Peace has a marketing problem

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I have the fortune of living in the same building as one of the world’s experts on peace research: Susanne Jalka. We’ve had many interesting discussions, and I’ve learned a lot. Mostly I learned about how little I knew about peace.

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that peace has a marketing problem.

What is peace? Is it just when there’s no war? How do you depict it? What colour is it? What does it sound like?

Often, peace is equated with harmony and the absence of conflict. This is very problematic.

All human culture – language, art, music, literature, food(!), sport – lives off tension, conflict and resolution.

But even the term resolution is dangerous. It gives us the impression that tension has to be resolved, fixed, made good. Jalka’s view is that the energy contained in tension and conflict needs to be transformed into something new, not dissipated.

Every single Prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach does this, note for note, bar for bar. Bach without the tension and transformation would be boring. We’re just so used to it – conditioned by it – that we don’t notice it going on. (The next time you step on to an escalator that is not moving, remind yourself just how powerful conditioning can be.)

In numbers, we live in the most peaceful time of all of human history. The probability of being the victim of a violent crime is tiny. Terrorism has been declining and in Europe is significantly lower than it was in the 20th century. There are fewer wars and they kill fewer people.

There are still huge conflicts to be dealt with (or “transformed”), in South Sudan, Yemen, Syria. But the situation is, as Hans Rosling puts it, “bad but better”. Or better but bad.

In the three years to 2017, global deaths from terrorism went down by 44%. Only one Austrian newspaper reported this, but on the same day the news came out, they reported that 3 people were killed by a bomb in Balutschistan (could you find Balutschistan on a map?).

Our languages lack the ability to adequately talk about peace and human progress. Newspapers don’t tell us every day how many people didn’t die from armed conflict last year.

I tell marketing clients that they need to describe their product better. They need to explain very clearly to their audience what it can do for them. They need to use empathy to find out what their users want (not need) and how their product can satisfy that desire.

Marketing is all about tension and transformation. Look at this kid with her dirty football kit. How am I going to get that clean in time for the next practice? This washing powder can help. We’re all happy. Yay.

Instead of saying “I built this, please buy it” we need to engage with our audience and their wants.

And instead of saying “We ended the war, be happy” we need to create a new story about peace that doesn’t involve violence.

Our brains are tuned to react to risk and danger. The problem is, that with less risk and less danger, our brains become more sensitive and react to smaller risks with the same level of horror. The news exploits this mercilessly.

People end up disputing the fact that we’re actually living “peacefully”.

And that, truly, is dangerous and frightening. To paraphrase Carl Sandburg*: Sometime there’ll be peace, and nobody will come.

So this year, talk to your friends and family about peace. What does it mean to them? What does it look like?

Our grandparents knew. Do we?

As Christians, Jews and Muslims say: peace be with you.


* Not Brecht, as I, and many others, thought.