article

02.21.09

Making the Stimulus Sexy

Team Obama gave us a stimulus. What they didn’t give us was a reason to love it, to hug it, to make it our very own.

The stimulus package—pedantically and for all of history burdened as the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009”—might or might not be epic policy.

But it is a branding and communication flop. An inspirational non-starter. It has the dubious distinction of making billions boring.

There isn't a single sexy program, not one, in the $787 billion that we can clutch to our hearts, that is poised to find its way into our national vernacular.

Instead, it’s a hydra-headed litany of investments, line items, and program descriptions written in the dreary syntax of legislation.

This is a massive missed opportunity, and particularly shocking given how carefully the Obama brand was built, fed. and fortified.

We hear that President Obama and his people have been fattening their Kindles with downloaded FDR 100-day histories. Well, they missed something essential to the Rooseveltian approach: It was an energetic if not manic outpouring of brand name programs, agencies, and initiatives that all fell under the evangelizing sacrament of the New Deal. The bold breadth communicates creativity and confidence.

FDR’s detractors called it an Alphabet Soup, but it was pure marketing genius, a critical part of selling his massive intervention in the economy to the American people. After all, we buy an iPhone, not a software-enabled telephony device.

So, for example, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) wasn’t just a dry carcass of legislation. It had a logo. But more importantly, it commissioned a range of artists and designers to create a gallery of posters that narrated the WPA’s story to America.

It was stirring political propaganda. According to the Library of Congress—which holds more than 900 of these Art Deco gems in its collection—the artwork covered “health and safety programs; cultural programs including art exhibitions, theatrical, and musical performances; travel and tourism; educational programs; and community activities.”

Roosevelt’s team also branded the NRA (the National Recovery Act) with the famous, blue eagle logo, a commanding symbol that made its way into banners that “hung in shop windows all over the country” and that carried the simple, message: “We Do Our Part.” Obama’s plan doesn’t allow for any personal statements of participation and support.

Of course, this also gave the New Deal’s opponents a convenient target. They called it the National Runaround Act and mocked the eagle as the Soviet Duck.

But that’s fine. Roosevelt’s consumer strategy gave supporters a rallying cry and made the New Deal come alive, through the culture-changing launch of touchable, feelable entities that, together, made the government's efforts both pervasive and intimate.

And enduring. The New Deal’s poetry of possibility resonates to this date, ringing in the caverns of our collective consciousness: The Public Works Administration, the Rural Electrification Act (which survives in a different form), and the very much alive and exquisitely relevant FCC and FDIC.

This is a massive missed opportunity, and particularly shocking given how carefully the Obama brand was built, fed. and fortified.

Mind you, what I'm talking about isn't some superficial acronymic layer. To work, stimulus needs the confidence of a convinced America, and that can only come from an emotional connection with the policy.

Naming things is evolutionary, it's how the brain organizes, files, perceives. And a metaphorical framework, as the work of George Lakoff and others has shown, makes it possible for frigid policies to tap into warm neural circuits.

But it's not too late. The President can repackage and brand many of the programs in the stimulus. But he needs to take this seriously, and start immediately.

Take the $70 billion for energy programs. This is a bold and ambitious plan that includes direct investment; grants and loans for renewable energy; a smart electricity grid; advanced batteries; and wind, geothermal, and hydropower innovation.

Right now it’s just a clutch of accounting line items.But this could be our EFA—Energy Future Act. (The name doesn’t have to be tricky.) The President and his administration would vocalize their energy strategy through the EFA.

There’d be an EFA website to provide tracking and transparency. The EFA logo would go on every energy-efficient furnace it funded, every windmill it built, every public nook and cranny where energy investment appears. There’d be EFA baseball caps and t-shirts and pens and coffee cups.

Importantly, the nervous suits at Exxon-Mobil, Shell, and BP—as well as utilities and others—would rush to include the EFA in their marketing. In a month, everyone single person in America would know what the EFA is.

The same is true across the board: the $44.5 billion that is heading to local school districts could be our Save American Education Act (SAE). The $48 billion for our infrastructure becomes the RAA—Rebuild America Act.

Our ERA—Emergency Relief Act—comes to the aid of the poor and disabled vets with $14 billion direct cash payments.

Without this model, the billions will spill out into the economy in a faceless way, and the President and the plan will get credit in the abstract, but not in a way that is both visible and visceral.

Obviously, you can’t over-fragment. All this would need to be done in a disciplined way, focusing on the most important investments. And if the legislative authority doesn’t exist, the president can create some of these entities by executive order (as Roosevelt did) using the already allocated dollars.

I want the plan to populate the landscape of America, so it activates our neural circuits every day, in the same way that the latest research shows our brain systems come alive from the Apple logo.

In one of his Fireside Chats, President Roosevelt said “If I am asked whether the American people will pull themselves out of this depression, I answer, ‘They will if they want to.’” He understood the crisis was as much psychological as economic.

So he gave us both psychological and economic solutions. He gave us Keynsian economics and his version of 21st century marketing. Thus far, President Obama is halfway there.

Adam Hanft is a decoder of the consumer culture and our branded planet. He blogs for The Huffington Post and FastCompany.com. He is also the co-author of Dictionary of the Future and is founder and CEO of the marketing and branding firm Hanft Raboy.