The new escapism: Why brands must be bolder in entertaining consumers

At a time when seeking space from the noise, literally and metaphorically, gathers pace among consumers, escapism is being reimagined for the digital generation.

There have never been more accessible ways to act on our escapist impulses; the opportunity to scroll away from the frictions and uncertainties of the here and now is just a touchscreen away. The notion of escapism is being reimagined for the smartphone age, in which consumers face an excess of everything except time, space and empathy. Economic, social, political and emotional upheaval is driving a flight to pursuits, both analogue and digital, that offer consumers the promise of a greater sense of control. From the growth of augmented worlds and digital spaces to immersive experiences, this desire to pursue new avenues of self-expression and self-actualisation shows no sign of abating.

However, experts warn against assuming that this trend is fuelled by the desire to carve out certainty in an uncertain world. James Champ, chief strategy officer at customer acquisition and engagement agency Stack, points to the fact that 52% of those who voted "leave" in last year’s EU membership referendum actively opted for uncertainty, while 63 million in the US voted for Donald Trump – the first man to win a presidential election with no prior experience of public service. Champ believes people want to shake things up. 

"I think they’re looking for the sensation of control that, with the rise of technology that knows what you do before you do, is leaching out of everyday life," he says. "They’re escaping from boredom – or, to put a more Marxist slant on it, from alienation from their surroundings."

The idea of escapism is nothing new, of course; it is a cornerstone of entertainment. The resurgence of musicals and nostalgic films such as La La Land serves to underline the fact that the roots of escapism extend well beyond any given media platform. But as Neil Hughston, chief executive of creative agency Duke, quips, in this climate, escapism is "less of a trend, more a necessity". As a result, he believes brands must be bolder in the experiences they create for consumers. "Escapism isn’t shorthand for lying, it is about offering a shard of light when the world feels so dark," he adds.

La La Land: award-winning Hollywood musical tapped into consumers’ growing taste for escapist entertainment

Reality bites

More consumers are creating light for themselves, dedicating a greater amount of time and effort to experimenting with augmented and altered realities. Some experts believe this is contributing to Facebook’s loss of traction with the youth market. Alain Sylvain, chief executive and founder of innovation and brand-design consultancy Sylvain Labs, says Facebook is no longer really used by young people because it is too tethered to reality. "There isn’t any exploration on Facebook where you can escape," he points out. "It is the closest experience we have to the real world online." Other platforms, including Tumblr and Instagram, offer more opportunities to reimagine your identity, he contends. "There is a way for technology to enable escapism; Pokémon Go enables escapist entertainment in the real world and technology is going to further that trend."

Christian Ward, head of media and marketing at research and advisory company Stylus, says that augmented reality is undoubtedly the most exciting trend for content, where the environment becomes an interface. Pokémon Go and Snapchat filters are just the start of things to come.

Active escapism

This thirst for experimentation crosses the imagined divide between virtual and analogue pursuits. Becca Smith, behavioural analyst at consumer-behaviour research practice Canvas8, points to the examples of Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema, which brought immersive theatre and cinema, respectively, to the masses. She explains: "We are moving beyond passive to active escapism – where you are partici-pating in something, rather than a viewer." This is creating pressure for brands to offer more interesting and complex narratives in which consumers can truly lose themselves. 

There is a long history of escapism providing consumers with a salve for issues and complex relationships in life. Research by Dr Andrew Kuo, assistant professor of marketing at Louisiana State University, identified close ties between people’s life stressors and the way they tackled a video game. It found that players would approach gaming in a manner that would directly address the issues they felt in the real world, from struggling with identity to feeling out of control.

"If your senses are constantly on high alert, you feel burnt out" Nick Farnhill Publicis London

In essence, escapism is alluring because when people feel in control, they feel safe. As Smith explains: "The real world is stressful and unpredictable. But video games provide a space where the player understands the rules. In a game, people know how to win, what the potential threats are, and have a clear path in terms of how to succeed."

Brands are experimenting with the art of world-building, she explains. "Sony, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, HTC and Samsung are investing billions in developing VR headsets. It’s indicative of the new escapism. Audiences are gulping six episodes of one show in a single night; ubiquitous screens mean great stories can follow you anywhere, and for the eight million who’ve played Google’s Ingress, the real world becomes a game." The trend is also evident in MIT Media Lab’s Sensory Fiction book, which incorporates a wearable that can change things like temperature to match the experience of a character in the story, and video game Nevermind, which adapts the gameplay in response to the player’s fear level.

Analogue revival

The growth of augmented reality and alternative universes is not at the expense of the rise of more analogue pursuits, however. Indeed, being "always-on" seems to have reawakened our desire for slower-paced experiences. Nick Farnhill, chief executive of Publicis London, has a growing sense of people seeking to disconnect. "From the resurgence of family dinners to Faraday cages around bars and the rise of cinema, escapism is in the ascendancy," he says. This is a direct response, he believes, to the loss of "tangible, visceral experiences" in our frenetic lives. "If your senses are constantly on high alert, you are going to feel burnt out," he adds. 

All this serves to present an opportunity for brands to offer consumers an invitation to take time out. The increase in cinema admissions, combined with the immersive, high-quality experiences offered by cinema chains such as Everyman, are evidence of consumers’ readiness to accept this invitation. According to US cinema trade association the MPAA, global box office for all films released in cinemas reached $38.3bn in 2015, up 5% on 2014’s total, with increases both domestically in the US/Canada ($11.1bn) and internationally ($27.2bn). Growth was strongest in the Asia-Pacific region; box-office takings in China alone increased by 49% to $6.8bn.

Karen Stacey, chief executive of cinema ads company Digital Cinema Media, says that in the face of technological bombardment, shared real-world experiences have become more valuable. "A planned night out is one of the best and biggest paywalls there is," she argues. In a marketplace where marketing reach has become easy, all too many brands are not thinking enough about context and impact. "It is ironic that, as marketing experts, we don’t often treat people as human beings," Stacey adds.

The anti-economy

Marketers must beware of misinterpreting the trend for digital escapism. Hughston explains: "We know many consumers are backing away from ‘digital ev-erything’ and relishing physical contact. Whether it be vinyl, arts and crafts, theatre or marching, escapism is about feeling ‘real’, even if it isn’t." He believes this will make escapism important for creative work – whether it is for pure joy or to forge some semblance of control (not mutually exclusive motivations). 

"Escapism is about feeling ‘real’, even if it isn’t" Neil Hughston Duke

"We’re really seeing the selective adoption of one or two slightly more difficult things that allow us a sensation of control, and elsewhere the happy embrace of modern convenience," Champ says. He cites middle-aged men buying powerful motorbikes or becoming lycra-clad cyclists as evidence of the desire to add the sense of skill and control to their lives. He believes there are also signs of an emerging skill-based "anti-economy", where people downsize, stop buying and make do and mend. "You could almost say that we’re trying to make things more difficult for ourselves, because that’s more rewarding than the easy alternative." Yet one should not overstate the significance of this – as Champ notes, vinyl obsessives can also have iPhones. 


Creating Spaces

This new wave of escapism is manifesting itself in a wide range of pursuits; from the deep-dive provided by immersive film and theatre experiences to the micro-moments of dipping into social media, podcasts, newspapers and magazines. 

Charlie Edelman, director of Story Studio at ESI Media, says there is a growing feeling that every little bit of downtime should be filled with something. Claiming that there is nothing worse than reading a review of something you have missed, she believes that this FOMO (fear of missing out) effect is increasing the opportunities for brands to connect with consumers. 

This demands that brands focus on making those micro-moments more meaningful. "Brands need to create space for consumers," says Edelman. This does not mean simply talking to them less, however. "If you create meaningful content, which takes time to consume, people will spend time with it – as long as it is of worth and not shallow," she adds. 

For brands that invest their marketing budgets in interruption rather than providing spaces for escapism, the danger is they become just another obstacle for consumers to get around. 

Critics may argue that the advent of the smartphone has led to the creation of an ecosystem in which consumers are losing the ability to escape to their imagination, but that fails to recognise the fluid nature of what constitutes real or virtual experiences. 

The development of digital tech-nologies may have widened the range of tools and mechanisms available for self-actualisation and self-identification, but the unfettered power of the imagination of the individual remains sacrosanct, if increasingly augmented. 

Through an ever-increasing range of analogue or digital pursuits, consumers are following the well-trodden path of escapism; the challenge for brands is to ensure it is not a dead end – or, worse still, a meaningless distraction.  

The rise of ‘Generation Experience’

Typical. We’re just getting our heads around the demands of millennials with their expecta-tion of frictionless user experience when we realise they’re turning 40 this year and the next generation, two billion strong, is waiting impatiently in the wings. The oldest turn 21 this year, the youngest were five when the iPhone came out. And in many ways, in many aspects of their lives, it’s the Shared Experience Generation (although their idea of a shared experience may not be yours).

If you think Gen X and millennials need escapism, spare a thought for Gen Z: born in the shadows of 9/11, beset by financial crashes and ongoing (if not escalating) existential threats. According to the Varkey Foundation, 83% of Gen Z fear for their future because of extremism/terrorism; climate change keeps 66% of them up at night.

It’s no wonder Professor Noreena Hertz calls them "Generation K" in honour of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. They identify with her, says Hertz, because they are "navigating a dark, difficult world". 

It’s the most connected generation in history, the most stressed/anxious (since qualitative records began) and almost certainly the loneliest. Helicopter parents, packed after-school schedules and a heightened sense of "stranger danger" kept them indoors for much of their childhood. They yearn for shared experiences, which manifests in the tech they use, the content they prefer and the contact they seek out.

From unboxing videos (a shared moment, even if shared with a stranger and separated by space and time) to YouTube influencers, their viewing habits answer a need for social connection. Their influencers consequently feel a lot closer than those of previous generations, edging out traditional movie stars (aside from Jennifer Lawrence) in favour of social stars (including the all-conquering Kardashian-Jenner Industrial Complex).

For Gen Z all over the world, the constant need for social validation takes a huge bite out of their self-esteem, and many now favour the video group chats of apps such as Fam, Tribe, ooVoo and Houseparty over the "likes" and "hearts" of old-school social media. This preference for the fun, ephemeral and casual means brands need to reconsider their social moves to find a place in what Houseparty co-founder and chief operating officer Sima Sistani has dubbed "the post-selfie era".

Yet they’re not immune to the lure of social capital and FOMO. Branded experiences and face-to-face contact score big, in large part due to the resultant exclusive bragging rights – status updates being valued by Gen Z over status symbols. It answers a deep need identified by Professor Hertz, whose research shows that this generation craves one characteristic over others: to be unique. 

So if brands can create participative, shareable experiences that let people express their individuality, or experience-led content that lets them share a moment, we’ll be one step closer to creating value that works both ways. And we’d better hurry up, because they’ll be here before you know it.

Caspar Mason, senior creative strategist at Jack Morton Worldwide

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