The Inexhaustible Equity of Sloth
There’s money in sin. And the deadlier the sin, the more valuable it tends to be.
We’ll start with lust because everything starts with lust.
Forbes estimates the value of the global pornography business at between $2.6 billion and $3.9 billion a year. Hard figures are difficult to come by because the monetisation of porn is messy, cabalistic and evolving rapidly into ever more complicated transactional postures between buyers and sellers. Individual purveyors can earn as much or more than the big corporate players, and Playboy’s recent decline in fortune suggests that niche markets can be more profitable than the commercialisation of mainstream adult content. And since there is no apparent limit to the innovations of prurience, the blurring of the line between legitimate enterprises and the underworlds of drug, sex and people trafficking will inevitably make transparent financial reporting meaningless or impossible.
But even if Forbes’s figures are a gross undervaluation, the true figure, according to Havocscope, would be a mere fraction of the $186 billion spent annually on prostitution. The only two major countries in the world where prostitution is legal, and therefore accounted for with some accuracy, are Germany ($18 billion) and the Netherlands ($800 million). The US reportedly spends an estimated $14.6 billion, and the UK a modest $1 billion, which figures indicate immediately that the estimates for countries that criminalise prostitution are undervaluing the business by margins of anything between thirty and forty percent.
Victorian prudery was no hindrance to Victorian bureaucracy. They counted everything — thoroughly, efficiently and splendidly. In 1885 official government statistics put the number of prostitutes living and working in London at 60,000. Extrapolate that if you can.
The highest per capita spends on prostitution are Spain and Japan, a statistic that asks more questions than it answers, while the highest net spender is China with a whopping $73 billion.
Rounding up the numbers for the total annual value of lust we get very close to $200 billion, which equates, quite arbitrarily, to more or less the GDP of New Zealand.
Descriptions of gluttony vary by taste, and probably by class and income, but the consensus of online definitions narrows it down to “an excess of eating or drinking”. Assuming that the excess is discretionary, we have elected to measure the global annual value of gluttony by separating it from the amount spent on subsistence, which is to say outside of the family home and, again by definition, not essential to one’s survival or one’s general health and well-being.
The latest figures we can find are from Statista’s 2016 report on the size of the restaurant industry worldwide, which round out at a staggering $14 trillion. The US contributes $782 billion to the total. China is next with $480 billion, followed in short order by Japan, India, Brazil and the UK.
It is perhaps unfair to label all restaurant visits as gluttonous. There are times when all of us have had perfectly innocent and legitimate reasons for spending £12 on a latte and a chocolate croissant. But when the global market in duck meat edges towards half a trillion dollars, when two and a half million Big Macs are sold globally every day, when the number of tons of pork bellies in cold storage gets counted in the millions, when the size of the alcoholic beverages market pushes past $2 trillion, and when there are no statistics for the global number of midnight visits to raid the kitchen fridge, you do have to wonder where eating and drinking end and gluttony begins.
Greed is a close acquaintance of gluttony, but it is far more secretive and difficult to measure. Until this morning, for example, we had no idea that Queen Elizabeth II, head of state of the United Kingdom and of 31 other states and territories, is the legal owner of about 6,600 million acres of land, which amounts to one sixth of the earth’s non-ocean surface. The approximate value of her territorial holdings is £17,600,000,000,000. Nor did we know that just 36,000 people, or 0.6 percent of the UK population, own more than half of rural land in England and Wales. Scotland has the most unequal land ownership in Western Europe, with just 432 landlords owning half of Scotland’s 30,420 square miles. The more you dig, the worse it gets.
But the most brutal statistics are there for all of us to see. A 2018 report by Oxfam claims that just eight people, all of them men, own more wealth than half of the world. The reason we are not enraged enough by this fact to run out into the streets of Mayfair and set fire to every car that isn’t worth less than half a million pounds is because the numbers are so ludicrous as to be inconceivable. We know that right now there are oligarchs or every stripe and flavour sitting on the upper decks of their billion dollar yachts parked at Calabria or in the Caribbean, smoking thousand dollar cubanos and being attended to by harems of high-class hookers. We might even know people who know people who know them. But the facts are too weighty, too concrete and too close for comfort to be supportable by our impoverished imaginations. They become pictures in magazines, fictions and fantasies, Wall Street wolves, reincarnated Gatsbys, the vogue in Vogue — anything but a truth continuous with the truth of the quotidian lives we spend managing mortgage options, migraines and marital misunderstandings.
Wealth trickles down in pennies; greed sucks it up in pounds. There is nothing to be made from greed because it is never our own. There is nothing to be done in the face of greed because we wouldn’t recognise it if we saw it in the mirror. Greed is the existential black hole that sucks all of our lives into its remoteness from reason. There is no consolation for greed except in the other six sins.
Twenty years ago it would have been difficult to put a price on pride. Now we are learning to measure it precisely, not just in pounds and pence but in infinitely divisible units of the value it gives and the value it takes. We know with some certainty that a share is more valuable than a like and that a retweet is more valuable than a follow. Soon, with the benefit of experience that algorithms take far more seriously than human beings, we will discover exactly and by how much a mention is worth more than a retweet, and whether and by how much a pin is worth than a favourite. These are calculations of extraordinary complexity, not least because the value of an individual retweet, pin, like or mention can be determined with accuracy only be taking into account the historical value, as measured in likes, shares and favourites, of the individual who likes, shares, favourites or comments on the post in question.
In some respects we are still in unchartered waters. The monetisation of vanity has taken odd turns and twists of fate to emerge as an industry credible and profitable enough to earn its place alongside the other well established wages of sin. The wild expectations and variations of the early digital years have now settled into trends, patterns and numbers reliable enough to prove the cynics and the Luddites wrong.
A blogger with half a million monthly impressions will reliably make between $1,000 and $5,000 per post. An Instagram influencer with more than 100,000 followers will make between $1,000 and $3,000 per image. A video influencer with over 500,000 channel subscribers will make between $3,000 and $5,000 per video. But these are mundane and predictable figures when compared with the earnings of the digital champions. A single sponsored post by Kylie Jenner is worth over a million dollars in what accountants call “ad equivalent value.”
It would be nice to believe that the internet has democratised the vanity that used to be the exclusive preserve of aristocracy. The reality is that today’s digital celebrities are as close to the controlling powers of contemporary media dictatorships as Beau Brummel, the famous 19th century dilettante, fop and fashion icon was to the Prince of Wales. Brummel is remembered for polishing his boots with French champagne and for popularising full length men’s trousers, linen shirts and elaborately knotted cravats.
Plus ça change.
Envy, if it were capable of being measured in monetary terms, would surely be the deadliest sin of all. But covetousness long ago lost the thrill of wickedness that gives the other sins their abiding appeal by becoming our default response to turning on the television, opening our laptops or looking over our neighbour’s fence. It is less of an urge than it is a form of existential numbness, the consequence, we believe, primarily of the artificial hegemony of the mass media environment of the late 20th century that made fools of us all. Envy, during the period we describe in Skip Ad in 5 as “the brand greenhouse”, became not only the engine of commerce, innovation and growth, it became the condition upon which we learned to base all our relationships, personal, private and public — the sine qua non of every transaction from sexual favours to ice cream flavours, until we became incapable as a species of imagining any kind of intercourse that was not based on the redemption of covetousness in one form or another.
If this sounds either unduly paranoid, pathologically depressing or both, it’s because we can see signs, or small and distant glimmers at least, that we are emerging from the neon nightmare of the 20th century supermarket, in the faint light of which vision the grievous extent of our addiction to envy is only now becoming clear.
We cannot know how wrath will be rewarded in any of the imagined afterlives we are promised by various faiths, but it is possible to make a rough estimate of its actual and accountable rewards in this one.
First we must take everyday angriness out of the equation. Even the strictest of moral judges would have to allow without prejudice or punishment for those occasional lapses of judgement that have us raging at the washing machine, sometimes with intent to do it physical harm, when we find our favourite shirt or sweater shrunk to a size that would fit only an average rugrat, and then only with the use of unrestrained force. So here we will restrict the value of wrath to the class of those acts of angriness that are found out and punished by law.
According to the last report published by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research in conjunction with the World Prison Brief and the Birkbeck University of London, more than 10.35 million people are in prison around the world. To quote the report directly, “There are more than 2.2 million prisoners in the United States of America, more than 1.65 million in China (plus an unknown number in pre-trial detention or ‘administrative detention’), 640,000 in the Russian Federation, 607,000 in Brazil, 418,000 in India, 311,000 in Thailand, 255,000 in Mexico and 225,000 in Iran.
“The countries with the highest prison population rate — the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population — are Seychelles (799 per 100,000), followed by the United States (698), St. Kitts & Nevis (607), Turkmenistan (583), U.S. Virgin Islands (542), Cuba (510), El Salvador (492), Guam — U.S.A. (469), Thailand (461), Belize (449), Russian Federation (445), Rwanda (434) and British Virgin Islands (425).”
It is beyond the scope of this article to to dig beneath these figures into the facts that account for them. They do, however, leave us wondering why some of the most chilled places on the planet are driving such high percentages of their populations to self-destruction.
Not all crimes are inspired or motivated first and foremost by anger. Many will be committed in cold-blood, or as a consequence of a cool and clear-headed calculation of the risks they run. But it is nevertheless hard to imagine a murder, rape, robbery or assault that is entirely untinged by the smallest ounce of wrathfulness, and for every one of these exceptions we must surely add a perpetrator who got away with it. On that basis we can translate the 10.35 million prison population into monetary terms by taking the example of Romania as more or less representative of the average amount spent per day per person in prison, a not insignificant 15.6 euros, which gives us a net global spend of around $65 billion. In the absence of information detailing how much of this total is makes its way into the hands of private contractors, we can conclude only that wrath, for all its manifest horrors, has a long way to go before it catches up with vanity or gluttony.
The last deadly sin is the one that interests us the most, not because it is more intrinsically fascinating than the others, but because it the most under-exploited, the easiest to exploit, the least risky to exploit and the most immediately amenable to exploitation. The empire that Amazon has become was founded on sloth, built of sloth, expanded by sloth and will be stoppable only by competitors who find avenues of slothfulness that Amazon is too big to know about or bother about.
Amazon is a bad example because it is the best example, just as Apple is the worst possible case study of marketing success because the lessons it teaches are too simple be appreciated and too obvious to be implemented. What they have in common with (almost) all of the world’s fastest growing brands and companies is that they understand that the human propensity for laziness is the gift that keeps on giving.
It’s a lot sexier to dress it up as intuitive design, empathic ergonomics or anthropological insight, and these are indeed among the tools required for is exploitation. But the rich vein of value they have all succeeded in tapping into is nothing other than good old-fashioned sloth.
Laziness is everywhere, as abundant as nitrogen and just as invisible to all but those few entrepreneurs and visionaries who can see the wealth of idleness lying idle about them.
Laziness surrounds us. It shapes the thoughts that shape the actions that become our habits. Our habits buy the goods and services that become the default brands of our choice. Default brands become big brands. Big brands that understand what they owe to laziness become great brands.
You won’t find sloth mentioned in the textbook cases of entrepreneurial triumphs because no one wants to believe that success could be the default position of brands that didn’t try hard enough to please the tastes, the appetites and the affections of their designated target markets. Nor does it seem acceptable to acknowledge that cheapness is the ugly commercial face of laziness. But laziness knows the dirty secret of cheapness — money takes effort to earn and to spend.
Compare the brilliant creative endeavours of British Airways to retain its perceived superiority as “the world’s favourite airline” to the public relations disaster that is Ryanair. BA understood British tastes, but Ryanair understood sloth. There could be only one winner.
IBM could have owned the personal computer market. Nokia could have owned the smartphone market. Both companies were blessed with the talent and intelligence of the world’s most brilliant scientists, ergonomics experts and software geeks. They both had the money and the market positions to have dominated their categories for decades. Both of them made the mistake of believing we could be bothered.
Aldi and Lidl know that advertising is the price we pay for pride. Pride likes to think there is something shameful in sloth. What it doesn’t understand is that shamelessness is more than half of sloth’s attraction.
From category to category, across all of the brands and services that relied on marketing and advertising smarts to maintain their dominance through the Ries & Trout era of perceived advantages and benefits, the winners have turned out to be the ones who took the laziest option. In three or four years’ time none of this will sound as heretical as it does right now. Forget first mover advantage, product differentiation, branding, advertising and innovation: laziness will beat them all.
Strategies for the monetisation of laziness have this advantage over the other six sins: they can find value in every aspect, sphere and application of human behaviour, activity and endeavour. A brand that helps us not to think can be as valuable as a brand that helps us not to listen, not to carry, not to interpret, not to lift a finger, not to understand, not to go out of our way, not to choose, not to read, not to digest, not to talk, not to write, not to hear or not to relate.
The list is endless; hence the inexhaustibility of sloth’s hidden and not so hidden equities. But the last point above is worth noting, in particular, because it explodes one of the great myths of digital strategy as currently practised. The theory of engagement, now universally accepted not only as measurable but also as the primary indicator of communications effectiveness, is premised on the idea that there is always value to be gained in cultivating online relationships between brands and customers. Indeed, as the Dominic Cummings story has so eloquently demonstrated, it has become an article of faith that Big Data in the right or the wrong hands can be manipulated to produce formerly inconceivable behavioural results to the advantage of any given brand, project or ideology. The hard truth of it, as history will demonstrate to the embarrassment of all parties, is simply that human beings will tend to outsource the effort required to sustain a relationship to the nearest available substitute. What looks like an active choice to engage is always, in reality, the default of least effort. What engagement measures is the absence of alternatives, not a conscious preference nor less a lasting allegiance.
Loyalty is the varnish applied by marketing to gloss over the tawdry truth of our dependence on habit. Just as it is easier to be reminded than it is to remember, it is easier to accept than it is to choose.
These observations are explored in more detail in Skip Ad in 5. Critical to our argument in favour of an approach to brand planning that is fit for purpose in the multichannel environment that surrounds us today is our fixed belief that digital is not an extension of the traditional brand-to-customer communications paradigm we inherited from those pre-digital years dominated by mass media. Digital is primarily a mechanism for facilitation; only secondarily a medium of communication. To assume otherwise it not only to inhibit the nature and content of the conversations that brands can now have with their customers, assuming, of course, that their customers care enough to bother, it is also to blind the marketing function to the possibilities for enhanced facilitation now available for exploitation.
Faisal Ahmed & Gordon Torr, Skip Ad in 5. Illustration by Lickable Squid.