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Mud slinging

Political mud No one likes mud-slinging. 

But we all have a little under our fingernails.


Turns out it's part of belonging to a group. 

Recent research suggests that subtle appeals to group identification is what makes political mud so sticky. 

Spee Kosloff, a social psychologist at Michigan State University, and several colleagues tested two political smears circulating during the the 2008 election: Obama is a Muslim and John McCain is senile. 

Not surprisingly, they discovered that people who are opposed to a candidate are inclined to believe the smear. Less expected, it's relatively easy to convince people who claim they hadn't made up their mind yet. Just get them to think of ways in which the candidate is different from them. 

The big surprise is how little it takes to get people to think of those differences. Simple demographic questions about race or age were enough to prompt subjects to draw subconscious distinctions between themselves and McCain or Obama. And those subconscious distinctions made subjects more likely to believe false smears about a candidate. 

In one test conducted before the 2008 elections, the researchers concocted two phony editorials, one arguing that Obama is a Muslim; the other, that McCain is senile. Before reading the editorials, half the test subjects were given a demographic questionnaire, asking their race and age. 

Among McCain supporters who were not asked the demographic questions, about half agreed with the Obama editorial. About three-quarters of those who were asked about their race, did. Obama supporters who read the McCain editorial had similar results depending on whether or not they were asked about their age. 

According to the study, "social category differences heighten smear acceptance, even if the salient category is semantically unrelated to the smearing label." 

In fact, in a study conducted about a year after the election, "the salience of race amplified belief that Obama is a socialist among undecided people and McCain supporters." 

Mud sticks when we think of someone as "other."

Can we talk?

29language-2-articleLarge very interesting article in the Sunday New York Times magazine speculates that the language we speak shapes how we think. 

Earlier theories suggested that, because some languages don't have words for certain concepts, it's difficult -- if not impossible -- for people who speak that language to understand the concept. 

Practical experience debunked that idea. There's no English word for Schadenfreude, for example, but we all understand the concept of taking pleasure in someone else's misery. Heck, we've built entire forms of entertainment on it. (See, for example, "Jersey Shore" or the "Housewives of Here or There.") 

This article raises the intriguing possibility that our native languages influence our minds not because of what they allow us to think but rather because of what they habitually oblige us to think about. 

For example, many Romance languages assign a gender to inanimate objects. A Frenchman's beard is always feminine, but his bed is masculine. Go figure. 

There's little consistency across languages, however. In German, a bridge is feminine, but in Spanish, it's masculine. 

Psychological tests have demonstrated that the language we speak can affect how we feel about the world around us. For example, in German, a bridge is feminine; in Spanish, it's masculine. When Spanish speakers were asked about the characteristics of a bridge, they assigned them masculine properties like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. 

With objects like mountains or chairs, which are masculine in German but feminine in Spanish, the effect was reversed.

There's lots more to the article. What struck me are the implications for our ability to understand each other. Americans alone speak about 300 different languages. We don't fully understand how the language we speak impacts our beliefs, values and ideologies. 

But, as the article's author says, "as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same."

What did we learn this week?

Shocked-man2This week we learned once again that the ends often rule the middle.  

It was primary day in several states this week and the results didn't produce the Oh-My-God moments Tea Party proponents were counting on.  

But two senate races did show how dangerous it is for incumbents to wander away from ideological purity.

In Alaska, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski ended election night about 2,000 votes behind Joe Miller, the candidate backed by Sarah Palin and the state's Tea Party. 

The race probably won't be settled until all the absentee ballots have been counted some time in September, but if Miller's edge holds, Murkowski will be the third incumbent senator to be tossed out in a party primary this year. It's been thirty years since more than one sitting senator lost a primary challenge. 

In Arizona, John McCain only managed to beat back a challenge from Tea Partying radio host J.D. Hayworth by tossing his "maverick" label overboard, adopting a hard-line stand on immigration, and re-emphasizing his conservative credentials. 

Of course, it has been an axiom of U.S. politics that primaries push candidates toward the ideological extremes of their party. After all, those are usually the folks who show up to vote in primaries. 

Unfortunately, what has long been true of primary elections now seems to apply to governance as well. In Congress, members of both parties are increasingly hesitant to compromise with the other side of the aisle lest they be accused somewhere down the road of political apostasy. 

But politics may not be the only sphere where the ends rule the middle. 

Dozens of psychological studies suggest that groups tend to adopt the more extreme views held by their members, not something more middle-of-the-road. 

It seems that people with moderate opinions are less likely to speak up than those whose views are more extreme, setting up a cycle that feeds on itself. "The more you hear these extremists expressing their opinions," according to the author of one Stanford University study, "the more you are going to believe that those extreme beliefs are normal for your community." 

In fact, it's not strictly an American phenomenon.  Studies around the world show that group discussions almost lead people to adopt extreme versions of their initial views rather than something closer to a group average. Liberals become more liberal; conservatives, more conservative; racists, more racist. 

One study even saw evidence of this human tendency in legal opinions. A 1973 review of 1,500 federal appeals showed that when judges sat alone, they took an extreme course of action about 30 percent of the time; when they sat in groups of three, the number of extreme decisions more than doubled to 65 percent. 

It seems that the ends rule the middle even when the decision-makers are trained professionals. No wonder we're such a polarized society.

The right to bear facts

Obama_muslim_garb  Every American is entitled to his own facts, not just his own opinions. 

It's in the Bill of Rights. Look it up.  

That may help explain the results of some new polling by the highly respected Pew Research Center. Pew reported last week that the proportion of people who think Obama is a Christian has declined sharply over the past year, from 51% to 34%. 

What makes this perplexing is that it concerns a matter of fact, not opinion. 

It's one thing for increasing numbers of people to think he's a socialist, but doubting his professed religion (not to mention the 34% of conservative Republicans who think he's Muslim) seems to be in a different category altogether.  

The issue of Obama's religion came up early in his campaign, triggered in part by his father's Muslim faith, the years he spent as a kid in Indonesia, his "funny" last name, and some confusion with the first Muslim congressman who took the oath of office with his hand on the Koran.  

Obama's political opponents used all this -- along with the widely emailed photo above, taken when Senator Obama was on an official visit to Kenya -- in an effort to make his religion an issue when he ran for president. It didn't work then, and one would expect fewer people -- not more -- to fall for it now.  

Except that the comparison to opinions about his socialist creds is not really that different.  

People's opinion that Obama is a socialist is based, at least in part, on three factors: their interpretation of his actions, media reports of the accusation, and an overall decline in his popularity. 

Ironically, some of the actions taken by the Bush administration (TARP), along with Obama's own efforts to deal with the Great Recession (the American Recovery Act and the auto bailouts), as well as to keep campaign promises (Healthcare Reform), can be interpreted as government interference with free enterprise.  

That's exactly the spin Republicans are giving them, and their shorthand for it is that Obama is a Socialist. Polls and media reports simply give the idea more currency.

Similarly, Obama's outreach to the Muslim world, his apparent support for a mosque near Ground Zero, and his family's decision not to join a Washington-area church have created the impression that he is, at best, an agnostic and, at worse, secretly a Muslim.  

When Pew asks a question about Obama's faith, it gives people an opportunity to voice their disapproval of the man, whether or not his religion plays a role in their attitudes. (In fact, they may not even be expressing an opinion about Obama, but about their own economic situation. But that's a different topic.)  

Then of course when the media reports on the Pew Research, it puts the issue back in play. People who weren't following the controversy all that closely begin to think there's something to it. 

That's how opinions become facts. 

Palin_bikiniAnd just so you don't think I believe the political right has a corner on this, consider this widely emailed photo of a bikini-clad, gun-toting Sarah Palin.

What "fact" is being promoted here?

Practical philosophy

Grey matters limitedThere's a time to be practical and a time to be philosophical. 

Sometimes you can be both.

A great example of practical PR is the latest post by counselor Jim Horton over at "Online Public Relations Thoughts." Jim notes that politicians have moved beyond "quick response" to "prebutals," spinning criticism you know is coming even before it arrives. 

He speculates that this might be an effective tactic for PR people. "It is down-and-dirty PR," he concedes, "but in the cut and thrust of debate there is room for many kinds of tactics." 

At the more philosophical end of the scale we liked a posting by IBM marketing chief Jon Iwata on the "Page Turner" blog of the Arthur W. Page Society. Reacting to Sunday's New York Times piece on PR crisis management, Iwata bemoans the writer's view of PR people as "reputational firefighters" to be called in "once you're already in flames." 

Iwata, who helped write the Page Society's white paper, The Authentic Enterprise, points out that most crises are, at root, "a manifestation of the company's actual behavior, actual mindset, actual culture." 

He maintains that a PR counselor's fundamental role is to help an institution "create a coherent mission, strategy, business model and values-based culture." 

Done effectively, an institution should then have fewer crises. They should also recover from those that do occur more quickly because everyone inside and outside the enterprise will recognize the crisis as an aberration, inconsistent with the organization's mission, values and past behavior. 

Kind of a strategic prebutal, based on actions rather than words.

A question of color

Feathers.001 Red_vs_blue  To many of us, the fragmentation of American society is at least partly a problem of color. Not black and white -- though racial divisions certainly play a role -- but blue and red, as in blue and red states.  

The TV networks and every newspaper with a four-color press has used that imagery to portray the nation as a patchwork of Democratic and Republican-leaning states.   I swallowed that convention myself until a wise friend put me onto a book he read several years ago -- The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart

Ed Block recommended the book to me. Ed was head of public relations for AT&T back in the golden monopoly days, when the position was like being secretary of state for a small country.  

He went on to counsel the top management of other companies but was always available to advise those of us who foolishly flattered ourselves that we succeeded him in the AT&T job. (It was more like a tugboat riding in the wake of an ocean liner, but I digress.)    

I'm waiting for Amazon to deliver the book, but a speech Ed gave two years ago based on his reading and research has already given me lots to think about.   

"For one thing," Ed says,  "the idea of red states and blue states is an over simplified, misleading myth. People don't live and vote in states, they live and vote in communities within counties. In every one of these states the voting outcome is determined by counties that are either heavily Democrat or heavily Republican. When the distribution of voting preferences is evenly divided among counties, what you get are the so-called swing states. They are neither red nor blue." 

"Aha," I say, "That's what gerrymandering does. Whoever's in power redistricts any potential opponents into oblivion." 

"Not so fast," Ed counters. "Republican Tom Delay is generally regarded as the king of computer-generated redistricting, but his Texas district flipped Democrat after he retired." 

 "So what accounts for it?" I ask. 

"The Santini Brothers and their ilk.  It's all those moving vans you see on the highway," he says.  

"Turns out that about five percent of Americans relocate every year. They don't choose where to live on the basis of their political preferences. But they do like to be around people with the same level of education, similar jobs, and compatible life styles. This is the Big Sort. It has created two Americas whose values are so clearly in conflict. What we have fashioned is a tribal republic."  Feathers  

Ed admits that there are plenty of social scientists who dismiss the notion that America is all that divided or polarized.  Most of us are pretty close to the center politically, they claim; it's just that the media focus on wingnuts at the two extremes. 

Ed concedes that there's an element of truth to that position. But over the last 30 years or so, he's seen an increasing trend in people seeking the comfort of like-minded churches, like-minded friends, and even like-minded sources of news and entertainment. 

"Most of us live in a giant feed back loop," he says, "an echo chamber, hearing only our own thoughts about what's right or wrong reflected back to us by the TV shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit on line, the sermons we hear and the neighborhoods we live in. 

"I find it extremely ironic that in the so-called 'information age,' our best and our brightest seem intent on recreating a primitive tribal society in which people who don't look like us, talk like us or think like us must be regarded as hopeless misfits at best or, at worst, enemies to be eliminated." 

Ironies aside, our political parties are clearly exploiting this change, feeding partisanship and division. And the media regurgitate it for the public's amusement. This self-segregation probably wouldn't matter much if only a few Americans lived in politically homogeneous counties. But the numbers are not small and have continued to grow.  Consider these statistics from The Big Sort that Ed quoted: 

In 2004, 73 percent of U.S. voters lived in counties that had voted for the same party's presidential candidate since 1992.  Half lived in counties that hadn't changed their vote since 1980; one-third, since 1968.   

"We've become a country of tribes," Ed says.  "These tribes are not necessarily at war with one another. But they are defined by vastly different assumptions, beliefs and lifestyles.  They are drawn together by a passionate advocacy for single issue causes that range all over the lot from global warming to the latest fads in nutrition. 

"These tribes don't think of themselves as blue or red or any other color but they are very different from earlier generations of Americans. But looked at up close, they don't come out of a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter. The choices they make, the careers they pursue, the lifestyles they prefer are by no means identical even though they may loosely share more or less common value systems." 

Now I know why so many us feel like we're caught in a replay of Custer's last stand.   


Emily LitellaEmily Litella -- she of the mistaken premise who rants away until corrected, then concludes with a cheery "never mind" -- lives.

Her current address is in an occasional section of The Wall Street Journal called the "Journal Report."  

The "Journal Report" is usually a compendium of pieces that don't fit naturally into another section.  Still, every now and then a doozy makes it into print. That's certainly the case this week. 

Yesterday's "Journal Report" led with an article obviously designed to generate the kind of outraged comments that demonstrate people are actually reading the section.  On that measure, the editors must be giving each other high-fives. 

The article in question allegedly builds a case "against corporate social responsibility."  The author's argument comes in two paragraphs near the beginning:

"Very simply, in cases where private profits and public interests are aligned, the idea of corporate social responsibility is irrelevant: Companies that simply do everything they can to boost profits will end up increasing social welfare. In circumstances in which profits and social welfare are in direct opposition, an appeal to corporate social responsibility will almost always be ineffective, because executives are unlikely to act voluntarily in the public interest and against shareholder interests."

The author - a business professor - isn't crazy about government regulation either. Too expensive, inefficient, and potentially corrupt.  And he thinks non-governmental watchdogs have a "mixed track record" and aren't very effective in developing countries. 

He prefers "sell-regulation." But he's also a realist.

"In the end, social responsibility is a financial calculation for executives, just like any other aspect of their business," he concludes.  "The only sure way to influence corporate decision making is to impose an unacceptable cost—regulatory mandates, taxes, punitive fines, public embarrassment—on socially unacceptable behavior."

In fact, he kind of likes an approach that makes socially irresponsible behavior "a business nightmare" for companies. Just don't try to convince executives that they should do what's best for society because it's the right thing to do and won't hurt their bottom line.

Did I miss something, or did he end his piece by convincing himself that he's wrong and we should do all we can to pressure companies to behave responsibly?

Has Emily Litella been reincarnated?




PR victory, what are you?

Yesterday, The Sunday New York Times business section dedicated some 6,000 words to the subject of "PR Crisis Management," using the recent travails of BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs as handy object lessons. 

The Times bookended its story with experts who have widely divergent approaches to crisis management, adopting postures of benign indifference on the one hand and full-throated confession on the other. 

Eschewing a discussion of either approach, the Times asked instead, "are some crises so dire that public relations victory is simply not on the menu?" Fair question. But what the Times left unexplored was its definition of "public relations victory." Winston-Churchill-Says-We-Deserve-Victory-Posters-229x300  

And therein lies the real lesson in these three sagas. Just what can a company expect from whatever approach it takes. What are reasonbable goals for a company in full crisis? Can they expect to avoid blame entirely or must they settle for eventual forgiveness? 

For most companies caught in a maelstrom of opprobrium, blamelessness is probably not in the cards, though that's exactly what the lawyers will focus on. Winning forgiveness is within reach, but far from a slam dunk. And whatever measure of forgiveness a company earns will come slowly, which isn't easy for CEOs to swallow since their neck is on the line at least every quarter. 

Winston-Churchill-Says-We-Deserve-Victory-Posters-229x300  Churchill had it right: you get the victory you deserve.  Deserving forgiveness depends on following three rules: (1) tell the whole truth as quickly as you can, (2) apologize and show you mean it by fixing the problem, and (3) give something back to the people affected. 

As simple as that sounds, it's still possible to screw it up. 

BP is probably going to pony up more than any company in the history of the world to repair the damage it caused, but it won't get much credit because of the weasley legalese of its initial statements, the finger-pointing it did in its Congressional testimony, and the insensitive language its CEO used at several points along the way. 

There's now plenty of evidence that the acceleration problems Toyota drivers experienced had more to do with errant floor mats than anything else, but it took the company so long to even acknowledge the problem that wild speculation filled the space. 

Goldman Sachs tried to skip the first and second steps and moved straight to the third, donating $500 million in services and financing to small businesses. But the gesture fell flat because it didn't have any context. Goldman may be great at analyzing balance sheets, but when it comes to reading the popular mood, they're tone deaf. 

In the context of crisis management, "PR victory" is not about getting away with anything; it's all about getting another chance to demonstrate that you learned your lesson.

What did we learn this week?

Political footballWe learned that political football is played in a no-nuance zone. 

Take the debate over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque." No matter where you stand on this issue (and I have good friends on both side of it), you are probably not interested in the nuances of anyone's position. 

You are just as likely to say (shout really) that holding an opinion opposite to your own means that "the terrorists win." Or, as Newt Gingrich seemed to imply, harbor Nazi tendencies.

Build the mosque, and you're piling insult on the injuries already suffered by the families of those who perished there. Tell them to go elsewhere, and you're ignoring our cherished principles of religious freedom. 

Either way, the terrorists win. 

Acknowledge the valid arguments of both side (as President Obama did last week) and you're trying to have your cake and eat it too. You're flip-flopping, playing politics, etc. 

I hate to say this, but the only public official who may have hit the right tone -- largely because it was characteristically nuance-free -- was the governor of my home state, Chris Christie. 

By admonishing his own party for making the issue a political football, he carried it into the end zone.  

Alien nation

Alienation2No, not another posting on immigration, but a topic that may be closely related. 

Ron Brownstein writes in the National Journal about Americans' "deep alienation towards their public and private leadership." 

Looking toward's the November election, he speculates that if voters had the chance to "fire not only members of Congress, but also the nation's entire public and private leadership class, they might take it." 

Polls seem to back him up on that assertion. For example, in a Gallup survey taken this past July, a majority of Americans expressed confidence in only three institutions: the military, small businesses, and the police.  (I assume it's coincidence that two out three carry guns.) 

In any case, less than a quarter of people expressed confidence in institutions ranging from newspapers, banks, television news, organized labor, big business, health insurers, and -- big surprise --Congress. 

Even organized religion, the medical system, and the U.S. Supreme Court failed to inspire confidence in a majority of Americans. 

Furthermore, whites expressed even greater alienation than minorities, even though, by most measures, the economic downturn has been tougher on people of color. Brownstein writes that nothing highlights this pessimism more that the fact that whites, in several surveys this year, "have been more likely than minorities to say that they did not expect their children to match their own standard of living."

Still don't see the implications? In a final flourish, Brownstein speculated that "if polls existed just before the French Revolution, they might have returned results such as these." 

But what is particularly depressing is the root cause that he found in all the data tabs he studied -- the data point to "a widely shared conviction that the country's public and private leadership is protecting its own interest at the expense of average (and even comfortable) Americans." 

Here's my own speculation: a lot of the nativist, Islamaphobic and Tea Partying rhetoric in the media and in the streets may have its roots in this sense of alienation.

Income ladders

Money_ladder_guy_b592 The American Dream is all about ladders.

Even if you were born poor, in America, you could work your way up the economic ladder.

We've always had economic classes but they were supposed to be porous.  People weren't confined to them for their lifetimes. They could climb out through education and hard work.

(Of course, for more than a hundred years, the taller ladders were not available to people of color. But the American ideal was still a meritocracy, where hard work paid off for everyone.)

As the first member of my family to graduate from elementary school, not to mention college, I climbed just such a ladder. My parents would be classified as the working poor today. I retired as a senior executive of AT&T.

But as I research Otherwise, it is becoming clear that I am the exception, not the rule. Most people are not moving out of the economic class in which they were raised. Indeed, they're struggling to hold on to what they have. See, for example, this study.

By "most people," I mean 99 percent of us. Between 2002 and 2007 (the most recent period for which data is available), the incomes of 99 percent of Americans grew 1.3% a year in real terms.

Meanwhile, the incomes of the top one percent grew 10 percent a year in the same period. And annual incomes of the top one tenth of a percent grew even more, tripling in the same period.

The top one tenth now earn as much in a year as the bottom 120 million people in the country. Incomes are becoming concentrated at the very top.

In the 60s and 70s, it seemed that those in the lowest economic classes might revolt to get a greater share of the nation's wealth.  In the 80s and 90s, some thought the middle class might join that struggle.

Author Matt Miller suggests that these days, the charge might be led by what he calls "the lower upper class" -- doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers and all those company executives who report to the CEO.

Nine out of ten Americans would count them lucky. But the "lower uppers" can't help noticing that there are lots of people with credentials no better than theirs who live in "Gatsby-like splendor."

As Miller points out, "If people no smarter or better than you are making $10 million or $50 million or $100 million in a single year, while you're working yourself ragged to scrape by on a million or two—or, God forbid, $300,000—then something must be wrong."

Something is wrong, and it is contributing to the increasing fragmentation of society.

As Miller points out, the success of the super-rich does not seem to be the product of the free market, but of "rigged systems that are as likely to reward failure as success."

CEOs who preside over years of tumbling stock prices -- or even the very dissolution of their companies -- walk away with "separation packages" worth ten of millions; hedge fund managers collect as much for barely beating the S&P and avoid paying taxes at ordinary rates to boot; investment bankers pocket millions in fees whether the deals they promote work out or not.

Some ladders, it seems, go in only one direction.

Credit Amex

Gold_card_ang_medium How do executives pulling down six or seven-figure salaries relate to the ordinary people they'd like as customers, much less to the disadvantaged people to whom they have a civic responsibility? 

One way is to get them out of their corner offices and encourage them to mix it up with people who deal with hunger, homelessness, blight and despair every day.

That's part of the idea behind the American Express Nonprofit Leadership Academy. 

The program was the brainchild of a long-time friend, Tim McClimon, who is now president of the American Express Foundation.

Since McClimon was previously executive director of New York City's Second Stage Theatre, he knew how important leadership development is to nonprofits. He also believed American Express would benefit if he could involve the company's senior executives in the training. 

So in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership, he designed a one-week "academy" that brings puts Amex's top leadership together with the next generation of leaders from nonprofits across a range of causes. 

The executives, including the company's CEO, make brief presentations, but the heart of the program is a frank discussion with the nonprofit executives about the business challenges they face. 

The first academy was held in New York in 2008, and it has since become an annual event, with sessions planned for other cities as well. Competition among the nonprofits to send executives is intense. 

They get exposure to some of the country's leading executives and get  a full year of career coaching by the Center for Creative Leadership. 

But the benefit to American Express is pretty significant too -- their senior leaders learn first hand about the challenges facing organizations that serve people in the real world outside their corporate offices.  

Laugh Lab

ChickenBack in 2001, when the world was less on edge, a British scientist set out to find the world's funniest joke. 

He and his colleagues constructed a web site that would collect jokes and ask people to rate them on a specially designed "giggleometer." (Patent pending, I suppose.) 

In a year, they collected over 40,000 usable jokes -- after culling out all the dirty ones -- and received more than 1.5 million ratings from people around the world. (They also collected a fine supply of truly offensive jokes that could be the subject of a separate study.)  

Here's the funniest joke they found, since dubbed "the world's funniest joke": 

Two hunters are in the woods when one of them collapses to the ground and his eyes roll back in his head.  

His companion whips out his cell phone and calls emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead. What can I do?"  

The operator says, "Calm down.  I'm sure we can help. First, make sure that he's dead."  There's silence on the line, then a shot can be heard. 

Back on the line, the guys says, "Okay, now what?" 

The winning joke was submitted by a 31 year-old psychiatrist in the U.K. who said he liked it because it reminded him that there are always people out there more stupid than himself. 

The researchers analyzed the data every which-way and some of the results are fascinating.  

For example, the Germans topped the list on the giggleometer. They found almost all the jokes very funny. It was much harder to get a giggle out of the Canadians. 

The Irish liked word play, such as -- 

Patient: I have a strawberry in my bum. 

Doctor: I've got a cream for that. 

Americans liked jokes that made them feel superior, such as--

Texan: Where are you from?

Harvard Grad: I'm from a place where we don't end our sentences with prepositions.

Texan: Okay.  Where are you from, asshole? 

Europeans liked jokes with a touch of surreality, such as -- 

A dog goes to a telegraph office, takes out a blank form and writes, "Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, woof."  
The clerk looks at the form and says, "There are only nine words here. You could send another 'woof' for the same price." 
The dog replies, "But that wouldn't make any sense at all." 

By the way, jokes about ducks seem to be funnier than those about any other animal. For more, see Laugh Lab

Meanwhile, here's the second funniest joke in the world: 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went camping. 

They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. 

Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you see."

Watson replied: “I see millions and millions of stars.”

Holmes said: “and what do you deduce from that?” 

Watson replied: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like earth out there. And if there are a few planets like earth out there, there might also be life.” 

And Holmes said: “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”

It's the culture, stupid!

It's the culture.001When Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992, one of his advisers famously put a sign in the Little Rock campaign headquarters to keep the candidate on message.  

"It's the economy, stupid" became something of a slogan for the campaign.

Smart marketers would be wise to do business under a similar banner:  It's the culture, stupid. 

And one of the defining characteristics of American culture in the 21st century is that it is becoming increasingly diverse. 

In 2010, for the first time, more than half of all births in the U.S. will be to Hispanic, Black, and Asian moms. The Census Bureau estimates that minorities will constitute a majority of Americans under age 18 in only one decade. By 2050, non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority across all age groups within the U.S.  

Multicultural markets are the new mainstream. But effective multi-cultural marketing requires more than a good bi-lingual dictionary.  

Multicultural audiences consume media differently. African Americans are heavier radio listeners than average, and Hispanic consumers spend more time online. At the same time, ethnic media is exploding across the country. In some major markets, including Los Angeles, Miami, and New York – Spanish-language TV stations have higher ratings among the young adults advertisers covet than the mainstream networks. 

Multi-cultural audiences have different cultural values and consumption patterns.  For example, P&G research shows that African-American women spend at least three times as much on beauty products as the general female population. P&G also found that 71 percent of black women feel they are portrayed worse in the media than any other racial group. 

The result was a nationwide “My Black Is Beautiful” campaign, underwritten by Pantene, Cover Girl, Crest and Always, to share beauty and lifestyle tips within the context of a discussion about issues of concern to African-American women.  

Finally, the “multi” in multi-cultural applies within groups that speak the same language as well as between them and others.  There are social and cultural differences between Hispanics of Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Cuban descent, not to mention between people in the nearly two-dozen other Spanish-speaking countries. 

Similarly, besides speaking different languages, the U.S. Asian population includes people who trace their ancestry to countries as diverse as India and Vietnam or Nepal and Japan. 

Multi-cultural marketing is not only about language, it’s about identifying with people’s values and traditions. 

Like all good marketing, it’s about culture.  

What did we learn this week?

Slater The gentleman to the left -- ex-Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater -- taught us once again that how people interpret events depends on their pre-existing feelings. 

Almost always, even more than on a rational analysis of the events themselves.  

Social scientists call this "framing."  Simply put, it means that we see the world through a series of emotional filters we have built over their lifetime. It's a mental short-cut that helps us make sense of the world. 

Consider the following set of facts: a flight attendant gets bumped in the head, drawing blood, when a passenger tries to retrieve her out-sized luggage from an overhead compartment; angry words are exchanged; the attendant gets on the intercom, announces he is quitting his job in an obscenity-laced rant, grabs two cans of beer, releases the emergency escape chute and slides to the tarmac where he is promptly arrested.  

Now, this set of facts could be interpreted in at least two ways -- (1) the flight attendant is a jerk, emblematic of the shoddy service too typical of travel by air these days, or (2) the flight attendant is a working class hero for telling off a rude passenger and quitting in flamboyant style. 

By now, you know which interpretation ruled the tabloids last week -- and even the New York Times, which ran three separate stories on the incident two days after it happened. 

The interesting question is why did this become the dominant interpretation?  

Were all these reporters mindlessly reflecting the instant Internet reaction?  (A Facebook page supporting the flight attendant went up within minutes of the first news report and had 18,000 followers within hours. By the end of the week, nearly 200,000 people said they "liked" his Facebook page. One image tracking firm even reported that Mr. Slater had higher positive ratings than Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed his disabled jet, full of passengers, in the Hudson River following a mid-air collision with birds.) 

More likely, the reporters and their editors were seeing the incident through the same emotional lens as the denizens of Facebook. 

They saw Slater's actions through a lens shaped by feelings of helplessness in the face of economic uncertainty. Many of them hate their jobs, feel squeezed because they're doing the work of laid off colleagues, but don't think they have any alternatives, and identify with Slater's "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" attitude. They admire him because they'd like to hit the chutes themselves.

Framing isn't just "spin," as in the particular twist someone gives a story. It's the way people see the events themselves, through a frame that is twisted by their previous experiences and deepest concerns.  

Next week: watch for a spate of contrarian stories as the framing effects begin to fade and more details emerge. 

Anchors away

I think it was Yogi Berra who once said, "If people don't want to do something, you can't stop them."  

The corollary in American politics might be, "If people want you to do something you don't want to do, promise them a Constitutional amendment." It gets them off your back without too much of a chance that it will actually pass.  

That's why Congress considers an average 200 constitutional amendments every year. To pass, an amendment has to be approved by two-thirds of both houses and then by three-fourths of the states. 

(For the record, only 27 amendments have passed in the country's history and that includes the Bill of Rights.  Four amendments are still pending, including one that would forbid Congress from prohibiting slavery in a state that wanted to legalize it. Those four amendments were passed by Congress, but await state approval -- one since 1789. Other amendments -- such as the Equal Rights Amendment -- had built-in expiration dates.) 

AnchorBabySo Lindsey Graham's proposal for a constitutional amendment denying citizenship to all the so-called "anchor babies" born to illegal immigrants on U.S. soil may go the way of the amendment to ban flag-burning. But in the process it will stir up passions on both sides of the immigration debate, further dividing people. 

The immigration reductionists claim that about 300,000 to 350,000 babies are born to illegal immigrants in the U.S. every year, accounting for billions in subsidized medical care. (The Pew Hispanic Center generally confirms the number but points out that, in some cases, at least one of the parents is a U.S. citizen.)

To put this in context, the U.S. admits about 1 million legal immigrants a year, including about 600,000 people whose status changed. About another 700,000 people stay here illegally and, despite the "anchor" moniker, giving birth on U.S. soil doesn't give them much of a leg up in seeking citizenship or avoiding deportation if they're caught. Those newborns would have to wait until they turned 21 before they could petition to get permanent legal residency for their parents.

The Pew Center's study also debunks the idea that immigrants come to the U.S. "to drop a child," as Senator Graham so colorfully put it.  About 80 percent of mothers here illegally had been in the counrty more than a year when they gave birth; more than half had been here for over five years.

It's not entirely clear how Graham's proposed amendment would address the immigration problem. It would certainly increase the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. by about 300,000 a year without reducing the associated obstetric costs by a cent.  But then what? 

Will ICE start raiding hospital nurseries?  Will the Coast Guard organize baby lifts to countries with low birth rates? Will Homeland Security direct all undocumented women in labor to the nearest manger?

I suspect all that is beside the point, which is really just to demonstrate that your senator can get just as worked up about illegal immigrants as anyone else.  All without doing anything.

Middle America Muslim Watch

American_Muslim_by_mangagirl3535Stop worrying about the Ground Zero mosque. 

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the town where Grant Woods painted "American Gothic," is the nation's real Muslim hotbed.  

According to a special analysis by the Daily Beast to celebrate the beginning of Ramadam, more than one percent of Cedar Rapid's population is Muslim, it has the second most mosques per capita in the country, and five halal restaurants to boot. 

In fact, it ranks just behind Detroit and Washington, D.C., as "American Muslim Capitals." 

How could potentially radical Islamists infiltrate the American heartland without attracting the attention of Glenn Beck, TMZ or the guy who emails a watch list to me every morning?

Well, it turns out that the Muslims were very clever -- they started moving to Cedar Rapids from the Bequaa Valley back in 1895 when we were distracted by Oscar Wildes' conviction for consensual sodomy.  (He got two years at hard labor.)

Meanwhile, the Muslims got busy, establishing grocery stores across the city, until they became the town's primary food purveyor. Eventually, they built mosques and even laid out a 12-acre National Muslim Cemetery.  They became American citizens.Their children fought and died in our wars. 

Over five generations, their sons and daughters went to college and began careers in everything from law, music, and medicine to engineering, education, and business. 

Then in 1972 they struck -- they established a Muslim Center just like the one planned for lower Manhattan.  In addition to a prayer hall, it has a first-class gym, classrooms, and a nursery.  It sponsors a committee that organizes programs to promote brotherhood and understanding with non-Muslims. They even hold an annual spring picnic!

All I can say is -- watch out Lower Manhattan.

Play ball

Caveman Although I hail from a state of sports fanatics, I have never followed the local teams' exploits. 

Now I learn that I am apparently out of step from an evolutionary point of view.  (No comments necessary.) 

According to an article in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, following sports teams is the "by-product of an evolved coalitional psychology." 

In other words, rooting for the Red Sox and hating the Yankees is what's left of the set of skills required to get the Cro-Magnon in the next cave to help you steal a mate from the guys on the other side of the river. 

In fact, the psychology is so deeply set that sports fans behave as if they were actual members of the team they're following. So it isn't enough for them to love the Red Sox and hate the Yankees, they have to hate anyone whose affections go the other way. 

Sadly, these days, that evolved coalitional psychology applies to politics as much as to sports. So maybe I'm not missing too much after all.

When the dust settles...

Hurd_fisher Mark Hurd will probably land at a private equity firm, and Jodie Fisher will likely show up on "Dancing with the Stars."  

The private equity guys couldn't care less about someone's public notoriety, and that's all reality TV producers do care about. Sounds like perfect casting all around. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us are left scratching our heads. What the hell was this all about? 

It wasn't sex; it was apparently false expense reports that could have been tied to allegations of sex. But most of all, it was fear that the media could turn whatever actually happened into salacious entertainment for the rest of us. 

(Note that there is no explanation at the beginning of this post, but you still know the general lines of this little soap opera.) 

Ironically, HP's board of directors had professional PR advice, as described in this New York Times story, which may or not be accurate. 

What's striking to me, as alleged in the Times story, is the board's abject fear of negative publicity. It seems that the threat of a sexual harassment suit -- even after the board's own investigation absolved Hurd of the accusation -- was what really propelled his ouster. 

I suspect if they had run across the very same expense account irregularities, without the taint of sex, the matter would have been handled very differently. 

The big question for me: when should PR advice be based on the reality of an event rather than the likely perception?


Dream or fairy tale

50_family Peggy Noonan wrote speeches for one of our most optimistic presidents. To this day, she practically channels Ronald Reagan. 

So it's a little scary when even she worries that the country suffers from unprecedented pessimism. 

"The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did," Noonan writes in her latest Wall Street Journal column

Noonan knows this is a big deal because it's a sharp break with the assumptions that shaped us as a nation. She's right, and it's another factor contributing to the fragmentation of America.

Noonan's column reminded me of a study I read when researching Rebuilding Brand America. The authors measured "intergenerational mobility," the technical term for what is at root of the American Dream. 

In 2005, the study's lead researcher told the BBC that, based on her team’s statistical analysis, "If you are born into poverty in the U.S., you are actually more likely to remain in poverty than in other countries -- in Europe, the Nordic countries, even Canada, which you would think would not be that different." 

The New York Times has an interactive graphic that shows how this plays out over four generations. Poor families move out of poverty about as quickly as in the U.K., but lag behind those in France, Denmark or Canada. 

Of course, few poor people read the New York Times, much less academic studies.  But they know their own experience.  It's one shared by the fast-disappearing middle class, and stands in sharp contrast to that of the wealthiest among us.  

That's why, for many people, the American Dream has become a fantasy, a cheery story that few expect to come true.  

And that disillusionment helps feed our society's increasing fragmentation.

What did we learn this week?

Albino mazariego  We learned that senseless violence can happen anywhere. 

Not exactly big news.  But in this case, it happened in my home town, a New Jersey suburb invariably described as "upscale." As upscale New Jersey towns go, it also has a relatively diverse population, which is one of the reasons we moved there. 

The events themselves were worthy of a couple of posts in the "Huffington Post"-- one evening around 9:30 p.m., a Good Samaritan told the local police that he had seen an unconscious man in a vest-pocket park downtown. When they rolled up, the police found an unresponsive, shirtless Hispanic man, with the smell of liquor on his breath and $600 in cash. 

They took him to the local emergency room, where he was diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage. He died three days later. 

That's about when the police learned (from the victim's wife) that a videotape was circulating among local teenagers of her husband being beaten by a group of young black men. 

Eventually, the authorities charged five young men -- 17 to 19 years old -- with felony murder.  They also arrested a male nurse at the hospital where the victim was treated for stealing the $600 from his wallet.  

So there was plenty of violence to go around in this story. New York television stations did stand-ups from the small park. The community was understandably shocked. About a thousand people gathered on the village green in a service of "peace and reconciliation." 

The local prosecutor did his best to allay concerns that it might have been a hate crime, insisting it was simply an attempted robbery gone horribly wrong. So maybe it wasn't a too-close-to-home example of the fragmentation of society along lines of "us" and "them."  

But here's a question that still nags -- how could the police, EMTs and hospital emergency workers think that someone who was beaten within an inch of his life simply had a "medical condition"? 

Could their judgment have been clouded by the victim's race (Hispanic) and appearance (shirtless and smelling of alcohol)?  

If so, maybe it was another example of letting preconceptions cloud our judgment, a failure to be "otherwise."  

A question of identity

FingerprintMost of us think our identity is as certain and unchanging as our fingerprint. 

But, in fact, who we think we are is intertwined with our notions of who everyone else is. 

Our concept of "the other" is at the root of our own sense of identity. 

We define ourselves, to a large extent, in terms of who or what we are not

A newborn experiences no boundary between herself and the rest of the world. To her, all is buzzing confusion within a chaos of sensations. 

In time, she learns that the nipple on which she feeds is not an extension of herself. She begins to find the boundaries of her own body and, in time, even to gain some control over them. And eventually to form what is called "a theory of mind," the understanding that she cohabits the world with other sentient beings who have thoughts and feelings similar to her own. 

Of course, this is obviously a gross over-simplification, but the key idea is that our self-identity is plastic and develops over our entire lifetime in response to our experience of the world around us. Our sense of "self" and our sense of the "other" are symbiotic. 

So what does it mean when a French president says that his country faces an "identity crisis" because of all the Asians, Africans and Muslims crowding into his country? What should we make of Talmudic arguments over the definition of a "Jew." And how about the Dutch editor who complained, "We want to teach immigrants more about our identity, and we discover that we're not sure what's left of it"? 

One writer, Van Wishard of WorldTrends Research, thinks it's all a sign of a "global identity crisis." 

The concept of the "other" has a long and storied history in philosophy and psychology. But this is more than idle philosophizing or armchair therapy.It's a matter of life and death for millions. 

As Van Wishard points out, the problem of the other is behind the ethnic strife that has cursed large swaths of the developing world. And, perhaps, a preview of coming attractions for the rest of us.

Hanging on

Hanging on  Here are some statistics, courtesy of the Save The Middle Class website, that demonstrate how difficult it is becoming for many Americans to hang on to their standard of living: 

  • 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people. The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America's corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago. 
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans "always or usually" live paycheck to paycheck (up from 49% in 2008 and 43% in 2007.  
  • Nearly half (43%) of Americans have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement. More than a third (36%) save nothing for retirement. Nearly a quarter (24%) say they have postponed their retirement in the past year. 
  • Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, a 32 percent increase over 2008. For the first time in U.S. history, banks own more residential housing in the United States than individuals. 
  • For the first time in U.S. history, more than 40 million Americans are on food stamps, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that number will go up to 43 million Americans in 2011.


Otherwise new

Newsboy2A friend wrote to wish me well in writing Otherwise

He said some very nice things, but also managed to remind me -- in the nicest way -- that nothing in my forthcoming book is likely to be all that "new" or revolutionary. 

For example, he reminded me that he had retired more than a decade ago, but even when he was toiling in the corporate vineyards, his company had thousands of employees and customers speaking a dozen languages in 30 countries.  He often felt as if he were his company's "de facto diplomacy relations officer."  

What might have been a singular challenge in his case was now routine, he suggested.  There is nothing exceptional about globalization. 

He may be right about globalization, though I suspect many companies still have something to learn about dealing with people in other countries. But my research to date also suggests that many executives face equally difficult challenges at home.

Trust in American institutions has never been lower. That should not be too surprising. In recent years, we were alarmed to discover salmonella in our peanut butter, human growth hormone in our athletic heros, thieves and liars in our executive suites, and pederasts in our church pulpits. 

But something else is afoot as well. Income inequality has not been greater since the 1920's. Middle class incomes have stagnated, while Forbes has trouble keeping track of all the new billionaires.

CEOs and other top executives rack up fatter compensation packages, no matter what is happening to their companies' bottom lines, while their rank and file employees struggle to hang on to their jobs and pay their medical bills. 

Big banks and investment companies get bailed out while home foreclosures reach new heights. 

The mainstream political parties seem to be in gridlock at every level. And a new breed of unfocused political fundamentalism, suspicious of outsiders and the so-called "elites," sinks deep roots in the heartland. 

The stranger at home is not necessarily a recent immigrant; he or she may have been born here but no longer recognizes it as home. In recent decades, we have created a whole new class of "others."

What do you think?

Head to the hood

InnerCity_nott_TonyC_GeogPhotos  For sake of argument, let's say you agree that society is becoming much more fragmented.

What can we do about it?  

Writing for the Harvard Business Review online, Roger Crockett suggests that business executives can get out from behind their mahogany desks and spend more time in the real world where their own employees and customers live. 

He's not talking about do-gooding, but "shedding your suit jacket and sitting side by side with people in the inner city, helping them administer programs, raise money and develop skills."  

He calls it "heading to the 'hood." 

It's not such a pie in the sky idea.  Such a hard-nosed outfit as accounting giant Ernst & Young has embraced it, Crockett points out.   

"Nearly 50% of its 1,200 top leaders serve on community boards," he says, "and each year the firm invests 115,000 hours of employee time, valued at $17.25 million, toward volunteer community work."  

That level of involvement raises what the company calls its executives' "inclusiveness competence." And it could help bridge the cultural gap between them and their communities.  It could help "us" better understand the "other."