I am writing this entry on an airplane riding out of San Francisco towards Dublin, Ireland. I was in San Francisco for the 2008 Association for Consumer Research Annual North American Conference. I’d like to report a few things about the conference to you.
But first, for today, given that I’ve been out of North America for about eight weeks, I wanted to reflect on a few things that I noticed in my five days back in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
First, I have to mention the incredible energy and excitement that permeated San Francisco surrounding the upcoming Presidential election. On the corner of Market Street and Embarcadero, the active little streetcorner situated next to my very architecturally elaborate and beautiful conference hotel, The Hyatt Regency Embarcadero (whose wireless Internet service in the heart of Silicon Valley was absolutely the worst I’ve encountered anywhere, ever), was set up a big table with Obama buttons, t-shirts, and other items for sale.
Obama in red white and blue. Obama done in traditional African ochres, oranges, and browns. Obama in Peter Max ’60s style silkscreen with the simply evocation “Change” beneath him. Obama, hand raised, eyes forward and gaze lifting upward, trailing waves of hope as evocative as any poster of any powerfully propagandist political figure. I can’t help but think of Chairman Mao, Stalin, and Lenin when I see these posters. Check them out.
I have to say that I find the parodying of these posters pretty apt and funny. Here are a couple that tickled me, courtesy of thepeoplescube.com, which made them and retains all rights to them. They’ve got some very funny stuff on their site…much of it dedicated to skewering the Obamamania sweeping the nation.
The posters and buttons I saw on the Streets of San Francisco were not, as in prior elections, being given away to supporters with the promise of their vote of support, used as a form of inexpensive WOM and attention building, a visual popularity count.
My conclusion is pretty simple. In the time since I’d left North America, Obama has become an icon.
The imagery marketing Barack Obama is propagandistic, yes. But it’s also just good plain branding. Simple images, simple messages. That’s potent, effective branding. It’s no wonder that it looks like propaganda, since the early PR and advertsign industries actually were founded based on the model of persuasive mass communications honed to perfection by the fascist propaganda of WW2 (anyone ever heard of Edward Bernys?). Good mass marketing, particularly of the political variety, is indistinguishable from propaganda.
And in San Francisco, at least, and I suspect in much of the country as a whole, perhaps even dare I say it across the globe, the air of ecstatic anticipation, the building soaring thrill of the possibility of real change was all-but-palpable.
With the many California propositions being actively touted, pamphleted, debated, shouted-down, and counter-argued on the streets-I was educated about one against Gay marriage (“Prop 8”), and another one supporting animal rights (“Prop 2”)-there was an enlightened carnivalesque quality to democracy spilling into the streets, forming the chief locus of visual imagery, activism, and spectacle.
These propositions were the key places there was debate about politics in San Francisco. Walking the streets, overhearing people, conversing with people it was obvious that the McCain-Palin ticket had very little chance of presiding in this area. Obama buttons, t-shirts, and stickers were almost all that I could notice. I spotted perhaps four or five McCain buttons and bumper stickers, as compared with literally dozens and dozens of Obama images and buttons.
The second thing I wanted to reflect on was the sense that something has shifted, or was shifting, in the world of finance and business. Away in Australia and New Zealand, I’d certainly heard about and followed the financial crisis or meltdown. When I spoke to my family in North America, I’d also gotten earfuls about how bad the stock market was, and how it was affecting everyone’s savings, particularly those on fixed incomes, and those who were depending on the market or mutual funds for retirement or pension income.
But the financial crisis really never quite hit home like it did when I got to California. The meltdown is all over the news. People seem genuinely chastened, Dopwn but not out, certainly. The general talk I heard about the economy is fairly doom and gloom. Although in California there also was some upbeat optimism about the upcoming positive effects of regulation.
But actually, in my district, around the tourist shops of Union Square and Chinatown, there didn’t seem to be much of a slowdown. In fact, shopping for some clothes yesterday at Ross Dress for Less, the Shoe Pavilion, and the Discount Shoe Warehouse (all discount stores), there were massive unbelievable, twenty-minutes-plus, snaking-right-through-the-store-up-to-the-entrance-sign lineups and at Westfield Mall, and at Nordstrom and other high-end stores there was plenty of hustle bustle and capitalist adrenaline evident.
But I was told that this was the tourist section, and it wasn’t typical. And the real enthusiasm and buying was in the discount stores. And, gosh-darn-it, I’ll be darned if Americans like me don’t just love Love LOVE to shop. Why would they slow it down? This hedonistic excessive, contagious, and seemingly unquenchable sense of fulfillment through spending is something that has served America and Americans well through past crises. I suspect it will serve us well again.
What I am detecting is a real sense that something has shifted, that the glory days of making money the way it was made in the last twenty years or so have come to an abrupt, skidding halt. It seems like the eighties all over again, with the easy post-Reaganomic deregulated money and Gordon Gecko materialism and Charlie Keating banking scandals all being nostalgically challenged by current events.
Something is very different. And one of the speakers for the Doctoral Symposium that I co-chaired at ACR absolutely nailed it in his speech. I’ll be happy to tell you about it in my next blog entry, tomorrow.
For now, goodbye to my friends at ACR, to dramatic mountain-ocean vistas and picturesque dining at Waterfront. Goodbye to Fisherman’s Wharf walks and to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge, to Union Square and the surprising lineups, Obama buttons and No to Prop 8, and the whizzing retro-Bladerunnery glass elevators of the Hyatt on Embarcadero.
Goodbye to wonderfully, energetic, surprisingly sunny San Francisco.