Depending on which variety of politician or media outlet you personally subscribe to, you could take your pick from "pure criminality," the breakdown of family or community values, poverty, or gangs. Or something even more bizarre if you fancied – perhaps social networks were to blame, just as, say, phone boxes were responsible for 1970s Irish Republican terrorism... weren't they? In fact, so beautifully dogmatic was the government on this issue that an immediate "anti-gang task force" was announced, as well as the hiring-in of a US-based anti-gang specialist at the expense of the local forces (much to their annoyance). Later, we would discover that over 80% of those arrested had nothing to do with gangs and that they weren't really the blame but – hey! – at least we've satisfied ourselves that there's an "answer" to a "problem" that we can repeat down the pub and that's all nicely done with.
However, life, despite the attempts of those to categorise it as such, is not that simple. People are not simple. They are complex beings with multiple, interwoven behaviours and desires. All of the above reasons have something to do with why riots erupt, but they are not everything. (And if you have a spare hour or so, Adam Curtis' beautifully written / researched blog piece on "Goodies & Baddies" examines how classifying people as one thing or another is a dangerous game and illustrates the point with loads of great news archive footage. I can't recommend it highly enough.) The truth is that there is a jigsaw puzzle of pieces that need to be fitted together before you can grasp the real picture of what makes human beings act so rubbishly in these kind of events.
Standard newspaper fare
One of these jigsaw pieces involves marketing and another involves consumerism. Yep, we're getting to the point, people. Much of our economy's strength is based on people buying shiny things. We don't have much in the way of resource production or manufacturing any more, so we sell goods and services. Marketing exists to convince us to buy stuff, we buy stuff and companies make money, that money is used to pay wages so we can go out and buy more stuff. And so forth.
But, there is a problem. Marketing exists and pumps forth just about everywhere, even if its real target is only a small percentage of those watching or consuming it. Consumerism demands the constant addition of new products and markets to feed the economy. As a result, even a small child is convinced that their life is incomplete without those shoes, a princess dress, that toy, that brand. I was forced to watch a Barbie film with my 4-year-old daughter the other week. It began in an era of princesses and dragons, castles and kings. Despite this medieval aura, the first scene involved the princesses leaping from the dinner table in excitement at – I kid you not – the arrival of the cobbler. Yes, he rode up in a carriage with horses and opened it up to reveal which shoes he had brought them. Even 4-year-olds can learn the importance of shoes to happiness and well-being amongst one's peers. And so it goes on.
"Today we are going to learn the Spanish for 'Buy all my shit,' amigo"
Your average Joe these days knows he is a social outsider if he doesn't have the latest trainers, this month's console game selection, or certain items of branded clothing. Every character to which one might aspire on TV or film has a swish smartphone, a nice laptop (both of which are likely to be higher spec than their real-life counterparts because of product placement) and will lead lifestyles of varying degrees of glamour. When you add up the sheer cost of leading such a lifestyle, it's astounding. To keep up means literally hundreds of Pounds a month - and that's at the conservative end of the scale.
And then you consider the average wage in the UK is under £20K a year for most in the likely riot-y groups , and you realise that this is not an affordable lifestyle for a significant portion of society. I look at the kids from the estate near where I live, and try and put myself in their shoes. They are living in a place where they are led to believe that to be a functioning, successful member of society they need to wear a couple of hundred quids' worth of clothes, drive BMWs or Mercedes, have £200 PlayStations and £44 games to go with it, play football in £100 boots... But their wage-earning potential is likely to be somewhere around minimum wage or, perhaps, traveller-site slave. Education in my borough is mainly piss-poor for ordinary folks who can't afford school fees or housing within the catchment zone of the good schools. Jobs are thin on the ground outside of chicken-based takeaways. How are they ever supposed to "succeed" or even be "normal"?
And then, for a couple of days only, the shops were open and the tills weren't ringing. And so these disenfranchised under-funded aspirational consumers-to-be helped themselves to the lifestyle to which their imaginations had become accustomed. Remind me: how is that in any way surprising?
Marketing and consumerism play their part in forging these unrealistic expectations. Aspiration is seen as a normal thing even though social mobility in the UK is regularly highlighted as being the worst in the developed world outside of the USA. Kids born after 1970 have no realistic prospects en masse of social mobility. Those that do move are the exceptions not the rule. Meanwhile, everything from billboards to advertorial to TV ads to display advertising aims at maybe 10% of its potential audience but doesn't care that it's unrealistically raising expectations for the other 90%. And, fuck, what damage it does – we marketing types just want the 10% at any cost.
Targeted advertising, then, solves the problem. Truly targeted ads – ones that are fed by a knowledge of your search history, behaviour, preferences and propensities – really only exist online and on mobile at the moment, and in relatively primitive form. Targeted advertising is better for marketers, as it has far better response rates, and you only pay for advertising to your targets rather than for the other 90% you don't care about. If you think about a TV ad, it splatters a message at several million people at once, even though the product isn't aimed at everyone. That whole Minority Report schtick with billboards that know who you are and talk directly to you is only round the corner, however.
And then imagine multi-view TV sets... plus whatever new tech is developed in the future for zapping marketing messages into our brains. (There's a great moment in Futurama where Fry has a dream which is sponsored by Lightspeed Briefs but stupid copyright means I can't embed it or link to somewhere you can see it in the UK. I may have to riot about this later).
For advertising to really work, it needs to show you something you can afford (or nearly afford, if it's something worth saving for). If ads become truly targeted, we'd end up only seeing stuff that was relevant to us personally. I would no longer see ads for cars or food I can't afford; I would doubtless see a swathe of ads for second hand Toyotas, the joys of travelling by bus and coach, prescription drugs that dull the pain of existential angst, rented accommodation and affordable credit. Relieved of the aspirational desires that kill my appreciation of my current lifestyle, I would be able to be satisfied. And so would the missus – imagine that, folks: a world in which your partners' desires were tempered by affordability and pragmatism: unbounded joy, in my eyes.
And so, as the youthful, disaffected mob are relieved of the need to aspire to unrealistic goals, they are instead fed with advertising that fails to do the ultra-consumerist damage we are currently inflicting on the nation's yoot. Ads for Gola trainers, delicious Netto snacks and Morley's Fried Chicken, socks going for 3 pairs for a pound from your local market stall: all achievable, satisfying consumerism.
And the economy continues to be healthy without the need for rioting or looting.
Problem solved, clearly.
Elliot Reuben is a strategy whore and has been successfully pimped to brands as diverse as O2, Sony Electronics, Clinton Cards, T-Mobile and PlayStation; he is currently considering going the full Pretty Woman. He is @ereuben on Twitter.