What even is vice anymore?

Seminal urban planner Daniel Burnham thought that one of the key benefits of parks was their role in keeping people moral and virtuous because their behavior was out in the open.“Those who grow up before the eyes of the community escape those poisonous practices that lurk in secret places,” he told a group of planners in London in 1910.

Fast-forward a little over a century to Civic Center Park in the heart of Berkeley, California.

Polly Armstrong, then head of Berkeley’s Chamber of Commerce, was giving a tour. As she passed the park, she remarked, “This is where the kids in the ’60s and ’70s all used to come to smoke dope. Now they just smoke it anywhere.”

The point, of course, is that our definitions of “vice” are continually shifting. Many of the topics covered in this issue were “vices” 100 years ago. Or 30. Or even five. Today those stigmas are dissolving. As societal norms and behavioral expectations evolve, what were once considered morally bankrupt behaviors are now gaining increasing acceptance.

Does this mean that we as a society are moving in the wrong direction? Hardly. It’s simply a recognition that as times change, our delineations of what is acceptable change as well. On page 20, Ipsos examines attitudes from around the world about the morality of a variety of activities. It’s clear that what might be a vice in another nation, isn’t here. And vice versa, if you will. Will that change in the future? Likely. It’s easy enough to imagine a world suffering the extreme consequences of climate change, where driving a gas-powered car is considered a vice.

We should keep an eye toward the future, while thinking about how to capitalize on society’s constant evolution.

Think about these trends as a starting point, and consider the impact they will have not only on these categories directly, but perhaps on your industry, too.

Just say yes

In the U.S., states that have said no in the past are reversing course. In more than 30 states cannabis is legal—and highly regulated and often taxed—for medical purposes. More than one in five states have approved recreational use as well. But unlike in Canada, cannabis isn’t legal at a national level. A similar wave of legislative changes is spreading the footprint of legalized sports betting in the U.S. States and municipalities also are seeing the benefits of relaxing liquor laws to allow for brewery tap rooms, small-batch distilleries and other ways for the craft industry to expand its reach.

Making it personal and bringing it home

For those who want the vice without the consequences, brewers are working on truly alcohol-free 0.0% beers. Rapid aging of spirits means you can design your own bourbon and taste it in minutes instead of years. Mobile betting will allow you to put some money on your favorite team (or whoever is playing the Red Sox) from your home, desk or anywhere with cell coverage.

Wrapped in luxury

A pop-up restaurant in Chicago served cannabis entrees in what the press called “a seriously elevated fine dining experience.” Craft brewers and distillers create in-demand drinks that require eager consumers to either wait in a long line or pay a big tab—or both! When a mass-market product category gains a level of luxury, it’s hard to see it maintain its status as a vice.

So, what the future? We’ll talk about that in the rest of this issue, with a deep look at cannabis, beer, spirits and sports gambling, to see where the potential lies.

Finally, we take a moment to consider how our digital lives, under constant tracking from marketers and governments alike, are pointing us to a virtual version of Burnham’s virtuous parks. As it becomes harder to keep our vices and everyday behavior secret from the watchers, we come to a crossroads. Who is to define what a vice is, and what is the result of others being able to track our enjoyment of them?

The shifting of societal norms is hard enough to predict—we should be thinking harder about how we react to those shifts. Let’s start now.

For more on this topic, listen to a recent WGN Radio interview featuring Oscar and this research.

This article was originally published in What the Future, a quarterly deep dive into different aspects of consumer and social thought and behavior. Each edition features exclusive new data from world-leading research firm Ipsos. WTF explores how a single industry or behavior fits into the broader culture now and in the coming decades.


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