Back to the Future

Posted on September 26, 2016 by Marian Salzman

 

martha-soukup_back-to-the-future-image

Originally posted on Forbes.com.

Now that everyone is a trendspotter, marketers also need to know that reviewing past sightings and predictions is an important part of the job. It’s not just to pat ourselves on the trends we called right or to cringe at sightings that failed to materialize. With that in mind, I reviewed my sightings from 2006, how they compared to the landscape in 1996 and what I saw for the future. Many of them have since evolved beyond what anyone could have predicted.

In the ’90s, brands were labels for excellent products, whether luxury handbags or chicken soup. By the ’00s, everything was branded—except those products that were unbranded to save money (and therefore commodities). What I saw for the future was brand sluts taking back control from brands. Look at the clamor of user reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor and all the apps that make comparison shopping a piece of cake. No wonder analysts and observers have been talking in recent years about the “slow and painful death” of brand loyalty.

In addition, Americans have given up on ideas about being respectful. We’re now an opinionated nation, and we’re making sure that everyone knows those opinions—especially in our hate- and fear-fueled politics. A Civility in America study released earlier this year found that 95 percent of Americans say lack of civility is a problem, and three-quarters say they’ve seen it decline in the past few years. And 70 percent say that American incivility has risen to “crisis” levels, up from 65 percent in 2014.

However, we’re rather conflicted about what to do about it. Nearly all likely voters said a candidate’s level of civility will be an important factor in deciding how to vote. But that’s going to be hard when 73 percent say that politicians are purposefully uncivil to attract attention. (And it’s not just the presidential candidates.) They’re also blaming the media—kind of. Two-thirds say the nonstop media coverage of the 24-hour news cycle and shouting-match-style TV commentary is making incivility appear worse than it actually is. But by a two-to-one margin, people believe the media should report on candidates’ uncivil behavior rather than ignore them.

For every yin there is a yang, and one refreshing break from the uncivil clamor is the high-road approach of Michelle Obama, whom almost everyone seems to like these days. Following her speech at the Democratic National Convention, the line of the summer became “We go high.” The DNC has already printed pro-Mobama bumper stickers. And my big sighting for this past weekend is the great bipartisan hug, Mrs. Obama and President Bush celebrating the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Another sighting from 10 years ago that came to pass in a major way is the question of America’s place in the world. “Who’s in charge?” I asked in 2006. Although not everyone knew it at the time, the 1990s were the closing years of the American Century. There was great enthusiasm for fluid modern times and new freedoms. By 2006, the country had suffered a major attack, was mired in two wars and was piling up debts at home. Massive upheaval and uncertainty ensued, and fundamentalism began its scary rise. Those wars didn’t fully end, the debt bubble burst and America is trying to hang on to its waning popularity and power—as the next president might end up starting more military action or take America in an isolationist direction. The question now is “Will it be control or chaos?”

On this the eve of the great debate—how few events expect 100 million to drop in—America has become a country in search of itself. The country now has both more wealth and greater inequality than any other major developed country, and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the 1920s. That became a major theme of Bernie Sanders’ often uncivil campaign. But Uncle Bernie also did a lot of things right. He created optimism for change, making us believe that we might be able to find a new American dream. He authentically hijacked nostalgia and futurism—which nearly always works.

Which bring me to the opposite end of the spectrum. Joe Sixpack has been a meme in previous elections—urbandictionary defined the term in 2003 as an “average American moron, IQ 60, drinking beer, watching baseball and CNN, and believe everything his president says.” And in 2008 it, updated that definition to include: “The appropriate nickname for the ignorant masses drowning out all remaining hints of intellect on our planet. You know them—they’re the same kind who take Jesus’ death for granted, eat at McDonald’s every day and think pan-and-scan is superior to widescreen.”

Donald Trump gave Joe Sixpack not just a voice but also a spokesman and a megaphone. Former Joe Sixpack darling Sarah Palin stumped on behalf of Trump: “He is the best thing to happen to the political class since the beauty of the Tea Party genuine movement rose up and shined light on crony capitalism and pulled the rug right out from under status quo politicians who just kind of embrace that permanent political class. Donald Trump, he’s got these Joe Sixpack issues on his mind, and he’s got these Joe Sixpack common sense solutions—he just happens to be an extremely successful and charismatic, with a very large platform, Joe Sixpack.”

White guys like Joe Sixpack are scared of losing their status. And on Fox Radio last year, host Todd Starnes chimed in. He said Trump is popular because Americans “don’t want one of those metrosexual purse dogs; they want a pit bull.”

And one last sighting that has picked up massive momentum in the decade: the rise of BS and the way that bold claims by people and brands are threatening the truth. It’s been 11 years since Stephen Colbert coined the notion of “truthiness” (as “What you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are”). Since then, fact-checking has become a quaint relic of another time. The Internet is driving the truthiness trend with content that is so emotional or eye-catching, its accuracy is almost beside the point. Bold and febrile claims (birtherism or a wall along the Mexican border, anyone?) that don’t stand up to scrutiny but still become popular movements.

That’s not just in politics. Brands that make the biggest, boldest claims, rather than scrupulously sticking to the truth and deploying measured language, get the most attention. Bullshit drowns out integrity. Brands that have spent years and millions establishing their reputations based on trust and an intimate relationship with consumers could therefore find themselves at the mercy of the bullshitters who are telling consumers what they want to hear rather than what’s good for them—or the truth. The next challenge for all of us is figuring out how to balance honesty and bold, attention-grabbing images. Trendspotter in me says attention getting will be what it takes, honest and civil nice-to-haves.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Martha Soukup]

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