Return To Normalcy

The mid-terms are behind us and we’ll be in the midst of another marathon presidential race before you know it. Part of me is thrilled about this. Is there anything more exciting?

I’ve always been fascinated by American presidents. And breakfast cereals. That’s why I’m in marketing. Even as a little kid, I loved the slogans and jingles in all advertising, including the political kind. I was completely fascinated by brand image well before I had any clue about what it was.

In addition to reading the backs of cereal boxes, the section on U.S. presidents in the set of children’s encyclopedias we had at home was well worn. I could name just about all of them in chronological order.

The continuity of it all made me feel part of something very big. Though a third-generation American of Eastern European and Russian ancestry, I felt that the presidential lineage connected me directly to Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington. It was as if we came over on the Mayflower, making my relationship with presidents, dead and alive, as intimate as my connection with the sweet, candy-in-the-morning type cereals I ate nearly every day for breakfast.

The power of a few well-chosen words continues to amaze me.  Whether based in fact or fiction, regardless if they related directly to relevant issues of the day, slogans seemed to have an outsized power to persuade. Evoke the right emotions, make it pithy and memorable, and the facts be damned. You might not be familiar with the following examples or know the candidates to whom they are connected, but you have to admit they’re all catchy.

  • Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
  • 54-40 or Fight.
  • I Like Ike.
  • It’s Morning Again in America.
  • Change We Can Believe In.
  • Make America Great Again.

With November 2020 now in sight, the game begins with what might be a record number of Democratic candidates slugging it out to take on the incumbent. Again, part of me is really excited about this.

Then there’s the other part. I am totally exhausted. Stressed by current events as never before. Aren’t we all?

I am old enough to remember “duck and cover” drills in elementary school. The Russians could drop the bomb at any moment, but if we marched out to the hallway in two straight lines, got down on our knees facing the wall, bent over and covered our heads with our hands, we’d be saved!

This was really stupid, even to six-year-olds, as the only real outcome of these drills was to make us anxious. It was a stressful time, knowing the world could be destroyed at any moment, but seems to pale with what’s going on today.

It’s a shit show out there. How many crises per week or per day can we tolerate? The president likes it that way and he gets a big, enthusiastic assist from the Twitterverse and cable news. Remember how the caravan was going to be the end of us all? That’s so last week…

This Los Angeles Times headline from May 8 of this year says it all: “It’s not just you, we’re all living in the United States of Anxiety.” And I’d argue that it’s only gotten worse since that piece was written. I swear these mid-terms took a few years off my life. Google “politics and stress” or “politics and anxiety” and you’ll find a long list of surveys and think-pieces on our collective stress level.

We’re in a Cold Civil War which has real potential of heating up. The pundits tell us that we’re already in or fast heading for a constitutional crisis. We’ve long had to worry about war, economics, racial justice, equality for all and other big issues. On top of all that, two-thirds of the country now fear life under a wanna-be dictator while the other third fear life without him.

Not to mention the storms, floods and fires, the “500 year” events that now happen multiple times a year. As I write, fires rage all through California. The closest is about 20 miles from me, but still, the air is thick with smoke outside and my eyes are burning. A good friend of mine sold his house in the Malibu hills a few months ago. Lucky for him. It’s now a pile of ashes.

We are besieged by real catastrophe and potential calamity.

Given this environment, I have one word of advice to presidential candidates and marketers, not matter what product or service they are selling.

Comfort.

The Democrats will have to fight hard in the political realm, but their message needs to be hopeful and inclusive. Leave the demonizing to the other side. Absent of a smoking gun delivered in the Mueller report, something so big and so heinous that even the recalcitrant Republicans won’t be able ignore it, there can be no talk of impeachment. Democrats must launch investigations, but they should do so in a calm, methodical manner without incendiary rhetoric. The positioning of this must be that they are working to restore our system of checks and balances. Hence, political messaging and action must ladder up to comfort.

This is no different for marketers of beer, toothpaste, software, fast food, smart phones or any other product or service. Give us a break! Give us something to feel good about, a soothing tonic for the rash of everyday crazy.

It will be a question of balance. There are seldom black and white choices in marketing, and the need to disrupt and innovate isn’t going away. Clearly, the great marketers will continue to obsess about how to improve the lives of their customers.

I relish in challenging the establishment, looking at issues through a different lens and pushing to the creative edge. How do you move forward if you can’t escape your own comfort zone?

But the comfort zone is calling, nonetheless. As usual in marketing, it will be a question of the “how” more than the “what.” That is, tone and personality will be everything.

The big winners over the next few years will be the marketers and political candidates who strike the right balance between innovation and comfort. They’ll have to accomplish both simultaneously, communicating a unique, exciting new vision while remaining calm and grounded.

I strongly encourage our next Democratic nominee to steal the slogan of one of our presidential greats, Warren G. Harding, one whose administration rivals the incompetence and corruption of He Who Must Not Be Named. No doubt you all remember the Teapot Dome scandal. Or maybe not. Regardless, it resulted in Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Bacon Fall, going to prison for accepting bribes. (Is Ryan Zinke far behind?)

Parallels with the current occupant of the White House are ironic, as Harding’s campaign slogan is perfect for our times.

“Return to Normalcy.”

Sounds good doesn’t it? No matter what side you’re on, couldn’t you use a bit of normal right about now? It would nice to be truly “great again,” (not in its current racist sense, of course) but making America normal again sounds like a really good start.

“Normal” is a relative concept, of course. But wouldn’t it be nice to wake up in the morning without worrying about how the other side is trying to ruin your life?

We’ll see how this plays out in Super Bowl ads in a few months, always a good time to take the pulse of the marketing world and the popular culture. I’d be surprised if comfort, inclusion and optimism weren’t big themes.

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