Nestled within the broad population of Canada is a large segment of people not motivated by what motivates most of us, who are not engaged — at least in traditional ways — with the society around them, and who see little point in trying to influence the course of events around them. Mass communications, built on the assumption of shared values and aspirations, does not reach them. Civic engagement, which assumes that people working together can change society for the better, does not interest them.
When the advertising agency Bensimon Byrne asked the Gandalf Group to create an updated Canadian consumer typology, we did not expect to find a group of people with these characteristics. But 24 percent of those Canadians we surveyed fell into a group we had to label “Spectators,” because they do not participate in most of the interactivity that society values. This segment of Canadians is predominantly male, young and living in the suburbs. Over 40 percent are under the age of 35. Few of them are first- or second-generation Canadians.
Two other groups we defined — we called them “Runners” and “Walkers” — differ from each other in many respects, yet share a clear set of life goals and values. Almost all of those in these two segments place a great importance on family, friends, financial security, living a happy life, providing their children with greater opportunity and leaving the world in some way better than they found it.
Spectators show little desire or need for any of this. They are, for the most part, uninterested in public affairs. Breaking with the perception that young people are strong environmentalists, less than a quarter of Spectators displayed concern about environmental issues. Only about one in ten think it is important to be involved in politics or to support an issue or cause. Fifteen percent say it is important to get involved in the community or offer their time and expertise to a community project. This is not surprising given that few Spectators think that people who get involved make any difference.
Consistent with Robert Putnam’s theory of disintegrating social connections, only ten percent of these Canadians feel connected to their community and very few think it is important to know your neighbours. They are unlikely to feel any affinity with their co-workers and few would socialize with colleagues from work.
Most concerning was the fatalistic, demotivated mentality of this segment. We presented survey respondents with 18 life goals or aspirations. Most Canadians subscribe to all of them. Few Spectators subscribe to any. Spectators are ambivalent about objectives such as strong family life, a successful career, material aspirations or close friends. They tend to dislike their work and do it only for the money. Most say that there is nothing that they are passionate about.
It would be one thing if this socially isolated group were happy — but they are not. Less than a third say they are happy, and most do not even know what would make them so.
At the core of their alienation is a feeling of a lack of control over the direction of their lives. They do not think that life has offered them many opportunities, and they do not feel they can influence their financial or personal direction. They see themselves as corks bobbing in the water, pushed and pulled where the tides take them.
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This is not a condition that applies to all Canadians of this demographic group. Many of the young adults aged 18 to 35 that we surveyed do show a desire for rich social connections, falling mostly into the Runners category. They fit the profile of those who may be susceptible to building online communities and even join in fighting for social or political causes.
But for all the excitement around the potential for social media to drive greater political engagement, there is also awareness that simply being online does not necessarily translate into greater political participation. Many of those online remain stubbornly beyond the lure of politics or social activism. Spectators fit this profile. Our research showed that this segment spends more time online than the average Canadian. What appears clear is that they are not using that time to connect to causes or organize for change.
The size of this group and the depth of its alienation raise troubling questions for marketers, not only of products but of ideas. Much of marketing communications is based on aspirations considered to be universal. If a group doesn’t share those aspirations, how can we create advertising that finds affinity with them? The challenge for political and civil society activists is even more vexing. What does it mean for democracy when so many people believe any attempt at making a difference is pointless and lack faith that that political change can create meaningful outcomes? Where are we headed when a quarter of our population, whose incomes are roughly in line with those of the rest, tell us that the Western ideal of progress is not making them happy or satisfied?
Digital media is not responsible for this alienation of the Spectators. In fact, professional communicators in marketing or politics could easily find a way to reach them, using a variety of social media and online tools.
The problem is we don’t know what to say to them.