A recent survey conducted by the online therapy company Talkspace found that, as of Inauguration Day, over 60 percent of respondents reported feeling some degree of post-election stress. In a 2016 Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans said they trusted conventional media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” an eight percent drop from 2015 and the lowest level ever polled by Gallup. To cope with growing discontent, many Americans are turning away from their usual news outlets or their increasingly political Facebook newsfeeds in search of distractions. However, the thirst for distraction is not uncommon in American history, and escapism has become a staple during rough economic and political times.
Defined by the Merriam-Webster as “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine,” escapism may seem like a purely psychological issue, but there are very real economic ramifications when companies capitalize on this desperation by filling the demand for a break from reality.
During the Great Depression, Americans flocked to movie theaters. For 27 cents a ticket, about 4 USD in contemporary terms, people could escape the harsh reality of an economic depression for a stretch of time. Films like Dumbo, Fantasia and Arabian Nights, which were released during World War II, transported moviegoers into magical, exotic lands. The 1973-75 economic recession, which also marked the end of the Watergate scandal, the United States’ defeat in the Vietnam War, and two near assassinations of President Gerald Ford, shows a similar trend. In that time frame, directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg started releasing fantasy movies like Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Exorcist and Jaws, all of which were among the top 10 highest grossing movies of the 1970s. Escapist cinema is key during economic and political hard times, as it is one of the easiest and most direct ways to find relief from the real world.
The Walt Disney Company, arguably the biggest player in escapist entertainment, had record breaking inflation-adjusted domestic gross ticket sales of over $2.93 billion in 2016, thanks to popular films like Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory and Zootopia. From early November to late April, Disney’s stock increased over 26 percent. 21st Century Fox, another box office competitor, saw its stock rise by 37 percent from early September to late March. Even Netflix, which is not a direct competitor but another key player in escapist cinema, saw its stock increase by over 38 percent since the election, compared to a nine percent increase in the S&P 500 Index over the same period. Moreover, half of the top 10 highest grossing movies in 2016 were comic book adaptations, and all of the top 10 movies had a high degree of fantasy, meaning moviegoers actively seek fictional entertainment, and companies provide it.
The demand for escapist fiction extends over many markets, including the literature market. Orbit Books, a fantasy and science-fiction imprint, doubled its annual output last year. With the buzz of a likely science-fiction “golden age,” several other publishing companies launched their own science-fiction imprints. Is there a better way to hide from current unrest than to immerse oneself in a completely different universe? Along with science-fiction, the young adult (YA) genre – fiction published for readers in their teens – plays a key role in literature escapism. Seventy percent of YA novels are not purchased by teenagers, but rather by adults for their own reading enjoyment. YA literature provides not only a means of escapism, but also instant gratification and a sense of nostalgia.
Similarly, adult coloring books bring back nostalgia and reminiscence of childhood for the adult “readers.” In 2015, 12 million coloring books were sold in the United States, a huge increase from the one million sold in 2014. Millennials are 29 percent more likely to purchase an adult coloring book than all other buyers. Since coloring has the potential to reduce anxiety and increase mindfulness, it makes sense that the newfound popularity of coloring books would be directly related to the escalating need for escapism.
The rise of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), evidenced by the boom of Pokémon GO, represents a new mode of escapist entertainment. Launched in July 2016 and known as the first use of AR to go “viral,” Pokémon GO has been downloaded globally by over 650 million people. By navigating around their physical surroundings, players are introduced to a parallel world on their phone screens, where a vast array of creatures and Pokémon supplies await discovery. The increase in popularity of AR and VR will be paved with exploitation by marketers, as already seen through the sponsorship deal between Pokémon GO and McDonald’s to entice players into the restaurant chain. Global revenue for the AR and VR markets are projected to reach almost $14 billion in 2017 and $143 billion by 2020. Clearly, this emerging market has the potential not only to provide a new means for escapism, but also to reap massive profits for those companies that utilize AR and VR.
From playing video games to trying new restaurants to visiting amusement parks, escapism is a natural way to de-stress when reality becomes overwhelming. Companies that already provide escapist entertainment are reaping the rewards of widespread unease, and if the U.S. political environment remains volatile, expect new entrants and innovations to satisfy a growing demand for escapism.