Is Fun Functional?
During a tour of our farm in the late spring I greeted the crowd with the announcement that we would not be having fun during the event. My statement was met with surprised laughter, and when everyone regained their composure I offered an explanation for sounding like such a curmudgeon.
Society, it seems, acts as a powerful tide that is pushing individuals and families to be increasingly distracted from life. Thoughtful, challenging, action-invoking causes are a little too difficult for the average phone addict to pursue, but fleeting bursts of jam-packed ‘fun-fun-fun’ will draw in followers like bugs to a zapper. Even completely unobservant people, given the task of hosting an event, realize instinctively that a bounce house and face painting will get guests through the door.
As a result, everyone is trying to be fun. Businesses large and small, when they’re looking to drum up sales, insert fun into their ethos to such an extent that it often seems unnatural. Organizations tasked with PR for marginalized or highly scrutinized industries, like agriculture, introduce people to their domain using games and cardboard hats for the kiddies. I see it in advertisements and hear it on the radio: ‘Our car buying experience is fun!’ ‘Quitting smoking is fun!’ Insurance companies and lottery tickets and hair salons and even dentists’ offices and Coca-Cola all lead their advertisements with fun for everyone involved.
The problem I see with the success-via-fun myth is two-fold: First, competition will be brutal, because as soon as the neighbor studies what you’re doing and then comes up with something more fun, customers will inevitably flock to their side of the street. Entertainment experiences are fungible and therefore difficult to brand, so customer loyalty depends heavily on your ability to keep up the pace.
Second, substance is lacking in the fun department. Experiences delivering a spurt of fun are fleeting, immediately forgotten and replaced by the next as soon as it rolls around. Customers drawn in by fun will believe that’s what is for sale instead of your core products or services. Entertaining people takes focus off your original cause, and the ensuing situation results in a beef farm (for example) being judged heavily on how entertaining a visit is. That won’t work.
Small businesses and community organizations might be the worst offenders in the fun department, for, unlike Coke or H&R Block, they often have a real cause to support: their own survival. I know a gifted small business owner who is obsessed with trying to get attention with fun, using the guise of ‘being different’ as logical reasoning for frenetic events throughout the year. Free, extravagant community hoopla attracts droves of people. Giveaways and selfies and a pantomime culture of ‘happy’ make newcomers smile. But, when push comes to shove and the daily grind sets in, all of those people are gone because they already got what they came for. In short, customers responding to entertainment are in it for themselves and will not pick up a torch for any other purpose. Torch carrying isn’t fun.
Attracting people with fun fools us into thinking we’re getting somewhere. Agriculture is at a tipping point: we’re either going to jump off into a future of laboratory synthesized and scientifically fortified feed rations that mimic food, or we’re going to shift funding away from the centralized food monopoly and shove those dollars back out across the landscape into the hands of small farmers from whom real nutrition originates. The former will happen almost automatically; the latter will take deliberate, long term effort. Is it sufficient, then, to pursue such a cause using petting zoos as bait?
I think not. Having fun is a vital and enjoyable component of life, but it isn’t the only component. We need a more intellectual link with people who can understand a common objective. Customers who will pursue such a connection are the minority, but identifying and accumulating that minority will create an influential group of people who direct the masses towards a better future. That’s exactly the kind of environment I want at our farm. So I’ll relinquish fun to my peers and allow them to pull in the preoccupied; I’m looking for a different kind of customer. I suppose that’s my purpose in this world, to appeal to those who don’t find pleasure in premeditated distraction.
What do you think? Are 100 customers who ‘get it’ better than a thousand who show up for a hoot? Are ten? I think so.