Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hot. Hotter. Hottest.

The official thermometer in Los Angeles broke at 113 the other day. The extreme heat could easily be a metaphor for political discourse or how that discourse gets us hot under the collar. I think the extremism that is more worrisome is more deep seeded and our political environment only reflects what exists throughout the rest of society.

Every day we’re bombarded with messages encouraging us to buy this product or that product to fix this thing or that thing. Advertising is fantastic – there is creativity, inspiration and innovation reflected in a range of new products. It’s not the new products or their messages that is cause for concern. It seems that each new product is the best ever. This one is the best drain cleaner ever. The drain cleaner we tried to sell you last month? Fuggetaboutit…this one’s better. Never mind that next month there’ll probably be an ever better one.

The claims of best ever and most fantastic and other hyperbolic descriptors have resulted in the opposite effect. The trend in movie ads shows that a particular movie may be “#1 Movie this Week” while another is the “#1 Comedy in America” while another is the “#1 Thriller this Fall” --- all probably true --- but if you want to see the actual “#1” movie, now you have to look hard to find that qualifier. So much work! Soon I expect to be able to see the “#1 Mystery in your neighborhood for the past 12 hours.”

It seems that every product now has a qualifier for being the very best or the only reason to acquire it. From a business and marketing perspective, that makes sense. It’s the function of business to distinguish itself and its products from the competition, and showing that their product cleans better, tastes better or is cheaper than the competition is fundamental. The trick is getting the word out.

We consume massive amounts of content and advertising every day – so much so that the various designations lose impact and value. The comparative qualifications of one product to another must then be amplified to keep up. Our attention is less focused because our days are busier, more harried and more distracted than ever before. To let us know about the important product difference means the volume gets cranked up, the message therefore must get more intrusive.

The result is more and more creative efforts to grab our attention. The Los Angeles Times once again arrived this week with a worrisome headline and pictures covering the entire front page --- only to discover that it was a paid ad for a new TV show. Mission accomplished – my attention was diverted because my expectation that the front page of the newspaper would carry, you know, news. TV newscasts now regularly highlight cross-promotional items and endorsement-paid segments on health and cars, often without attribution.

Being duped or tricked into believing that something is independent and then learning that it isn’t is now so pervasive that there exists a level of distrust and skepticism that permeates every part of our lives. It is potentially very destructive.

That destruction is where political discourse has evolved (devolved) to. President Obama was marketed and sold as the best politician, the one who came from nowhere to become the Leader of the Free World. He was better than any comic book hero. Now to some he has become the Worst President Ever (since that other Worst President). To some he’s now that Foreign-Born-Radical-Marxist-bent-on-the-destruction-of-Society-As-We-Know-It. To others he’s a disappointment because it turns out his feet got wet when he tried to walk on water. This is what happens when people are “sold” on one thing, and get something else. I don’t think President Obama or his supporters intended to have the expectations they set up not be met. Of course not. But it is inevitable with such salesmanship. By not meeting the very expectations they stoked, the spiral of disappointment and anger increases. Fewer participate in the process. And to get people involved and voting again the next time will require more, more and more sales. We’re at the point of diminishing returns – the same with having so many #1 movies…people actually shut down. The current result is more energy to wind people up again – for business or politically.

None of this hyperbolic discourse in any part of society is actually helpful. Until we individually look at our role in trying to “be the best” and the impact that we allow advertising and selling to succeed, the vicious circle will continue, just faster and louder. Yes, I’m saying we have to be responsible for our actions and communications to business and politicians. Clearly that’s a ludicrous idea. The most. Ever. In the history of human existence. Really!

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