Our Autumn of Discontent

Welcome back to reality. Summer is officially over and the kids are back in school. The New York Times announced today, “Beach Reads Finished, It’s Time for the Big Books.”  The long days, warm, lazy evenings and vacations will soon be memories. Time to get serious.

This fall, we’ll be more serious than usual.  Good news is hard to come by, and the mood of the public – our consumers – is by varying degrees angry, tentative, pessimistic, uneasy and apprehensive.  Some are desperate.  Politicians of both parties, too timid to act, are about to leverage this uncertainty to their own ends by kicking off what will surely rank among the most negative, vacuous, fear-based campaigns in recent memory.

Here in California, we’ve had a nice sneak preview of what’s to come courtesy of some early campaigning for governor. Today’s Los Angeles Times reports that “billionaire Republican Meg Whitman leads the way (in spending), pumping $104 million of her own money into her campaign…”

Whitman’s opponent, current California Attorney General and former Governor Jerry Brown, has only been supported with a small fraction of this spending. Up to this weekend, none of it came from his own campaign war chest, but from supportive labor unions and other pro-Brown groups.

It’s all very ugly. Most of the political ads seem to run in late night, starting with the local 11:00 PM newscasts and continuing into the talk shows. I can only speak for myself here, but this is all putting me into a terrible mood. It’s affecting my sleep, making me angry and frustrated just at the time I need to unwind and relax. Neither candidate is endearing himself or herself to me.

Whitman’s ads decry Brown’s 40 years of public service with a voiceover that intones the most sinister reading of the words “career politician” I’ve ever heard.  Based on her “facts,” it’s astounding that the state is still standing after the horrible unemployment, deficits and corruption of his two-term stint as governor nearly 20 years ago. Wasn’t it Brown behind the ’94 Northridge earthquake?

On the other hand, the union-supported Brown ads have Whitman running EBay – one of the most incredible success stories of the Internet Age – right into the ground.


The first thing that we ask our clients as we embark on positioning projects is, “What do you make?” No, not the product on the shelf  – soft drinks, food, personal care products or whatever – what do you really make? Security? Comfort? Peace of mind? Good memories? Stability? Connections?  Love?

What do Brown and Whitman make? Blame and anger, as far as I can tell.

Negative campaigning in this country in as old as the Founding Fathers. It’s nothing new, and possibly even less nasty and personal than it was back then, believe it or not.  If I were a political consultant, I’d fight what would surly be a losing battle against it.

Fortunately, I work in consumer marketing, not politics. And there is a crystal clear message for brands this fall and through the holiday season. Go out of your way to be nice. Talk about how your brand provides comfort or security. Stand for something positive. And don’t overpromise.

We can’t expect Fireside Chats or parental reassurance from our leaders.  So any small island of comfort in this coming storm will be welcome.

And if you sell sleeping aids, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications – or alcoholic beverages for that matter – this might be a good time to triple your budgets.

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