the public eye.
This trend has its roots – as so many do – in the downturn. At that time, we identified a shift in consumer sentiment we described as the New Morality. Consumers were less trusting and deferential to businesses, politicians and figures of authority, their concerns narrowed and they became less altruistic and more selfish as economic pressures hit home.
When conducting both quantitative surveys and qualitative research during the downturn, we also observed a hardening sense of ‘them’ – referring variously and vaguely to politicians, businesses, brands and authorities – and ‘us’ – the ordinary consumer doing what they can to stay afloat in turbulent times.
Over the last decade, consumer expectations of brands and businesses has evolved. CSR agendas that had been parked during the downturn (sustainability, green issues) hove back into view, alongside new expectations for financial probity and boardroom culture. In the wake of the EU Referendum and the deep cultural rifts it exposed brands also started grappling with consumer expectations of politicisation. Paperchase and Pizza Hut were backed into social media apologies for the relatively everyday practice of promotional tie-ups with the Daily Mail and The Sun respectively while, cottoning on, Nike, HSBC, Gillette and other brands leaned into the political issues of the day in an effort to retain meaning and attract politicised young consumers.
However, consumers lofty expectations of brands was not, in this period, backed up by unimpeachable conduct on their own part. This was illustrated in December 2018 when mobile network O2 suffered a major outage, depriving millions of customers network access for a day. To make amends, O2 offered each affected customer the chance to vote on how their compensation – calculated at 90p per person – would be spent.
The majority of customers (61%) voted to keep the compensation for themselves – every penny counts, right? – while 39% voted to donate their share to O2’s chosen charity, Crisis. While casting no slight on the hundreds of thousands of customers who voted to claim their miniscule compensation for themselves, if a business had acted in a similarly penny-grabbing fashion it would have been crucified in the court of public opinion.
As we entered 2019 the message from consumers was clear: do as I say, not as I do.
But this year the tables have started turning. Consumers who stick their neck above the parapet – particularly those that embroil themselves (or find themselves embroiled) in the unfolding and highly polarised political scene – find themselves subject to unprecedented scrutiny. In the last few weeks there are several examples of this:
- Figures defending the MP Mark Field while Paul Crowther, who threw a milkshake on Nigel Farage during the European Election campaign is sacked from his job and ordered to pay compensation
- The neighbours who recorded Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds’ late night argument are profiled by national newspapers and temporarily leave their home after receiving death threats
- Members of the public who asked questions of Tory leadership candidates have their online profiles scoured to find ammunition to discredit them
This final example is particularly important. Of the two questioners highlighted, one was revealed to have a history of antisemitic and misogynist views. The other had simply made a joke about Hitler on Twitter. He was suspended by his employers, law firm Leigh Day.
These episodes may be a brief diversion and prominent only in this particular instalment of a remarkable period of political history. But they signal a further development in the evolution of consumers expectations of businesses, news media and public discourse. Now the public are under unprecedented scrutiny – arguably more scrutiny than the politicians they challenge.