Why Madison Avenue Is Over
Madison Ave., addicted to the message "you deserve it," has no vocabulary to deliver the bad news that the party's over.
Wall Street isn’t the only metaphorical thoroughfare facing a crisis. Madison Avenue is, too, and it’s got nothing to do with declining advertising revenue. Rather, the hype world’s big problem is the very foundation on which it’s been standing since the economy pulled out of its “malaise” in of 1982: That is, the mantra YOU DESERVE IT.
In the earlier days of advertising—and even through the supposedly non-conformist 1960s and early 1970s—consumers were urged to be part of a community. I remember as a kid thinking it would be cool to join all those nice-looking, sun-kissed young people who wanted “to buy the world a Coke” in 1971. And while I didn’t know what insurance was, I had a feeling that one of my nice neighbors would have some if I needed it, as State Farm promised.
The iconic image of the Postmodern Depression will be the flipflop-wearing college grad gazing at the latest i-gadget at the exact moment he realizes he can't have it.
In more recent times, the communications subtext has been our rebel individuality: Nike told us to “Just do it,” a 1990s Burger King ad implored us to “break the rules,” and now John McCain and Sarah Palin peddle their maverickitude while Apple urges us to “Think Different,” as if lining up like sheep to buy the same products everybody else has is intrepid and “creative.”
Regardless of the goods and services we might wield to inflict our individuality on the world, the message is that we deserve to have it. As much as we’ve been hearing that the meltdown of the American financial system is “complex,” at some level it’s pretty simple: Consumers believed they deserved to have houses they couldn’t afford, and finance marketers designed products that said, “Here y'a go!”
The ethic of deserving is rooted in a concept that began metastasizing in the 1960s: The notion—most notoriously trafficked by Mister Rogers—that we are all intrinsically special.
I can pinpoint the seminal cultural moment when YOU DESERVE IT overwhelmed Delayed Gratification. It was the film, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which was released, ironically, in 1971, the same year we were all buying each other Cokes.
When sweet, poor, Charlie Bucket mopes that he hasn’t won one of five golden tickets that would grant him admission to Wonka’s mysterious factory, his mother sings a song called “Cheer Up, Charlie,” in which she incants the curious phrase, “Up on top is right where you belong.” Exactly why Charlie deserves to be “on top” isn’t made clear until the last line when Mom concludes, “Just be glad you’re you.”
Charlie, of course, finds a golden ticket as the creepy Oompah-Loompahs carry out his pig-dog competitors and is awarded Wonka’s entire factory—just for being him, the central teaching of “Wonkanomics.”
As a doting parent, I find this good-wins-out fable appealing. As an unapologetic capitalist, however, I see a big problem: You get neither a golden ticket nor an entire confectionery firm because Mom told you you were special.
The yang to the whole YOU DESERVE IT yin is that corporate communications are constitutionally anchored in good news. My friend, the esteemed chronicler of capitalism’s shortcomings, Barbara Ehrenreich, refers to this as “mandatory optimism.”
“As promoted by Oprah,” Barbara recently wrote on her blog, “Scores of megachurch pastors, and an endless flow of self-help bestsellers, the idea is to firmly believe that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because thinking things, ‘visualizing’ them—ardently and with concentration—actually makes them happen.”
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the dissemination of “happy PR” messages is not willful deception. It is simply in the DNA of the corporate culture to promote the assets side of the balance sheet and play down the liabilities. After all, the customer is never wrong in his desire to have his deservingness validated.
A corporate PR person once nearly suffered an embolism when I advised her CEO that his company was “about to be [@!$%*!] by adversaries.” I was admonished that terms like [@!$%*!] and “adversaries” were not used at, uh, WussCorp. “What terms are used here?” I asked. “We don’t have adversaries. We have stakeholders.” “OK, then,” I said: “You’re about to be given a Swedish massage from some stakeholders.”
No sale. There were plenty of PR firms lined up around the executive suite ready to tell WussCorp that to know them is to love them.
I've been through many corporate scandals, and I am convinced that the provenance of most of is not greed per se, but the sheer incapacity to deliver—or even imply—bad news. This absence of negativity has trickled down to many in the under-40 set whose take on our new Postmodern Depression is something like, “This Wall Street stuff sucks. Oh, and did you see that new hi-def flat-screen Sony’s gonna have out by Christmas?!”
Indeed, for many late boomers and X and Y-ers, recent American history has been a series of Chicken Little false alarms. The apocalyptic “Y2K” was a dud, there were no domestic terrorist attacks after 9-11, the stock market rebounded after the 1990s tech bubble burst, the Iraq War is happening, like, somewhere, but flat-screen TVs have gotten sleeker in spite of everything. Despite the current fashion predicting a sequel to the Great Depression, my sense is that the optics of the one now upon us will be different. If the lasting image of the 1930s is photographer Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” holding her head in her hand as her children cling to her, the iconic image of the Postmodern Depression will be—click—that of a recent college graduate wearing flip-flops and a catatonic expression, gazing through the window of the Apple store in an upscale shopping mall at THE MOMENT HE REALIZES HE ACTUALLY CAN’T HAVE the latest i-Booger. Like, at all. Oh, and you’ll be living with mom and dad for another 10 years.
I empathize with my professional cousins on the marketing side of the communications aisle, because I’d hate to pitch Toyota on the slogan, “Camry—Because it’s so over.” Still, one ingredient in the antidote to our current woes will be disabusing ourselves of the equation that wanting = needing = getting.
As Chuck Palahniuk searingly wrote in his book, Fight Club, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”
If you find that passage as much of a downer as I did, well, Cheer up, Charlie. Just be glad you’re you.