The emergence of essential consumerism in the times of COVID-19

Guest Column: If there is one word that symbolises these current times, it is ‘essential’, observes Titus Upputuru, National Creative Director, Dentsu One and Creative Head, Taproot Dentsu, Gurugram

e4m by Titus Upputuru
Updated: Jun 26, 2020 9:02 AM
Titus Upputuru

When the psalmist David wrote in the first verse of the famous Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”, he meant that he shall not be in want.

Through the years, we’ve all studied the difference between one’s needs, and one’s wants. Advertising was largely attributed with fuelling the desire to want more. We have also learnt that one man’s luxury could be another man’s necessity. But this pandemic has offered us a world view that is not just simple but also absolutely brutal.

If there was one word that has emerged out of these current times, across the world, it is this – essential. And it has taken away all subjectivity. It has taught us about what’s truly essential in life, better than any modern-day guru could have taught us. It helped us draw the line between what is essential and what isn’t.

Soon after the lockdown was announced, as we all scurried around like squirrels to buy goods that were essential for our homes, we were asked not to hoard. When one went to the market in the initial days, one saw every marketer’s dream – the shelves were getting empty like there was no tomorrow. Indeed, many believed there may not be a tomorrow. ‘If’ hung like a heavy chandelier in the virus-laden air.

Over the weeks, we all started to look at our own consumption patterns. Actor Katrina Kaif taught her followers on Instagram how to wash dishes, while using soap and water economically. There was also more consciousness than ever about wasting food on the plate. This time, the argument was not about the poor not having food to eat, but of our own reserves and resources.

 Cinema houses and shopping malls were closed. Liquor shops were shut down. This meant entertainment and enjoyment fell under the non-essential list. On the other hand, hospitals and chemist shops remained open. They were essential. Medicines and medical help were essential to our health. Talking of which, health was essential. Perhaps most essential. Mental health became essential too. Cleanliness was essential. Clean hands and homes were essential. We all took to our dishes and floors and cleaned them, even as our house-helps were forced to migrate back to their small towns.

All of this cleaning, mopping and washing was giving us more than a fair bit of workout, which we were otherwise trying to obtain, before the lockdown, in gymnasiums that were pumping more music than muscles.

News was essential. But newspapers weren’t deemed to be essential. News was coming to us, by the minute, on our tablets and phones, in our social media feed, on WhatsApp.

This new consciousness changed our outlook towards every facet of our lives. Including business. The consciousness of protecting one’s business grew more than the business itself. Culture, values, and such other softer aspects weren’t offered a back seat; they were politely asked to step off the bus. Awards and Award shows? Most were postponed. Some companies took the unfortunate call of giving the pink slip to those they thought they could do without. Employees who were essential remained.

While in the pre-COVID era people travelled hours in order to make a presentation, they were now doing it smoothly over video calls. Daily business travel was no more essential. Why would you send executives across cities, if they could do the same over a video call? Devices became essential. Charging them became more essential than ever.

Studying was essential, so schools and institutions found new ways to teach. Books were essential and amidst the lockdown, shops opened to supply textbooks.

Psychologists say, whatever we do consistently for 21 days becomes a habit. The lockdown in most parts of the world was for more than three weeks. Thus, it remains to be seen if the adjustments we made around essential living will last for more than a season.

As the lockdown opens, this great divide between what’s essential and what’s not may thin down. But the introspection that it has forced us to do may not go away for years to come.

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