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While I was out

While I was out.002I've been away visiting friends and enjoying warm Southern hospitality all the way from Little Rock to Toad Suck, Arkansas, with a terrific stop at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville.

While I was away, my latest column for The Conference Board Review came out.

It surveys the shiny new thing in marketing variously called "native advertising," "brand journalism," or "sponsored content."

You can read my column here.

Ironically, the advertising column in today's New York Times notes that the development has begun to attract the interest of folks over at the Federal Trade Commission.

All in all, I think that's a good thing. Whether "native" or "sponsored," content created by "brand journalists" won't work unless (1) it's genuinely useful and (2) its source is clear. 

But it can be a powerful way to deepen customer relationships, which is what marketing should be all about.  


Junk polls


This afternoon, an official-looking "Congressional Research Survey" landed in my mail among all the catalogs and credit card offers.

The light blue envelope looked very official, with a "tracking code" and warnings that it contains "registered material." In fact, the names of my Senators and Congressman were visible through a glassine window.

Inside, I was warned that the survey is "non-transferable."

It was created by Dr. Ralph Reed to pick up where the Tea Party Caucus left off, He makes no bones that its purpose is to "send a powerful message to conservative candidates for Congress and the Senate in 2014 that they would do well to make ObamaCare the main issue and focus of the 2014 mid-term elections."

That kind of pre-supposes the results of the survey, but considering the structure of the questions, it was probably a safe assumption.

For example, this is Question 3:

Issue Summary: The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution states as follows:

'The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Do you think ObamaCare is CONSTITUTIONAL, and consistent with liberty? Or is ObamaCare an UNCONSTITUTIONAL assault on America as the "land of the free?"

It doesn't appear to matter that the Supreme Court settled that question. But then Question 4 makes it clear that the whole survey is unconnected to reality:

Issue Summary: President Obama is now using the ObamaCare law to force doctors and hospitals to investigate which patients own a gun so the federal government can track and monitor law-abiding gunowners. This is part of Obama's program to strip away your SECOND AMENDMENT right to keep and bear arms.

What's your reaction to President Obama's use of ObamaCare to go after gunowners, and to attack your rights...? 

The other questions follow the same pattern and are clearly designed to elicit responses proving that people believe ObamaCare will lead to socialized medicine, rationing, higher costs, and America's very survival as "land of the free."

The technical terms for this is an "advocacy poll." It starts out with a desired result and crafts the questions to get it.

I'd like to say that Dr. Reed's timing is off. Sadly, I know there are plenty of people who will happily fill out the survey exactly as he'd like.

 He's only going through the exercise for the donations that will accompany their responses. And he's counting on reigniting their outrage to open their wallets.

That's the worse kind of junk mail.


The center is squeezed

Head in viceNBC News and Esquire magazine just published the results of a new survey that suggests the nation is not as polarized as our elected representatives have proven to be.

Their analysis used a sophisticated statistical technique to cluster survey respondents into groups whose members were as alike as possible, but that were also as different from the other groups as possible.

(Think of it as sorting your socks by color. You might end up with four clusters -- e.g., black and grey, white and cream, brown and tan, and argyle. The socks in each cluster would be very similar to each other, but very different from the socks in the other clusters. That's what they did with survey respondents, based on their demographics and opinions.)

When they were done crunching the numbers, they ended up with 8 clusters, which they gave cute names like "Minivan Moderates."

The 4 clusters in the middle represent 51% of the population. (Back to the sock example, each cluster would have a different number of socks in it, but most of the socks might be in just one or two clusters.)

More than half (55%) of the people in this new "center" describe themselves as politically "moderate." Self-identified "liberals" accounted for 20%; "conservatives," 25%.  (Tea Party supporters represented 15%.)

The new center also espouses pretty pragmatic views on a wide range of hot button issues -- 54% agree the government shouldn't legislate how Americans behave in their personal lives when it comes to marriage, abortion, owning guns, or using marijuana. 

On the other hand, 54% believe the government should maintain programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and welfare so people who hit on hard times don't fall through the cracks.

But the new center also feels squeezed from all directions.

Thanks to the poor economy and rising inequality, only 5% still believe America is a land of opportunity for all. Almost a third (31%) doubt that everyone can work themselves into the middle class.

Our increasing diversity seems to be squeezing the new center from the other direction as well.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) believe that in respecting the rights of minorities, “we’ve limited the rights of a majority of Americans.” Almost one in five says diversity makes them “very anxious.”

In fact, people in the new center favor ending affirmative action in hiring decisions and college admissions (57%). More than half (58%) would require voters to show photo-ID, a move which disenfranchises minority voters.

Likewise, most of the center (54%) is against a path to citizenship for people who came to this country illegally. A plurality (40%) is worried that “racial tensions” will turn violent in the near future.

The survey was conducted in August before the threat of government shutdowns and default were in the news. What's happened since can only have turned the screws on the new center.


Stupid is as stupid does

Capitol DunceIt's enough to make Forrest Gump blush. 

Everyone from the Senate chaplain to sitting federal judges, not to mention 89% of voters, is fed up with Congress.

Yet our elected representatives seem incapable of extricating themselves from the mess they've created. 

I only wish Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor of economics at Berkeley had lived to see it.

Cipolla is famous for developing the basic laws of human stupidity

In philosophical terms, Cipolla was a utilitarian. He analyzed human behavior in terms of gains and losses. He defined a stupid person as someone who "causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."

It seems to me that Congress comes very close to proving Cipolla's theory.

Now, to be perfectly fair to Prof. Cipolla, although he thought the proportion of stupid people was far greater than widely believed, he did allow for at least three other possibilities. He said that people could also be:

  • Bandits, who cause losses to another to benefit themselves, 
  • Hapless souls, who cause losses to themselves as well as to others, or 
  • Intelligent people who create gains for both themselves and others.

All four cases are illustratred below.

The horizontal “X” axis measures the advantage gained from one’s actions. The vertical “Y” axis measures the advantage gained by others.

I leave it to you to decide whether our elected representatives deserve to be in one of those other categories. Bandit maybe? Hapless?

Of course, Cipolla also suggested that the most dangerous people of all are those who are so stupid they don't know they're stupid.  

That category looks most likely to me all the time.



Lessons from Capitol Hill

Capitol-tilted_463x3071Capitol Hill may be the last place anyone would look for lessons in much these days. But on the assumption that experience comes from what you do and wisdom, from what you do badly, that's precisely what this posting proposes.

Here are five communications lessons to draw from the current shenanigans on Capitol Hill:

1. Don't let your biases cloud your thinking. Republican leaders are so convinced Obamacare is an abomination they made defunding it their core demand in threatening (and then the price of ending)  a government shutdown. Unfortunately, at least one Republican pollster termed that a losing proposition. "By 59 to 38 percent, even those who oppose Obamacare believe a partial government shutdown is not the way to go," he pointed out. "A government shutdown divides Republicans and flips the anti-Obamacare coalition, which is why the shutdown stopped revolving around the health care law several days ago."

2. Consider the full ramifications of decisions before you make them.  Closing the government turned voters' attention away from Obamacare's rocky first days. According to Pew Research, 73% of voters followed news of the shutdown closely while only 57% followed news of the difficulties in signing up for Obamacare. At least one GOP pollster argues it was "reasonable" to have anticipated this. "The plan to use a government shutdown to spark a national discussion of Obamacare," he said, "fell flat."

3. Don't assume your base of support is monolithic. Tea Party and ultra conservative Republicans hate Obamacare so much they are willing to do anything to get rid of it. But Pew Research showed that  the issue split the party -- most (61%) non-Tea Party Republicans were opposed to the shutsown strategy. Other polls showed that Independents are more like Democrats on the issue. Three quarters of Independents joined 86% of Democrats in opposing a government shutdown in order to "fix" Obamacare.

4. Watch the tone of your argument.  The very nature of a govenment shutdown has a negative tone to a very important block of voters. Women are more conerned than men about the economic impact of a shutdown, more likely to consider it a "bad thing," and follow news about it more closely. They're also more likely to vote than men. The GOP has had trouble appealing to female voters. The shutsown will only make that more difficult. 

5. Turn the discussion to people's greatest concerns. Polls suggest the GOP is being blamed for the shutdown by a wide margin. Worse, from the GOP's perspective, the same poll shows people's attitudes toward Obamacare are improving. But there is a way out of this.  When CNN asked people to pick the greatest problem facing the country, 41% pointed to "the economy," only 13% picked "the deficit." And when Pew Research asked how concerned people are about the shutdown's effect on the economy, 77% said they were "very or somewhat concerned."Maybe it's time to pick a battle people really care about.


War by other means

CivilWarIf war is politics by other means, it can work the other way too. What we're seeing in D.C. these days is politics as continuation of the Civil War.

There is little doubt that the current gridlock in Washington was the brainchild of Tea Party Republicans. What's less obvious is that the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives is essentially the old Confederacy. 

Of the 47 members of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, 31 -- or two-thirds -- are from former states of the Confederacy.

They aren't trying to restore slavery, but their other motivations are very similar. They object to the federal government's meddling in their lives, want to starve the beast to death, and question the legitimacy of the current president. 

Their districts are 10% more affluent and 3% "whiter" than average within their own states. Voters in their districts are also less likely to use food stamps and more likely to have health insurance.

Those districts didn't just happen. As Republicans gained control of state legislatures, they rejiggered election districts so they could withdraw into what the Cook Political Report calls "safe, lily-white strongholds."

According to Cook, many Republican districts are products of "creative redistricting."  It notes, for example: "Using only 2010 census data, Rep. Daniel Webster’s Central Florida district jumped from 57 percent white to 66 percent white; Rep. Pete Sessions’s Dallas-area district leaped from 42 percent to 53 percent white; and Rep. Pat Tiberi’s Central Ohio district soared from 68 percent to 88 percent white. All three Republicans had relatively close races in the last decade but won easily in 2012."

As the nation gets more diverse, the GOP is getting whiter. Just what old Jefferson Davis had in mind.


How to close the institutional empathy gap

Mind-the-gapThis blog is about second thoughts, and I had some serious ones last week.

I gave a talk about OtherWise to a business group. The very first question after my presentation set me back on my heels: "You make a good case for developing more empathy," my questioner asked. "But what institutional changes would you recommend to accomplish that?"

I tap-danced around the question and said something like, "Sadly, there is no institutional solution. We have to work at the individual level to change our institutions."  Out of politeness, my questioner let it go at that.

But I've been thinking about his question ever since. Then I realized the answer was on the front page of every newspaper, led the evening news, and dominated the blogosphere.

The Great Government Shutdown is the product of an empathy gap that in turn results from gerrymandering.

Let me explain.

Political scientists have long noted that gerrymandering has created politically "safe" districts where elected officials don't have to worry about voters of the other party. 

Of course, both parties try to design congressional districts to favor the election of their candidates. Unfortunately, that has resulted in the kind of polarization that led to the political gridlock we're now experiencing. 

In North Carolina, for example, when the 1990 census gave the state an additional congressional representative, the Democratic-controlled state legislature drew up a new district that was primarily African-American. It was an ungainly, skinny thing hugging a major highway that sprawled across the state, but it has reliably voted Democrat ever since. 

When the Republicans regained control of the North Carolina legislature, they used the 2010 census as an excuse to redraw congressional districts.  They shifted the boundaries of the reliably Democratic 13th congressional district to decrease its black population by 39%. A Republican took over the seat in 2013.

"So what?" you say. That's the way the game has always been played. That's true. But these days the result is not only to make districts "safe" for one party or another. It also makes the districts themselves more homogenous.

For example, it wasn't only the 13th district's racial composition that changed when it was redistricted. Median incomes also increased by 42%, making it the richest congressional district in the state.  

That means whoever is running for Congress in the 13th district can safely ignore its poorest voters. Worse, by concentrating on the richest voters, they risk losing their sense of empathy for the poorest.

Researchers have shown that wealth and status reduce empathy. People of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to feel they’ve earned their high place in society, and can't understand why everyone else can't.

This situation repeats itself in nearly every "safe" district. With one important difference: "safe" Republican districts tend to be economically better off than other districts in the same state.

That may explain why some Republicans want to cut the food stamp program and defund the Affordable Care Act. For example, voters in the 12th district are only about half as likely to have health insurance as those in the 13th. And they're almost twice as likely to receive food stamps.

See for yourself. You can find economic and demographic data on every Congressional district here.

So on second thought, I should have answered the question about institutional change differently.  There is something we can do: elect state legislators who will ensure that Congressional Districts are truly heterogenous, with different incomes, educational levels, and political leanings. It's the only way to close the empathy gap and to put Congress to work for all voters.


False equivalency

Not-equal-to-mdAn open micrphone caught some interesting byplay between senators Paul and McConnell the other day.  

Paul told McConnell: ""I just did CNN and I just go over and over again 'We're willing to compromise. We're willing to negotiate.' ... I don't think [Democrats]  poll tested 'we won't negotiate.' I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again."  

The whole clip is here but you'll have to watch a commercial to view it.

The local station that broadcast the pols hushed conversation said it showed how much the government shutdown is really about messaging as far as congressional legislators are concerned.

That's not exactly news, even though it is startling to see two senators confirm it so blatantly.

To me, the real story is how easily logic can be twisted in political discourse.

The technical term for the GOP's apparent messaging strategy is "false equivalence." It consists of attributing the same term to two parties without examining the underlying meaning of the term in context. The example my logic professor used in philosophy class years ago was:  "Rats have four feet. Dick is a rat. Therefore, Dick has four feet."

The example Messrs. Paul and McConnell are using is: "We're willing to negotiate. The Democrats aren't."  

Sadly, their analysis of the likely polling for such an argument is correct. Americans like their representatives to get along and to compromise. Politics is just another word for negotiation, as far as they're concerned.

But there really is no equivalence between the parties in this case.

The Democrat-dominated Senate passed a 2014 discretionary budget of $1.12 trillion.The Republican-dominated House of Representatives approved a budget of $986 billion, a $13 billion reduction. But they also attached an amendment that would defund the Affordable Care Act. The Senate approved the House budget, but stripped out any reference to Obamacare.

That sounds like negotiating to me. In fact, on the numbers, it's essentially capitulation. (Even leaving aside that the GOP budget includes savings that the "revoked" Affordable Care Act is supposed to produce.)

Of course, few people know these numbers. All they've heard is that the two sides have dug in their heels. And -- from the GOP -- that the Democrats "refuse to negotiate."

But if a hijacker says he'll blow up a plane unless he's taken to Cuba are we supposed to negotiate a shorter flight? Like to Jacksonville?

Is it accurate to say one side has "dug in its heels" when it has already made concessions?

I don't blame the average voter for falling for this stuff. But political reporters are supposed to know better. And when they run headlines like "Both sides have dug in their heels," they demonstrate that they don't.


The Frame Game

Framing no old houseThe federal government has been partially shut down for the first time in 17 years. And we all get a lesson in framing an issue to your own advantage.

How the disagreement that led to the shutdown is framed will determine whether House Republicans, Senate Democrats, or the president will be blamed for it.

Framing is more than the window through which a message is delivered; it's the basic framework on which it is structured. It's the answer to the question you want people to ask, rather than the question that might occur to them naturally.

For example, in a brief statement to the media late last night, Speaker Boehner said, "The House has voted to keep the government open, but we also want basic fairness for all Americans under Obamacare... The Senate has rejected all our offers to go to conference to resolve this."  In other words, we did our part, but the Senate refuses to do what the people want. 

Also yestderday, White House spokesman Jay Carney asked who would be blamed if the government shut down because President Obama refused to sign a budget bill unless it contained a requirement for thorough background checks on gun purchasers. The answer seems obvious -- he would be.  Isn't this situation clearly analogous -- Republicans in the House refuse the pass a budget unless it contains something they want: defunding of the Affordable Care Act. 

There's no sign that any negotiations are underway to resolve the crisis. But it's almost guaranteed that both parties are working hard to avoid blame for it and -- if possible -- to derive advantage from it. 

For example, a polling-based strategy paper by the left-leaning Global Strategy Group shows that "Making the case that Republicans in Congress are 'irresponsible and reckless, putting the economy at risk to advance their political agenda' is more effective than focusing on either do-nothing obstructionism or going backwards ... Behavior-focused descriptors like 'irresponsible' and 'reckless' are more effective than ideology-focused ones like 'extreme' and 'radical.' 'Opposing reasonable solutions' is more troubling for voters than ... labels about inaction, obstruction or dysfunction."

You can be sure that someone like the right-leaning Luntz Group is working on similar messaging strategies for the GOP. For the moment, the GOP messaging machine seems to be focused on positioning Obamacare as "wrecking the economy even more than a shutdown will" and on characterizing the other side as "unwilling to negotiate."

At first blush, this might seem like a savvy move.  Polling shows that the public is pretty evenly split on the Affordable Care Act --  42% unfavorable to 37% favorable, with 20% uncertain. Considering all the money spent attacking the Act, those number are not surprising. 

But initial polling shows the public overwhelmingly opposes shutting down the government to defund or delay Obamacare -- 72% to 22%. Furthermore, 55% of voters say "gridlock in Washington is mainly because Republicans are determined to block any Obama initiative."

Whether those numbers stick hinges on subtle differences in messaging, especially on who wins the frame game.