How to pierce your Bubble

Filter-bubbleI went to a dinner party last night and, as I imagine is happening at many social gatherings these days, the conversation almost immediately turned to the national obsession -- Trump.

Our chatter was largely negative, from the president's thin-skinned and bullying Tweets to his staff's lack of respect for the office (putting one's feet on the Oval Office sofa).  But none of that is the point.

It struck me that it was all so one-sided. My dinner companions were a diverse group of straight and gay, Caucasian and Asian, retired and still-on-the-job men and women. But we all shared the same political ideology and roughly the same socio-econimic status.

Then it hit me -- this must have been what it was like to be anti-Obama between 2008 and 2016. Those poor souls must have been just as bewildered, angry, and frightened as us (of course without the same justification).

Right-wing conservatives don't have a monopoly on ideological bubbles. I live in one too.  Maybe you do as well.

So, over the next few posts, I'll be listing a few websites and apps you might try to see just how far out of the "mainstream of middle America" you are swimming and to sample current thinking outside your normal bubble.   

Start with a 25-question survey constructed by the "PBS Newshour" that will tell you just how thick your bubble is.   

If you want to see many of the apps and websites at once, read Amanda Hess's terrific story in The New York Times.





Information diet

DIET.039Why is public discourse so divisive these days?

I'm increasingly convinced it's due to the information we consume.

As Clay Johnson put it in his book, The Information Diet, "Just as junk food can lead to obesity, junk information can lead to new forms of ignorance."

Of course, one person's junk food can be another's gourmet feast. And everyone is entitled to a few guilty pleasure, whether its Lay's potato chips or the latest issue of People magazine.  

And I'm less concerned about people who major in the Kardashians than about those whose principal source of news is cable TV or social media.

Sadly, according to the Pew Research Center, those were the two primary sources of political news in the 2016 election.


Cable's position as people's primary news source may be the product of all their wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's rallies.  

But hidden within these results are some troubling statistics. "Republicans are far more likely to count on Fox News (36%) for campaign information than are Democrats (11%)," Pew says. "Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to rely on CNN (26% vs. 12%) and MSNBC (17% vs. 5%)."

This continues a dangerous information diet of only consuming what we like. People increasingly live in echo chambers where all they hear is their pre-existing opinion reflected back to them.

My suggestion? If you're a liberal Democrat, tune into Bill O'Reilly occasionally. If you're a conservative Republican, watch Rachel Madow now and then.

If you're a regular reader of the New York Times, read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. And vice versa. To get really worked up, read the "comments" online.

You'll disagree with 98 percent or more of what they say. 

But if you take the time to try to understand why they believe what they do, you might find a value or a principle that you can share.

That is the beginning of becoming OtherWise. You'll be free of the echo chamber.







Media Culpa?

OopsThe mainstream media is beating themselves up for not accurately predicting the results of the presidential election. (For example, see this.) Failing to pick the winner was clearly a failure. And it may take pollsters a generation to recover (which in politics apparently means two years, the time between election cycles).

But predicting election results was not why our Founding Fathers voted for the First Amendment. They had a slightly higher purpose in mind -- encouraging discussion that would result in an electorate that understood the issues at stake.

The media's abject failure to fulfill that duty is what should prompt an apology -- and a firm commitment to do better.

Everyone knows the media cover elections like a horse race, who's ahead, who's behind. Thinking back on the campaign coverage, I can't remember a single instance when a reporter -- or debate moderator -- pressed a candidate to really explain any hot button issue. Not his or her bumper sticker position on the issue, but its causes and the pro's and con's of alternative solutions. 

So will the media do better? Not judging by CNN's post-election interview of Bernie Sanders.

Wolf Blitzer asked him twice: "Are you running in 2020?"




The politicization of PR

Democrats and RepublicansA story in today's Wall Street Journal lifted the veil on a disturbing trend -- some political operatives are bringing their bare knuckle tactics to the business world.

According to the Journal, for example, "America Rising, the unofficial research arm of the Republican Party, has launched a for-profit venture aimed at helping companies, trade associations and wealthy individuals push back against detractors and navigate sensitive shareholder or public-policy fights."

Its Democratic counterpart, American Bridge, says it isn’t looking to do private-sector work, but admitted to doing work for public policy allies like Planned Parenthood. One wonders if the next steps won't be trade associations, followed quickly by corporate lobbyists and then the rest of the C-suite.

As The Donald would say, "Not good."

CEOs have been enamored with the techniques of political campaigning ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, who was the most CEO-like politician to occupy the White House. But Reagan's communications techniques were relatively benign: message discipline, repetition, controlled appearances with dramatic backdrops, policy framed in homey anecdotes, etc.

Today's political operatives are decidedly more rough and tumble, whose stock in trade is compiling dossiers on opponents’ vulnerabilities and finding ways to exploit them without leaving fingerprints.

I can't do better than Tim Penning, a professor of public relations, who posted this in the Journal's comment section:

"... implicit in 'opposition research' is the underhanded use of ad hominem attacks on those with alternative views and agendas. It damages the civility of debate and robs the public of the ability to make genuinely informed decisions, which is the moral role of public relations in society. In the end, as negative practice becomes common, it will damage all companies' reputations."

To which I say, "Amen."



CEOs and Politics

SwitzerlandWhen it comes to politics, most corporate CEOs are Switzerland, with no enemies and friends on all sides.

But now two academics have taken to the pages of the New York Times to suggest CEOs might want to step up their game. They suggest that, as brands seek to "personalize" their relationships with consumers, "adopting a political orientation might be part of closing the deal."

As they put it, "In an era of political polarization, corporate neutrality may be outdated. Perhaps it is better in 2016 to be intensely loved by a few than inoffensive to many."

They even see evidence CEOs can contribute to political change when they take a public stance "on controversial issues like race relations and gender equality that are unrelated to their core businesses." And they think this new outspokenness can increase sales at the same time.

Aaron K. Chatterji of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke and Michael W. Toffel of Harvard Business School admit their position is based largely on anecdotal evidence.

For example, after the chief executives of Intel, Salesforce.com, and Unilever opposed a “religious liberty” bill allowing faith-based businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia promised to veto it. 

That was consistent with an earlier field experiment they conducted when Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed opposition to a similar bill in Indiana. 

In that experiment, when voters were exposed to a statement of Cook's position, support for the bill declined among all but opponents of gay marriage. Interestingly, purchase intent for Apple products increased among gay marriage supporters.

While it's important for CEOs to demonstrate they care about issues important to their customers, I don't think they should drag their companies into controversies "unrelated to their business," as the good professors put it. 

From a practical, dollars and cents point of view, why would a company want to alienate any customers and stakeholders? From an ethical perspective, spending shareowner money on something many might oppose, without a compelling business reason, is questionable.

Having said that, I would argue that gay marriage -- part of respecting the human dignity of gay people -- is important to any company's core business, as are race relations and gender equality.

No company can afford to ignore or marginalize employees, customers, or other stakeholders simply because of who they are. Not only would that be a serious violation of their rights, it would waste their talent.

The same logic applies to a number of other hot-button "cultural issues," depending on the company. Starbuck's, for example, has a legitimate reason for barring guns from its stores even in states with open carry laws. 

Every company needs to make that judgment for itself. And while it may sound complicated, there is one fool-proof test. Before taking a position on an issue, ask yourself this: if the poop hits the fan on this, are you willing to go to the mat on this issue, to do whatever it takes to win?

If you can't say "yes" to that question, save yourself some grief and stay out of the fight.




From Barnum to Trump

Barnum & Trump.001Public Relations people like to think they not only outlived P. T. Barnum, they outgrew him and his outrageous publicity-seeking techniques.

Not quite.

Those techniques live on in the more juvenile corners of the practice. And in one presidential campaign.

Strictly speaking neither P. T. Barnum nor Donald J. Trump can be categorized as PR people. But so many techniques of the craft have been so central to their success, they serve as appropriate and rich case studies.

Barnum and Trump share more than the same hairline, less comb-over. They're both teetotalers, though Barnum came to sobriety after a period of dissolution and, while Trump doesn't drink wine or vodka, he peddles them. 

Barnum entered politics late in life, serving as a state legislator and as mayor of Bridgeport, Conn. Trump was in his late 60s when he decided he wanted to be president.

They both amassed great fortunes. Barnum was one of the first millionaires in the U.S. Trump claims to be worth $10 billion. They both also made good use of the bankruptcy statutes.  

Both have been best selling authors. Trump wrote The Art of the Deal, telegraphing his approach to domestic and international issues. Barnum wrote the more straightforwardly titled The Art of Money Getting

And they can both credit much of their success to their genius at generating publicity. In fact, just 4 days before he died, Barnum wrote a friend, “All I have, I owe to the press.”  Trump could say the same, although he would probably add “those disgusting, dishonest human beings.”

Disgusting or dishonest, Trump knows how to deal with the media. His strategy is fairly simple and Barnumesque in its own way. "One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better," he wrote in The Art of the Deal. "If you are a little different, or a little outrageous, the press is going to write about you."

And write they do. Sometimes, just turning on their TV cameras and watching him in front of adoring crowds.  Over the course of his campaign, Trump earned nearly $2 billion worth of media attention — twice Hillary Clinton’s $746 million, more than all the other GOP candidates combined, and 190 times more than he spent directly. 

Now, you would think volunteering for all that attention, Trump has been playing with fire. But he learned how to handle the media in his real estate days, as he explained in his best seller. "When a reporter asks me a tough question, I try to frame a positive answer, even if that means shifting the ground," he wrote. "If someone asks me what negative effects the world’s tallest building might have on the West Side, I talk about how New Yorkers deserve the world’s tallest building."

In the trade that's called "bridging" or evading a question by answering the question you wish had been asked. Like Barnum, who posted signs reading “this way to the egress” to keep people moving through his sideshows, Trump is a master of misdirection. 

He has also been more prolific than any other candidate in “shared media,” accumulating about 7 million Twitter followers and tapping out more than 32,000 Tweets and re-Tweets. That’s more significant than it seems. At the beginning of the 20th century, people like Walter Lippmann believed newspapers played a key role in telling people what to pay attention to and how to think about it. In the 21st century, social media has usurped that role.  

Like Barnum, Trump knows what ordinary people want. "I play to people’s fantasies," he wrote. "People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion." In the trade, that's called "spinning," making the good look better and the bad look good.

Barnum.001Barnum called it “Humbug” -- "putting on glittering appearances by which to suddenly arrest public attention and attract the public eye and ear." In fact, he called himself the "Prince of Humbugs.” He would have seen kindred royalty in Donald Trump. 

Few of the attractions Barnum promoted came close to the outrageous buildup he gave them, but people were so entertained, they didn’t feel deceived. The lie was part of the entertainment. He sewed the body of a fish to the torso of a monkey and presented it as “a scientific curiosity” called the Fee-Jee Mermaid.

More troubling, Barnum’s “Humbug” exploited the prejudices, racism, and belief in eugenics common in his day. He promoted the deformed, disabled, and different -- like “General” Tom Thumb, Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, and conjoined twins Cheng and Eng. He promoted a mentally disabled black man as “Pinhead,” the missing link between man and ape. And even though he was an abolitionist, he bought a slave and presented her as Washington’s 161-year-old nanny.

In a way, Trump is following the same playbook, exploiting people’s fears and anger. He appeals to people who feel disenfranchised by globalization, stagnant wages, and demographic change. They like his brashness and directness. Whatever he says is always clear enough for a 4th grader to understand. And it’s expressed in simple, angry terms that can fit in a Tweet with plenty of room for exclamation points.  

It’s a proven formula. Anger and fear are easy to evoke because they come from people’s unconscious. And once aroused, those feelings are immune to rational argument.  People who are scared and angry don’t want someone to tell them they shouldn’t be. They want someone to listen, play back what they’re saying, and give them an easy, quick solution.  

As unlikely as it may seem, blue collar billionaire Donald Trump has become that person.  He doesn’t talk like a politician, but says what the guy on the next bar stool is thinking but afraid to say. He’s “authentic.” 

Politifact reports nearly half (47%) of what Trump has been saying on the campaign trail is completely false. Another 21% is so outlandish it's scored as "pants on fire.”  In 4.6 hours of Trump speeches and press conferences during one week in mid-March, Politico found more than 5 dozen untrue statements, or one every five minutes.

Despite this, polls say 60% of Republicans think Trump is honest and trustworthy. How can that be?

His supporters aren’t listening to the semantic meaning of what Trump is saying; they’re listening to its emotional and symbolic meaning -- what his words mean to them, beyond their dictionary definitions.

For example, in his Florida victory speech, Trump said that under the Iran nuclear deal, "we give them $150 billion, we get nothing." In reality, the money was already Iran’s to begin with, just frozen in foreign bank accounts under economic sanctions. In return for releasing it, Iran curbed its nuclear program and submitted to independent monitoring.

But Trump’s supporters knew what he meant is "we didn't get enough for releasing the embargoed money." That’s more opinion than statement of fact. Who's going to quibble about the details?

Do Trump supporters really think he can clear the country of undocumented immigrants in two years, or get Mexico to pay for a border wall? No.  And they don't think he does either.  He’s just underlining the threat of so-called “illegal immigrants” and promising to be ruthless in addressing it. 

Like Barnum, Trump is an entertainer, playing a role. He has less in common with politics than with professional wrestling. 

And like performers in World Wrestling Entertainment, Barnum and Trump have operated in a largely fact-free zone. Sometimes, their free-wheeling way with the truth is relatively innocent puffery delivered with a wink, as when Barnum claimed something was “the greatest" or "the rarest.” Or when Trump declared he has "one of the world's best memories." 

But Barnum also perpetuated the basest prejudices toward people who were disabled, mentally challenged, or of a different race. Barnum’s so-called “freaks” may have been complicit in his exploitation of them, but it’s hard to justify the social cost.

Trump.001Trump’s major ethical failing is similar. He demonstrates a lack of respect for voters by pandering to their resentments, validating and reinforcing them rather than seriously addressing their underlying causes. 

He campaigns in heated rhetoric, offering little substance on policy other than promises he “could get a better deal.” 

He disregards the consequences of his divisive rhetoric, accepting no responsibility for violence at his rallies but offering to cover the legal fees of anyone arrested for roughing up protesters. Or at least did until it looked like the bills would keep piling up.

The way Barnum and Trump have practiced public relations may have filled their bank accounts, it may even get one of them a nomination or, God forbid, the presidency, but it is  literally de-meaning because it robs whole groups of people of meaning, reducing them to a cliché, a punchline, or a menace.

That’s the real danger in the three-ring circus surrounding Trump. At best, it’s trivial and superficial humbug designed to get attention.  At its worse, it cynically exploits voters’ resentments towards whole classes of people. It is de-meaning, which is the darkest use of public relations.




Trumpian ethics

Trump-o-meter.001Politifact reports that nearly half (47%) of what Donald Trump has been saying on the campaign trail is completely false. Another 21% is so outlandish it's scored as "pants on fire."

From what I can see, the folks at Politifact do their job as objectively and carefully as anyone could. But the accuracy or truthfulness of Trump's rhetoric is really beside the point. 

Anything a politician says has three levels of meaning -- semantic, pragmatic, and symbolic.

The semantic is the literal meaning of the words, whether they conform to reality and are factual. That's what Politifact is measuring.

The pragmatic meaning is the "why" of the statement. What motivated the candidate to say it now and in this particular place? This meaning is harder to nail down, but no less important to the intended audience. If the pragmatic meaning is well-chosen, the audience will get it even if it flies over the heads of the rest of us.

The third meaning is symbolic. It's what the candidate's words signify to his listeners, what they mean beyond their dictionary definitions. In Trump's case, that's the real meaning. Whatever he says is always clear enough for a 4th grader to understand. It's brash and direct. Trump says what his followers are thinking. His words say "I'm with you."

Do Trump supporters really think he can clear the country of undocumented immigrants in two years or get Mexico to pay for a border wall? No. And they don't think he does either. It's enough that he's expressing the same frustration and anger that they've been experiencing.

They're so fed up, they're willing to take a flyer on a guy with a bad combover, hot wife, and hefty bank account. At least he'll shake things up.

The ethics of Trump's campaign has less to do with how well his political statements conform to reality than with their larger meaning. There's not much room for nuance in a political speech. For example, it's not true that under the Iran nuclear deal, "we give them $150 billion, we get nothing," as Trump claimed in his Florida victory speech. In reality, the money was already Iran’s to begin with, just frozen in foreign bank accounts under economic sanctions. In return for releasing it, Iran curbed its nuclear program as confirmed by independent experts.

But what Trump could have meant is that we didn't get enough for releasing the embargoed money, which is more opinion than statement of fact.

If that sounds like an unnecessarily generous interpretation, it's simply meant to put more emphasis on the larger ethical issue at play in Trump's campaign -- his lack of respect for voters' intelligence and his disregard for the consequences of his divisive rhetoric.

Trump has assumed no responsibility for the violence levied on protesters at his rallies. And he continues to campaign in sound bites and heated rhetoric, offering little substance on policy or programs. He's pandering to voters' resentments, reinforcing them rather than addressing their causes.

That's the biggest ethical lapse of all.






Rubio consults a Bible

RULES FOR RADICALS.001As I walked into church yesterday (right on time), my pastor delayed the entrance procession long enough to admonish me for being "kind of hard" on the presidential candidates in these postings.

I'm pretty sure he was kidding. But it does make you think.

My goal, of course, has never been to change anybody's vote. For one thing, I've written before about how hard it is to change a mind that is made up. For example: here and here. For another, that's not the purpose of these occasional musings about public relations and related topics.

But there is no better laboratory than an election to explore the nature of public opinion. For example, pundits and political consultants have been amazed that Donald Trump can say the most outrageous thing without suffering any loss of support. On the contrary, the majority of Republicans (60%) consider him trustworthy and honest, even though he says things that are demonstrably false. That makes it kind of hard for his competitors to rebut him.

Marco Rubio seems to have hit on a formula that could work. His supporters won't like to learn this, but it's a technique taken straight from the Bible of the radical left, Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals

Rule 5: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”

Don't attack an opponent head-on, if he holds a superior position. Cut him down to size first. Mockery is the great leveler. Plus, it's consistent with Rule 6 -- “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”

Rubio seems to be enjoying the tactic plenty, though he may have taken it too far for some when he edged into blue material over the weekend.

But for the ultimate takedown of Mr. Trump, take a look at John Oliver's report last night over on HBO.


Mr. Oliver should be glad he's not a parishioner in my church.  



The Meaning of Trump

Trump.001Donald Trump hit another jackpot in Nevada yesterday, giving political scientists plenty to chew on while establishment politicians nurse an upset stomach. But there are a couple of important public relations lessons here too.

And they all have to do with the essential strategy of any winning campaign -- to create meaning.

What the candidates mean to us is the context within which we judge their competence and within which our feelings or affinity for them are formed.

Competence, affinity, and meaning are the basic elements of trust, which is critical to winning their vote. 

Competence is a largely rational judgment of someone's capabilities. It's necessarily second-hand so it's heavily influenced by network effects. The more people believe a candidate is competent, the more competent he appears to others. 

Affinity can be based on shared values, common goals, admiration, or any association that make us feel close to someone. It's appearing to share someone's cares and "caring about people like me." It has to be genuine, but it's also heavily influenced by network effects.

Meaning is what the candidates represent to voters, i.e., their significance or import. It can be shaped by a candidate, by the candidate's opponents, by the media, or by exogenous events. But it has to be credible or at least plausible, grounded in something you can point to both in behavior and words. Most importantly, it has to matter to voters, reflect their biggest concerns.

Gov. Bush -- who is clearly a competent and likable man -- tried to build meaning around his experience and proven ability to fix things. But while many voters believe Washington needs to be fixed, they are looking for an outsider to do it. And what Bush meant to them is "more of the same." 

Mr. Trump, who is too brash to be very likable, has amassed enough money in business to wear the mantle of competence. But more importantly, he has acquired the meaning of "getting things done," without letting something like "political correctness" stand in his way. He's like the guy on the next barstool, saying out loud what everyone is thinking. People may not feel personally close to Trump, but they feel he's close to them

Messrs. Rubio and Cruz, meanwhile, have been struggling with their meaning.

Rubio's biggest stumble came when he allowed another candidate to define him as a robotic candidate programmed to repeat the same applause lines over and over, questioning both his authenticity (a key component of likability) and his competence. Rubio eventually regained his footing by admitting he had a bad night and promising to do better. 

Mr. Cruz has allowed other candidates to define him as nasty and unlikable. Mr. Cruz tried to rehabilitate himself by firing his communications director. Time will tell whether it works. Unfortunately, a long trail of questionable campaign tactics make the accusations look at least plausible. 

On the Democratic side, Secretary Clinton is clearly competent, but she's only "likable enough." Her biggest failing to date has been an inability to create meaning in a way that makes her seem less calculating and more relatable. There are early signs she's trying to change, but she still has a way to go.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, couldn't be more curmudgeonly, which isn't exactly a likable trait. But everything he says and does (e.g., habitually flying coach in a middle seat) demonstrates he is for the little guy and against the fat cats in finance and politics. Like Trump, he speaks his mind (though with less profanity) and seems sincere. Voters like him so much for sharing their concerns, they're willing, for now at least, to ignore questions about his ability to govern, i.e., actually achieve his goals. 

All of which suggests that the biggest challenge facing the second and third place candidates in the primaries is to redefine the leader.  And whichever two candidates emerge victorious from the primaries (or conventions), they need to create meaning around their competencies in a way that makes voters in the general election feel good about them.   





Lab Lessons

LabPolitical campaigns have long been R&D labs for corporate public relations people.

Tactics that seemed to work on the campaign trail swiftly made their way into day-to-day PR practice. 

Teddy Roosevelt invented the practice of issuing bad news on a Friday afternoon, Dick Nixon gave master classes in opposition research,  Jack Kennedy turned news conferences into televised pseudo-events, Bill Clinton taught the value of rapid response, George W. Bush (under the tutelage of Karl Rove) harnessed the power of micro-targeting, and Barack Obama rode to the White House largely on the power of social media.

But as important as these developments were, they are tactics not strategies.  

For strategic discoveries, PR people should pay close attention to what's happening in the GOP primary contest.

Donald Trump's once unlikely position at the top of the polls is due to a single factor -- affinity. Trump says out loud (sometimes very loud) what many voters have been quietly thinking, even when it's unpopular (or as he puts it "politically incorrect"). He loudly shares voters' cares. 

As a result, his supporters really like him -- maybe not enough to let it slide if he shot someone on 5th Avenue, as he recently suggested -- but enough to stick by him through all the derision and disbelief thrown his way by professional pundits and the party establishment. 

This was all knowable.  In the 2012 election, exit polls showed Mitt Romney winning on policy issues, from leadership skills to values. But he lost the election because Obama trumped him 81 percent to 18 percent on the crucial issue of “cares about people like me.”

The pundits and professional politicians may have forgotten that lesson, but the voters haven't. In the early days of the primary season, back in June 2015, one poll showed three quarters of both Republicans (77%) and Democrats (75%) said it was "highly important" that a candidate "cares about people like me."  Eight out of 10 (83%) Trump supporters considered it even more important.

Turns out they were right, evn though they were a lonely bunch back then -- representing only 9% of voters.  Bush, Carson, and Rubio beat Trump in that same poll, with 16%, 14%, and 11% support respectively. In fact, more Republicans (40%) thought unfavorably about Trump than any other Republican candidate. Even Socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders did better; only 38% of Republicans were unfavorable towards him.

But Trump -- a bona fide member of the 1% -- channeled the fears, resentments, and anger of the least well-off 80%. And in language the guy on the next barstool might use.

As a result, the 9% who supported Trump back in June of last year have quadrupled to 36% nationally. 

An important social development is behind those numbers. While we used to speak of "trust gaps" in generational terms, it is now the product of other socioeconomic factors. The better-educated, higher-income "elite" have higher levels of trust than ever before. Most of the rest of us aren't inclined to trust anybody.

"In more than 60 percent of countries surveyed for the Edelman Trust Barometer, the trust levels of the mass population are below 50 percent," Richard Edelman reports. "By contrast, trust levels of the elite population are at the highest levels, with double-digit jumps in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy and Mexico."  

There is a huge gap between how elite and mass publics feel about all institutions, particularly businesses. 

"Inequality of trust has important consequences," Edelman writes. "The most obvious is growing receptivity to politicians who prey on fear instead of offering solutions. Examples include assertions that refugees are a major security threat and that unemployment can be addressed by stopping foreign trade. Trust inequality seems to be a major pillar in the campaigns of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Marine Le Pen in France."

All of which reflects three strategic lessons:

  1. Affinity matters. Trump is leading because a large segment of Republican voters identify with him and his message. Even though he isn't the typical back-slapping pol, voters like him -- sometimes for the very things that make him so unlikable to others. 

  2. Meaning matters. "Making America Great Again" isn't much of a slogan. But it perfectly captures the public mood. Combined with Trump's high affinity and assumed competency (based on what the general public knows of his claimed business success), it's enough to engender an unusually high level of trust.  

  3. Public trust matters. What's happening in the GOP primary is also happening to a lesser extent on the Democratic side between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But more worrisome, it's happening across the economy. The stagnation in middle class wages, along with well-publicized corporate scandals and greed, are creating a toxic environment for business. 

Donald Trump's candidacy could implode any day. But until it does, public relations practitioners should learn from its example. These are lessons we can't afford to leave in the lab.


Exploiting anger, fear, and hate

Anger_by_michaelogicalm-d95ew0gBack in the 1950s, Vance Packard accused the advertising and public relations industries of "the systematic creation of dissatisfaction," making women anxious about their appearance and exploiting men's sexual urges to sell everything from home freezers to automobiles.

Packard also expected political candidates to sell themselves the same way. They would use warm and fuzzy "imagery" to evoke deeply held values like family and patriotism. 

That didn't sit well with everyone. “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal ... is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process,” Adlai Stevenson complained on his way to losing the election. 

He didn't know how good we had it. That was when candidates were sold in a barrage of 30-second TV ads. These days, earned and shared media is where all the action is. And candidates are tapping into the darker emotions that drive sharing. 

As reported in today's New York Times, two professors at the Wharton School found news stories more likely to be shared if they elicited strong emotions. A psychology professor at the University of Hawaii found hate, fear, and anger relatively easy to evoke because they come directly from the unconscious. 

Enter Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And to some extent, Bernie Sanders.

One has exploited the fear and anger some people harbor towards Mexicans and Muslims. The other, towards liberals on "cultural issues" like abortion and gay marriage. And the third, towards the wealthiest 1%.  

Whether that fear and anger is justified is irrelevant. Whether it's based on lies and exaggerations doesn't matter. Fear and anger are even immune to factual counter-argument. In fact, attack seem to solidify their hold on people.

Vance Packard predicted a soulless consumer society, but he missed how much our communications media would tear us apart from each other.



More housecleaning

Stable cleaningLast summer, I tried to figure out why Donald Trump was doing so well in the GOP primary polls. I suggested it was because nearly three quarters of voters were disenchanted with politicians. According to a 2012 Pew study, voters were saying, “it’s time for Washington politicians to step aside and make room for new leaders ... even if they're less effective than experienced politicians." 

Trump specializes in language and opinions that could have come out of the mouth of the guy on the next barstool. He says he doesn't have time for "political correctness." His followers don't think he needs to apologize for that. In fact, his most outrageous pronouncements reflect what they're already thinking in the darkest recesses of their minds.

Ted Cruz, who is running a close second in some polls, is cut from the same cloth, though with more of an evangelical weave. His supporters may go to church more often than Trump's, but they harbor the same resentments about the direction the country is taking -- an assault on marriage, preferences for minorities, children born out of wedlock, prayer banned from schools, threats to confiscate guns, etc.

Last summer, I was sure Trump would be a passing fancy and Cruz would be a niche candidate. I was wrong. Their combined poll numbers now constitute nearly two-thirds of likely voters in the Republican primary.

At this point, it's beginning to look like the general election will be a cage fight between establishment and non-establishment candidates. 

While I may have been wrong about Trump and Cruz's staying power and appeal, I think it proves my larger point -- the dangers of wrecking a category.

Political polarization led to the kind of brinksmanship and obstructionism that so disgusted voters in both parties they declared a pox on all their houses. As a result, Republicans may actually nominate someone who has not been part of the establishment, and many Democrats may opt out of the general election entirely.

This, I submit, is the product of short-term public relations and political strategies focused on the next election rather than the long-term health of the nation.




Is the EPA Guilty of Propaganda?

EPAThe U.S. Congress attached strings to its annual appropriation to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Namely, the agency was prohibited from engaging in "propaganda" and "grassroots lobbying in support or opposition to proposed legislation."

Suspecting the EPA violated that rule, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO)  to investigate.

The GAO  report, issued on December 14, declared the EPA had violated both rules. Make of that what you will. What we find interesting is the logic the agency used in reaching that conclusion.  

First, the GAO defines propaganda as disguising the source of communication either by omission or mis-direction. So far, so good.

The EPA allegedly engaged in propagandizing when it used a crowd-sourcing web site, Thunderclap, to post a message on the social media "pages" or "timelines" of self-selected supporters who have an estimated 1.8 million followers.

The message -- "Clean water is important to me. I support EPA's efforts to protect it for my health, my family, and my community." -- included  a hyperlink to the EPA web site. But the GAO declared the message "covert propaganda" because the EPA's role in originating the message was not made clearer to the ultimate recipients.  

In addition, the GAO found that hyperlinks within other EPA social media campaigns constituted "lobbying" because they led to third-party sites such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Surfrider Foundation which, in turn, included hyperlinks to contact members of Congress in opposition to pending legislation that would overturn the EPA's rules on clean water.

The GAO found that by including those external links on its own web pages, the EPA was "clearly associating itself" with efforts to lobby Congress in violation of the law.

Hiding the source of information is clearly unethical. And while we don't believe it's unethical to encourage the public to call on legislators to vote one way or another, it's clearly a violation of the law, which in itself is wrong.

The real question is whether the EPA's use of social media was a cynical attempt to circumvent the law and hide behind intermediaries. In my opinion, that's a stretch. And I see no concrete evidence to support that position in the GAO's report. 

Social media, by its very nature, harnesses the power of networks and is ever-changing. If an agency were held responsible for the incidental content of web sites it links to, much less second and third-hand Facebook or Twitter postings over which it has no control, it would have to avoid social media altogether. 

What does seem unethical is to limit any agency's ability to communicate with the public within its areas of competency and authority.  By the same logic, members of Congress shouldn't be allowed to use public funds to explain their positions on legislative matters through social media. 

As a matter of ethics and law, the government's bias should be towards full and open communications through all available media.






What Were They Thinking?

Good bad chouceThe question was posed in the headline of a New York Times editorial.  It concerned Volkswagen, accused of rigging auto software to manipulate emission readings and evade regulatory limits.

But it could have just as easily applied to the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals who bought the rights to a drug used to treat a rare but life-threatening infection and promptly jacked the price up from $13.50 a pill to $750.

It could even have applied to Ben Carson, neurosurgeon-turned-presidential-candidate, who said Muslims aren't fit to seek the office.

Carson sought shelter in the current campaign against "political correctness." The ostensible concern, explains the New Yorker's Jelani Cobb, "is that the parameters of polite (or at least non-bigoted) discussion get in the way of truth-telling, leaving us with good feelings and palliative falsehoods."

Of course, as Cobb also points out, there is no necessary relationship between truthfulness and offensiveness. One does not naturally flow from the other. A lot of what passes for political correctness -- e.g., using gender neutral sentence construction, avoiding racist and homophobic slurs, etc. -- is actually an effort to conform our language to more enlightened ethics. Carson's offense was not failing to respect political correctness, but engaging in religious bigotry. 

Similarly, Volkswagen and Turing's behavior represent ethical failures. Some will argue that Turing was simply attempting to price its drug to what the market will bear. The "market" reacted and now the company will adjust. That's how capitalism works.

It will be harder for Volkswagen to cloak itself in the principles of the free market. Even Milton Friedman, outspoken apologist for capitalism, cautioned that, in the pursuit of "shareowner value," companies had to "follow the rules of the road." 

Unfortunately, the only limit most companies put on trying to shape those rules is what they can get away with. And it isn't a long leap from that to trying to circumvent the rules entirely. Especially if you think your basic purpose -- or reason for being -- is to generate profits.

That, alas, is what the people at Volkswagen and Turing who were ultimately responsible for this behavior were thinking. But they misunderstood their purpose. Sure it's to create value, but not just for the people who own the company. They also need to create value for everyone who contributes to their company's successes and bears the risk of its failures.  

That is a company's true ethical purpose. And that's what should guide every capitalist's thinking.







TrumpPoor Jeb Bush. As if his last name were not enough of a millstone, he has to put up with advice like the following from a so-called "image expert," as conveyed by the Wall Street Journal's "Think Tank."

To win the White House, Jeb should: 

  1. Dress for success. Wear a crisp shirt and nice tie.
  2. Ditch the glasses. Wear contacts.
  3. Set the stage.  Make sure you have the right backdrop.
  4. Use pre-packaged sound bites. Don't wing it.
  5. Get a better slogan. "Right to Rise" isn't working.
  6. Be more fun, like The Donald.

Well, think again.

I can understand why Republican candidates are frustrated. They're being Trumped by the P. T. Barnum of real estate developers turned reality TV star turned political candidate. And according to some political analysts, while his lead may be over-stated, it looks like he'll be around for a while. 

But beating Trump will require more than slicker packaging. The guy's speeches are incoherent, his policies no more sophisticated than the guy's on the next barstool, and his hair is a joke. Still, he's ahead. 


In marketing terms, I think it's because professional Republicans and Democrats have wrecked their category. They've given politics an even worse reputation than it had. Something Will Rogers would have thought impossible.

Everyone knows political polarization hasn't been this bad since the Civil War. The inevitable consequence is less well understood.  

In a 2012 Pew Research study, 76% of Americans agreed: “it’s time for Washington politicians to step aside and make room for new leaders.” And Republicans are even more likely than Democrats or Independents to want new leaders, "even if they're less effective than experienced politicians."

Well, Trump certainly appears to qualify.

His competitors, including Jeb Bush, need to figure out how to tap into voters' anger about politics as usual without appearing to be, well, politicians. 




Department of what to do with lemons

LemondaeRudy Giuliani may have hijacked Scott Walker's fundraiser with his reflections on President Obama's love life (at least as it applies to the country and its occupants), but the governor's staff has found a way to use it as a springboard for what really matters to them. Here's an email they sent to potential supporters:

"Governor Scott Walker ... refuses to be distracted by the small, petty, and pale ideas that the 'gotcha' headline writers for the Liberal Media want to talk about. ... Now is the time to stand up against the publicity hounds and the journalistic pack, and help Governor Walker fight back with a 'Friends of Scott Walker' contribution ... Your support will show the clueless and mindless journalistic herd that you know what matters most and that it is not the pointless minutiae that they are pushing.”

They may be making fund-raising lemonade out of lemons, but they also have a valid point. From the Sunday talk shows to the evening news campaign coverage and the left- and right-wing blather on MSNBC and Fox, political reporting seems fixated on what historian Daniel Boorstin called pseudo-events.  

Boorstin coined the term to describe events like photo-ops that exist only to generate publicity. Candidates created such events to further their own purposes without the distraction and risk of discussing actual issues. TV journalists went along because it played to their bias for pictures and the illusion of drama.

Now it seems all the media have so thoroughly embraced the concept they are creating their own pseudo-events, posing questions designed to create headlines rather than understanding, fanning controversy when it fails to ignite, and focusing on the embarrassing more than on the enlightening. Online and off, click-bait rules. 

The ethical question for media and PR people alike: do this pseudo-communication respect the electorate's right to make rational choices? Or does it lead to pseudo-candidates and, worse, decisions based on pseudo-qualifications? Are we condemned to live in a social and political hyperreality?


New rules of persuasion

Social mediaMore than a new majority in Congress emerged from the recent election. Some new rules of persuasion were revealed as well.

Elections have long been fertile ground for scholars trying to figure out the shape of public opinion and the forces that change it.  

The presidential campaign of 1960, for example, gave us the concept of  pseudo-events like debates and photo ops,  which inevitably led to the development of pseudo-qualifications on which dozens of candidates have run ever since (and on which several have actually won). 

Indeed, the practice of public relations has arguably lifted more lessons from politics than the other way around. Sometimes the wrong lessons (the use of war rooms and truth squads, negative campaigning, etc.). But also useful lessons (micro-targetting, staying on message, etc.).

Ever since Obama's 2008 campaign, social media has been the dominant platform of campaigning, just as television had been since the 1960s. It was not only the key to the Obama campaign's fund-raising, it also proved to be critical in his ground game of turning out the vote, giving communities of common interest targeted information, and engaging people who had previously expressed little interest in politics. 

Social media had been around long before Obama's campaign, of course. But his team was the first to realize social media are not new screens, ripe for advertising messages, so much as on-going conversations with their own rules of engagement.

So it will be interesting to see how long its takes for PR practitioners to internalize the insights emerging from the latest bi-annual exercise in electioneering.

Ben Smith's latest BuzzFeed column hits on a particularly intriguing insight:

"Persuasion works differently when it relies on sharing. ... And the social conversation favors things that generations of politicians have been trained to avoid: spontaneity, surprise, authenticity, humor, raw edge, the occasional human stumble. (Joe Biden!)... 

"A few modern politicians appear to have a real feel for the raw emotion and, sometimes, (apparent) spontaneity that people will want to share. Elizabeth Warren's blunt and casual economic 2011 tirade and Ted Cruz's theatrical confrontations (and even his own low-production-value cell phone videos) are the beginnings of that viral populism for which the social web has opened a real space."

How long will it take for major brands to figure out what this means for them?


My Greta Garbo moment

Greta-in-flesh-and-the-devil-greta-garbo-4319278-720-544Ms. Garbo famously said, "I want to be left alone."  I know how exactly how she felt.

The Democratic Party, the party of my parents and grandparents, is driving me nuts.

It all started about a month ago, when in reaction to some crass stupidity on the other party's part, I contributed $100 to the Democratic National Committee. It was supposed to be a one-time contribution, but I soon discovered it had magically turned into a monthly contribution through my credit card account. That was soon rectified with apologies all around and I bore no grudges. Stuff happens.

I can't even remember what idiocy prompted my donation.

However, ever since I made it, I have been receiving increasingly desperate emails from my friends Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and a host of people writing on their behalf. I'd say I've averaged about two or three such emails a day. Okay, so I'm now I'm on a mailing list of juicy prospects. It's easy enough to steer these pitches into my spam file. 

But now I'm also getting phone calls every other day from the Democratic National Committee, Nancy Pelosi's office, or other dark corners of the Beltway. When I ask to be removed from their list, I'm politely told that they will do what they can, but I should know that political groups aren't covered by the strictures of the Do Not Call legislation. I think that means I will continue to get calls.

I'm now thinking about paying someone to get me off these lists. Except that I know I will then be on the list of whoever can pull that miracle off, and who knows where that will lead? It could result in a donation to the Republican National Committee.



What's broke?

Pew2"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is age-old advice. But what if we can't agree something's "broke"?

New data from the Pew Research Center suggests that's the case, not only in Ferguson, but across American society.

The Pew survey shows Americans are deeply divided along racial lines in their reaction to the killing of Michael Brown. 80% of blacks say the case raises “important issues about race that need to be discussed,” but only 37% of whites think it does. In fact, nearly half of whites (47%) think race is getting more attention than it deserves in connection with Brown's killing.

Nearly 8 out of 10 blacks (76%) have little to no confidence in the investigation into the killing, while more than half of whites (52%) have a fair to a great amount.

An African American friend told me the situation in Ferguson is "much more complicated" than yesterday's posting suggested. He cited a history of racism as the commununity integrated and persistent racism within the police department, among other factors that need to be dealt with.

I don't think anything about this is simple. And the Pew data confirms it. We apparently can't even agree on the problem.




FergusonI was in the wilds of Alaska, off the grid for the first time since 1994, when news broke that a white policeman shot a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. So I've been playing catch-up.

As usual, the tragedy has generated a lot more heat than light.

While multiple inquiries into the circumstances of the shooting plod along behind the scenes, interested parties attempt to shape public perceptions.

The local police chief releases a video showing the victim apparently stealing cigars and intimidating a store clerk minutes before he's shot. The victim's family brings in its own medical examinar who issues an autopsy showing the victim was shot six times. Meanwhile, protesters -- many from outside Ferguson -- clash with police and the governor calls in the National Guard.

At a distance from Ferguson, many shocked observers try to understand (1) how the shooting happened and (2) why it stimulated such an angry response.

There may be a common answer to both questions. And it may not fit into the generally accepted assumption that continuing racial segregation is the cause.

According to an analysis by the Washington Post's "Monkey Cage" political science blog, while St. Louis is among the most segregated metropolitan regions in the country, Ferguson is one of the most racially integrated. Furthermore, the income gap between blacks and whites in Ferguson is smaller than elsewhere.

"The immediate problem in Ferguson is neither residential segregation nor its demise," according to this analysis. "Rather, as many have pointed out, it is that the racial integration of the community has not been reflected in the municipal government and police force, whose racial composition still reflects the status quo of the 1980s." Blacks may live side by side with whites, but they feel disenfranchised.

The root problem is the low rate of African American participation in local elections, which are typically held in separate months from national elections that get more publicity and draw more people to the polls. According to political scientists, "off-cycle elections have been a favored strategy of established ethnic groups in American cities who wished to keep immigrants and minorities out of power." White homeowners and members of municipal unions tend to vote in proportionately larger numbers.

The good news is that the problem of asymmetric representation can be fixed. The bad news is that it will take time -- perhaps a generation or more. The sad irony, of course, is that Missouri is considering a law that would require voter photo ID that many people of color don't have.

Meanwhile, if events in Ferguson follow the pattern of similar crises, protests won't end until someone is sacrificed to the protesters. It may be the officer who shot the young man or it may be the police chief whose ham-fisted response so incensed the community. But someone's head will roll.

What's less likely is that something will be done to consolidate elections and increase participation by African American voters, which is the necessary first step in making governments and police departments more reflective of their communities.



Gay marriage and public opinion

Gay-wedding-topper-ideaqsThe majority of Americans support gay marriage, which is now legal for about half the U.S. population. 

That's a remarkable change in public opinion in a relatively short period and it's fair to ask how it happened.

In a recent column, Gordon Crovitz -- former publisher of the Wall Street Journal -- credited a Supreme Court decision striking down California's Proposition 8, a 2008 initiative that banned same-sex marriage in the state. 

Crovitz is one of the savviest observers of the digital scene. He probably did more than anyone to guide that venerable paper through the swirling tides of the Information Age.

But even he can misread the bobbing and weaving of public opinion.

"Public opinion changed because litigation showed how same-sex marriage could strengthen the institution, not undermine it," he wrote. 

The suit -- litigated by the unlikely team of Ted Olsen and David Boies, formerly opposing counsel in Bush v. Gore -- was undoubtedly an important step towards legitimizing gay marriage. But that's not where the case was won in the court of public opinion.

It was won on a smaller, more personal stage -- television.

When programs as popular as "Bones," "The Good Wife," "Grey's Anatomy," "Downton Abbey," "Nashville," and "Scandal"  make people's sexual orientation -- and marriage -- a normal part of life, ordinary people begin to think differently about it.

That's the real lesson in swaying public opinion -- make your position look normal to the large number of people who are not engaged in the fight on either side. That way, you're pushing through an open door.

Of course, it helps if -- as in the case of gay marriage -- it is normal.


You don’t have to be loved, but you’d better be liked

ChristieOne of the paradoxes of corporate -- or political -- life is that people expect their leaders to be tough but likable. Toughness can be commanding and inspiring, especially if it springs from competency. But even then, if it edges into meanness, likability goes out the window and followers fall by the wayside.     

The line between “tough” and “mean” is hair thin. 

Many CEOs have crossed it to their great regret, even if their boards never caught on. It’s simply very difficult to manage by fear and greed. At some point, people aren’t willing to pay the price.

Chris Christie has never had a problem being commanding. But he’s often come just to the edge of meanness, sometimes over-hanging it by more than a bit. He usually got away with it because he seemed so likable. In all his bluntness, he said what many of his constituents were thinking, down to the same profane words.

Then the Bridgegate Scandal suggested the governor has an even darker, previously unseen, side.

The jury is still out on his personal involvement in the scandal.  If he is proven in any way responsible, his formidable goose is cooked.

Meanwhile, as his recent “Tonight Show” performance demonstrates, the governor is giving a master class on likability.  The basic rules:

  • Laugh at yourself, not at your problem.
  • And allow yourself to be vulnerable.

The Softer Side of Goldman Sachs

SoftOne of the most tough-minded firms on Wall Street seems to be taking a cue from ancient Chinese philosophy and modern geo-political strategy.

Goldman Sachs is exercising its "soft power." 

The basic idea may have originated with the ancient Chinese poet and philosopher Lao Tzu, but Harvard University’s Joseph Nye popularized the concept of  “soft power” way back in 1990. 

His timing was apt. The Soviet Union had recently collapsed, some people were declaring “the end of history,” and it looked like the U.S. would single-handedly command the world stage for the coming decades.

Nye’s premise was that the U.S. defeated Communism largely through the exercise of “hard power,” i.e., the threat of over-whelming military and economic force. But getting the rest of the world to follow our lead from that point on, he said, would require the exercise of “soft power,” i.e., the power of attraction.

It was a controversial idea to some. Practitioners of realpolitik, who believe the only power that works in the real world is the kind that can be dropped on cities, considered it naive. But even Machiavelli – the original political realist – noted that, while it’s better to be feared than loved, the ultimate danger is to be hated.

Now there are signs that the likes of Goldman Sachs has discovered the advantages of developing and exercising soft power. 

"We have influence,” CEO Lloyd Blankfein told television interviewer Charlie Rose, “but it's the softest of the soft power, the softest of the soft influence. What we do is we put out ideas. We defend our ideas, we are provocative, we show initiative. But at the end of the day, we don't have the power to execute."

Maybe not. But if the ideas a company floats are compelling enough, it can play an important role in shaping the environment within which it operates. In the world of public relations, this is called “thought leadership.” 

Blankfein’s chat with Charlie Rose, for example, came in the context of the firm’s “North American Energy Summit” which brought corporate CEOs, public officials, and industry experts together to debate how the region can achieve its energy potential while meeting environmental concerns. 

Among the attendees? A host of public officials who once would have thought twice about being seen in the firm’s Wall Street headquarters, including vice president Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, as well as several U.S. governors, government officials from Canada and Mexico, and the CEOs of a number of energy companies.  

There’s an obvious business benefit to being perceived as the intermediary between such powerful players. But it also gives the firm an attractive “pull” with longer-term benefits. Expect Blankfein and other top Goldman executives to be increasingly outspoken on the topic of environmentally responsible energy development as a spur to job growth. The topic is at the center any Venn diagram of stakeholders' concerns, the firm’s competencies, and its long-term business interests.

That’s where the seeds of soft power are.


Preview of coming attractions

America's morphing age pyramid

The image above is our future. It portrays the U.S. population in five-year age increments over the coming decades.

We go from a lumpy pyramid with lots of young people at the base and a few old codgers at the peak (as in 1950) to more of a rectangle with pretty even age distributions, except for a really large group of octogenarians-plus at the top (as in 2060).

I won't be around to see it, but what happens between now and then has implications for marketing, public relations, and politics that are worth considering.

  • Daniel Moynihan attributed the turmoil of the 1960s to the large cohort of adolescents and 20 year-olds produced by the Baby Boom in that period. How will the huge cohort of Boomers entering their 50s over the next few years change our culture and politics?
  • By 2060, there will be almost as many people over 85 as younger than 5. Will that create greater division or less? Our experience so far is that young and old don't purchase, vote, or think alike. Will that continue? 
  • At the same time the population turns gray, it's also becoming multi-colored. By 2042, we will be a minority-majority population. That's already true in four states and in our 18 larhest metro areas. Do our communications reflect that yet?  

 For more questions (and a few answers), I recommend the Pew Research Center's latest report, Next America.



The ethics of advertising drugs

DtcaIn the world of communications ethics, most discussions focus on lying in its multifarious forms -- spinning, obfuscating, deflecting, etc. 

But totally truthful communications can also raise ethical questions.

For example, here's an issue I've been pondering lately: do the risks of advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers outweigh the benefits?

On the one hand, direct to consumer advertising helps educate patients and makes them more likely to take the drugs a doctor prescribes.  But since pharmaceutical companies advertise only their newest and most expensive drugs, it contributes to the rising cost of drugs.

Furthermore, many physicians complain that patients pressure them to prescribe advertised drugs even though they don't understand the potential risks. In fact, physicians are far more skeptical about direct to consumer advertising than patients.

And there are other questions:

  • To what extent has direct to consumer advertising promoted an attitude that good health is the product of drug consumption rather than healthy habits?
  • Has direct to consumer advertising made the consumption of presecription drugs seem "normal," rather than an extraordinary intervention to cure an abnormal condition? 
  • Are recent increases in direct to consumer drug advertising, prescription drug abuse, and heroin usage simply coincidental or correlated?

DTC-Advertising-ENIndustry spending on direct-to-consumer advertising rose tenfold in the last five years. Prescriptions written for opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin rose more than 500 percent in the same period. There's no question that a lot of those drugs are eventually used for non-medical reasons. As a result, more than 100 Americans die of a drug overdose every day, more than twice the number ten years ago. 

And as prescription drugs become more expensive, harder to get, or simply less effective, they have become a new pathway to heroin addiction. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in 15 people who take non-medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within 10 years. 

Drug overdoses and heroin addiction in suburban New Jersey have increased so dramtically the state issued a stark warning last year:

"We now live in a state where abuse of prescription pills serves increasingly as a primary route to the unlawful world of heroin, an intersection of the legitimate and the illicit that constitutes a crisis whose devastating consequences are plain for all to see."

Pharmaceutical companies -- many of which make their headquarters in New Jersey -- need to get ahead of this developing crisis. Part of their agenda should include studying the societal effects of direct to consumer advertising. We know that when characters smoke in movies and on TV the rate of smoking among teens increases. Might the same thing be happening here?

Big Pharma may be on the slippery slope Big Tobacco plowed a few decades ago.