Archive for the ‘History’ Category


In order to survive in the modern era, companies must grasp a strong understanding of psychology, or at least of the type of pseudo-psychology that Edward Bernays, immortalized as the father of PR, made widely available to marketers and advertisers. Bernays was an Austrian American who wove the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and ultimately asked, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Historically companies have leveraged a number of psychological devices and theories to generate desire within their target demographics and audiences in order to sell more. Advertising seeks to simultaneously engender strong positive feelings about a product or company while simultaneously leaving the audience feeling emptier for not owning the advertised product. The ability to pull this off is intensely powerful, and yet not as powerful as the ability to affect this reaction within the target demographic, autonomously, spontaneously.

This is the accomplishment of the new realm of mobile technologies and apps such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In effect, their breakthrough in psycho-marketing is the ability to make their product habit-forming, even addictive. On Merriam Webster addiction is defined as: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (or we could say product) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. Addiction is the new marketing goal precisely because its inherently dangerous, cyclical nature is exactly what embodies both the need and the fulfillment- all encapsulated in one.

Compulsion and habit are the key words here. Marketers and advertisers drool when they see those words, because they are truly the Holy Grail of advertising. If they can create a condition in their target audience where the deprivation of the product creates a state near-pain for the user/consumer, they are guaranteed a captive customer, possibly for life.

This is precisely what Nir Eyal describes in his TechCrunch article, “The Billion Dollar Mind Trick.”  Eyal outlines a couple of critical concepts; namely “internal triggers” and “desire engines,”

“When a product is able to become tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing habit, it creates an ‘internal trigger.’ Unlike external triggers, which are sensory stimuli, like a phone ringing or an ad online telling us to “click here now!” you can’t see, touch, or hear an internal trigger. Internal triggers manifest automatically in the mind and creating them is the brass ring of consumer technology.”

As Eyal points out, “We check Twitter when we feel boredom. We pull up Facebook when we’re lonesome. The impulse to use these services is cued by emotions.” He enumerates the current approach to create internal triggers, labeling it the manufacturing of desires.”

  • “Addictive technology creates “internal triggers” which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging or any other external stimuli.  It becomes a user’s own intrinsic desire.”
  • Creating internal triggers comes from mastering the “desire engine” and its four components: trigger, action, variable reward, and commitment.”

The “desire engine” Eyal refers to is merely a phrase that describes the pre-determined “series of experiences designed to create habits…the more often users run through them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.” All of this is to say that, increasingly, and especially when it comes to mobile consumer technologies and apps, companies increasingly find that their economic and social value is a function of the strength of the habits they create within their user/customer base.

Interesting, yes, but perhaps not entirely new. Michel Foucault (yes, I know I talk about him a lot here, but his work is endlessly relevant to the types of communications discussions we constantly engage in nowadays) discussed this same concept in his investigation of the concept of “technologies of the self,” whereby his objective was:

 “to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves: economics, biology, psychiatry, medicine, and penology. The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyze these so-called sciences as very specific ‘truth games’ related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Yet the concept dates back to the Greeks, “constituted in Greek as epimelesthai sautou, ‘to take care of yourself’ ‘the concern with self,’ ‘to be concerned, to take care of yourself.’

Foucault posited that there were four main “technologies:”

“(I) technologies of production, (2) technologies of sign systems, (3) technologies of power, and (4) technologies of the self” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Clearly in this case what we’re focusing on is the technology of the self, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that the bulk of apps available to us all on our mobile devices these days are not, in some way, designed to fulfill some narcissistic desire to know ourselves better. Whether it’s for fitness (calorie counters, pedometers, diet analyses, jogging analyses) or for social edification (how many people who you know are around you, how many “friends” do you have [Facebook], what are you doing right now [Twitter], how often do you visit a place [FourSquare or Yelp]) many of these tools are intended to display a mirror image of ourselves and project it onto a social web and out to others. (Hell, iPhones now include a standard photo feature that allows you to use the phone as a literal mirror by using the front-end camera as you stare into it.) But they are also intended to help us transform ourselves and make ourselves happier by making us skinnier, healthier, more social, more aware, more productive, etc.

The importance of this is that we have been fooled into thinking we are using these apps to learn more about ourselves, but the social sharing functionality proves that this is performative- we wouldn’t be doing it repeatedly unless there was a performance aspect built-in, an audience waiting to view and comment on the information, providing continuous gratification. In other words, learning more about ourselves, then amplifying that knowledge out to an audience has become habit-forming. We have become addicted to the performance of ourselves.

 “These four types of technologies hardly ever function separately, although each one of them is associated with a certain type of domination. Each implies certain modes of training and modification of individuals, not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills but also in the sense of acquiring certain attitudes.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

In this case, though Foucault was often very careful in his diction and a master of semiotics, what if we replace the word “attitudes” with “habits?” After all, Foucault is referring to these technologies of self as dominating, as techniques which train and modify individuals, and a habit formed is demonstrably a tangible and acquired modification of human behavior. Later he continues to elaborate and speaks of “individual domination,”

”I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others and in the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself, in the technology of self.”

I know quite a few people who would willingly and openly admit to the individual act of domination upon themselves that they perform on a compulsive basis by updating their Twitter feeds, updating the status on their Facebook accounts, uploading their latest photos to Instagram, and checking in on FourSquare. There is a reason that Googling “Is technology the new opiate of the masses?” garners page upon page of thoughtfully written and panicky editorials and blog posts. This is a newly acknowledged and little resisted truth of our times- we are willing slaves to the ongoing performance of our selves.


If you’ve had any contact with the news or the radio- or even newsradio- in the last few months you’ve most likely heard the hoopla surrounding Texas Governor Rick Perry’s controversial decision to mandate HPV vaccinations for young girls in Texas.

Sadly, you’re probably more aware of the controversy as a fulcrum point issue, marking the decline of what was Perry’s initial momentum going into the GOP Presidential Candidate debates, rather than as an issue of public health.

As the HuffPost writes in their coverage, “In the two most recent presidential debates, Perry has had to repeatedly explain and defend the executive order, which he says he signed in order to help prevent girls from developing cervical cancer as a result of contracting the sexually transmitted virus.”

Did you also know, dear reader, that a CDC advisory panel also, just recently, announced that boys ages 11 to 12 also get the shot? Oh yes, “Despite the recent controversy among presidential candidates regarding the effects of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, a CDC advisory panel voted (recently) to recommend that boys ages 11 to 12 get the shot.” This announcement garnered way less coverage and generated way less outrage and controversy than when the announcement made was targeted at young girls.

Why?

And why is the CDC Advisory panel only just now getting around to mentioning that, if you’ll allow me, “it takes two to tango?”

Two points before I launch into this whole cluster of issues:

1) Although I can’t really fathom agreeing with Rick Perry on most counts, I do agree with his decision on this matter and I am proud of him for defending it. As the Huffington post mentioned in their coverage, “The Texas law would not have been a pure mandate either… As in Virginia, parents would not have been required to have their daughters vaccinated. The law would have just made the vaccine available and affordable to all girls, insured and uninsured, through the state vaccination program.”

2) Although I am supportive of the incredible progress that has been made with the use of most vaccines, I also understand parental concerns around the manufacture, clinical testing, and business side of the vaccination and pharmaceuticals market, especially as it pertains to the U.S. healthcare model. I believe that questioning the processes and methods of engineering and testing these vaccines is productive and worthwhile. That being said, if I had a kid right now, that kid would receive vaccinations- a lot of them.

I’ll now put all of those opinions aside, because what I really want to get at here are the rhetorical constructions being used to have this conversation by politicians, the media, and the public- whether consciously, or unconsciously.

Before we officially begin, a few figures:

  • HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US
  • 20 million people are affected by it every year
  • At least 50 percent of sexually active Americans will contract genital HPV in their lifetimes, often unwittingly because symptoms aren’t always overt (http://theweek.com/article/index/220717/the-controversial-hpv-vaccine-now-for-boys)
  • Condoms alone cannot 100% prevent the spread of HPV, beccause it is transmitted through skin contact
  • The vaccine may prevent cervical cancer in women, and  anal cancer and mouth cancers in boys, as well as prevent the spread of the infection to sexual partners
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer is the second leading cancer killer of women in the world. Almost 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of cases of genital warts are linked to the four strains of HPV that can be prevented with Merck’s Gardasil vaccine or GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/rick-perry-hpv-vaccine_n_961159.html)
  • The CDC recommends that girls receive the vaccine at the age of 11 or 12, in order to increase the likelihood that they will be vaccinated before having sexual contact. It consists of a series of three injections over a six-month period. Similarly, the hepatitis B vaccine is a 3-shot series that prevents a disease that can be transmitted through blood and sexual fluids. It is is administered at birth, or within a 2 month time frame, and in most states it’s required for entrance into school system (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/rick-perry-hpv-vaccine_n_961159.html)

Now that we’re all up to date on the factoids, let’s do some analysis of the language being tossed around. Regrettably, for research purposes, most of this language is coming from one prominent source: Michele Bachmann.

At various points during the seemingly never-ending cycle of GOP Presidential Candidate Debates, Michele Bachmann has used the following language to describe the vaccination mandate:

A “government injection” of a “potentially dangerous drug

“I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate,” Bachmann said. “She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.”

“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,”

Rick Santorum also chose to weigh in on the vaccine, describing it as:

“having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government.”

So…let’s review:

Group A Words:

  • “LITTLE DAUGHTER”
    “LITTLE GIRL”
  • “INNOCENT LITTLE GIRL”

Group B Words:

  •  “INJECTION”
  • “FORCE”
  • “COMPULSION”

Each of these terms is very charged, which is, of course, why they were selected and used in this way.

In the Group A Words, we have “Little girl,” little daughter,” “innocent little girl.” These terms are deeply psychologically embedded for Americans, and connote a strong visual image.

It’s basically this:

Associated terms: cherubic, innocent, helpless, in need of protection.

And then, as a counterpoint to this- placing them alongside terms of force, rape, exploitation and violence such as “force,” “injection,” and “compulsion,” makes the juxtaposition that much more jarring.

It’s the same as saying “stab duckling,” or “sodomize kitten.”

The point is, the language is doing some subconscious, heavy lifting here, and it is further charged by an already traditionally conservative, puritanical American tradition. That we are like this is not news, it is in fact our history as a United States.

That doesn’t change the fact that I am saddened that this very important debate– which should only extend as far as whether the federal or state level has the right to mandate certain healthcare treatments for U.S. citizens– has instead landed us smack in the middle of a firestorm addressing female sexuality, female independence and the archetype of the femme fatale.

NPR asked why there wasn’t nearly the level of attention being paid to the announcement concerning the boys’ vaccine. “’There’s been a surprisingly muted reaction,’ says Dr. Don Dizon, a Brown University oncologist.” Why? “’We tend to believe that girls are chaste and are going to ‘save themselves for marriage.’ But, you know, sexual activity is something that’s almost expected of boys.’”

They even found a seventeen-year-old boy to back up that theory, “Connor Perruccello-McClellan agrees. The idea that teenage girls might have sex is ‘just a touchy issue, a taboo, I guess,’ he says. ‘It’s just not as accepted for girls.’

Wow, Connor…ya think?

As we have already seen (thanks, Salem Witch Trials), females in the United States often have the dubious experience of living through a number of different stages of characterization by the general public and American lore. We begin as “innocent little girls,” but, once sexually active, menstruating, and/or assertive, we become “femme fatales.”

The term femme fatale in modern-day usage is more frequently used to refer to strong, female leads in movies-i.e. women with a penchant for the vindictive. However, according to its original definition, a femme fatale “is a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to entrance and hypnotize her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch, or demon.”

Relying heavily on Wikipedia here, “The femme fatale has generated divergent opinions amongst social scholars. Sometimes, the femme fatale is closely tied to fears of female witch and misogyny. Others say Femme fatale “remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles,”or “expresses woman’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm.”

However, historically and un-ironically, “the myth of the femme fatale of the 19th century is believed to be partly derived from the devastation of syphilis, with classic examples in literature including John KeatsLa Belle Dame sans Merci.”

Well, so isn’t that interesting?

I don’t have space to summarize an excellent article I found in “The Nation” on the topic of Michele Bachmann’s poor fact-checking and poor history, but one of the most important points to make here is that because of the oldest profession in the world, women have historically been most connected with outbreaks of Syphilis. Yet “Syphilis is believed to have infected 12 million people worldwide in 1999… After decreasing dramatically since the widespread availability of penicillin in 1940s, rates of infection have increased since the turn of the millennium in many countries… This has been attributed partly to unsafe sexual practices among men who have sex with men.” Men who have sex with men.

But it’s nearly impossible to turn the tide of cultural and literary history, and nearly impossible to eradicate archetypes once they exist in our shared cultural stores.

To summarize my point- the HPV vaccination debates are fascinating to me because I see that two completely divergent female rhetorical frames- “the innocent little girl,” and “the femme fatale”- are being called upon, in concert, to rail against these mandates. That is what brings us to this very point in American rhetoric.

There are no such strong literary or cultural archetypes for boys through which to view their plight at being forced to vaccinate. Thus there are no images of young, innocent boys being exploited or abused, no nubile young men who travel the world poisoning their lovers.

HPV vaccine adoption is ultimately failing because it prevents “children” from getting STDs. We have the juxtaposition of “child” with “sexually transmitted disease” here. In the American mindset, those two things are never supposed to be associated. Yet Americans vaccinate their children all the time against Hepatitis B, which is also a multi-dose vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease.

I want to leave you, dear readers, with one closing thought about these vaccines and what they represent, from a USA Today article covering the CDC Advisory Board’s announcement:

“This is cancer, for Pete’s sake,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“A vaccine against cancer was the dream of our youth.”


I have recently become obsessed with analytics. I just love the idea of using solid data to make informed choices toward action. It’s the ultimate voyeurism. After all, the internet is a window through which you can peer to monitor other people’s activity. It’s also seductive, instant gratification- I post a document and then check in just an hour later to see how many people have clicked on it, how long they spent reviewing it, where they went after they read it, where they came from before reading it. ..

The power that platforms like Google Analytics and Omniture offer excites me in ways I shouldn’t even publicize- the possibility that all of that information about online actions and behavior is at my fingertips to exploit in order to be more productive, more effective is intoxicating. This is probably why it’s a good thing that I don’t work in marketing or advertising.

But apparently the harvest, process of sorting, and the exploitation of human information no longer stops with marketers and advertisers- now the government wants in.

According to an article in yesterday’s  NY Times,  “social scientists are trying to mine the vast resources of the Internet — Web searches and Twitter messages, Facebook and blog posts, the digital location trails generated by billions of cellphones” to predict the future. This is being conducted all in the name of the U.S. Government, or in this case, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity unit of the Office of National Intelligence.

Why? Because  they believe “that these storehouses of ‘big data’will for the first time reveal sociological laws of human behavior — enabling them to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena.”

Remember our dear friend Michel Foucault who opined on systems of surveillance in modern society? He just rolled over so many times in his grave he’s now a taquito. But putting the panopticon aside for a moment, let us instead turn to “chaos theory” to underline why this whole venture isn’t necessarily a very good idea.

Chaos theory, as a discipline, studies:

“the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect.”

The “butterfly effect theory” is basically this:

Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.  This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.

Yes, if this is ringing a bell, it’s because you’ve heard of the anecdote the theory is named for, whereby a hurricane’s formation occurred because a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before. Ridiculous, but it does vividly illustrate the point that the entire globe is a system, and there are infinite factors within that system interacting every day to produce outcomes- and needless to say, these factors are not all diligently recorded in Brooke Shields’ Twitter stream.

Ever since analytics, Facebook, and Twitter broke onto the human information scene, the embedded hubris of men has convinced us that if we’re just smart enough to design a program to parse all of this information, then finally all of our inane yet determined recordings of our daily details will finally mean something– that it will be useful!

Right? Wrong.

The mashed potatoes are just mashed potatoes. If you want to see anything in the figurative mashed potatoes, then see this: the Tower of Babel, people.

“Tower of Babel?” you say? Yes. The Tower of Babel. My favorite of all biblical references ( we all have one, right? Right?).

Need a quick brush-up? OK!

In the story of the Tower of Babel, from Genesis, ‘a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.’ God came down to see what they did and said: ‘They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.’ So God said, ‘Come, let us go down and confound their speech.’ And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel ‘because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.’(Genesis 11:5-8).

In other words, chaos theory’s conclusion that all of the world’s data is basically worthless, unreliable crap aside- this “big data eye in the sky” can and will never be.

First, because, without God’s intervention, we are perfectly great at getting in our own way, thankyouverymuch.

For example, the NY Times article cites IARPA’s claim that “It will use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.”

About that, the U.S. Government would do well to recall the response to every single privacy change that Facebook has ever made about user data.

Also, the public’s responses to the Patriot Act.

Also, the public response to News Corp’s recent phone hacking scandal.

I could go on. The point is, I don’t think folks will accept the government’s efforts to exploit the aggregation of their online and publicly collected information in order to predict when we might all come down with whooping cough.

Second problematic claim, “It is intended to be an entirely automated system, a “data eye in the sky” without human intervention.” Errrr…what about all of that human generated information? Isn’t that, um, human intervention?

I recently had the absolute pleasure of hearing Stephen J. Dubner- author of Freakonomics and creator or host of every other program, show, or book that came along with it- speak at a conference. He gave an excellent and very compelling lecture on the dangers of relying too much on “self-reported data.”

His point is that, for industries or disciplines where data in large part determines future strategy and action, a little outside consulting and collection is merited. Self-reported data is, by virtue of the fact that humans are involved, problematic when it comes to accuracy.

This means that every tweet, Facebook update and comment flame war on a review site should be read and collected with a massive grain of Kosher salt. It is hard to imagine how the government would calculate this unreliability into its system through error analysis and standard deviation. Suffice it to say, there is still much work to be done on human reported data, sentiment analysis and social statistics before we could get anywhere close to sorting this all out in any meaningful fashion.

Luckily, as the NY Times reports in the article, not everyone is convinced this is even worthwhile:

“”I’m hard pressed to say that we are witnessing a revolution,’ said Prabhakar Raghavan, the director of Yahoo Labs, who is an information retrieval specialist. He noted that much had been written about predicting flu epidemics by looking at Web searches for ‘flu,’ but noted that the predictions did not improve significantly on what could already be found in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

So, though I myself am drinking the cherry kool aid of acting and strategizing based on the measured results from analytical data, I feel the U.S. Government is seriously overstepping its bounds on this one- both in terms of infringing on other people’s data rights, as well as in terms of outpacing the world’s statistical abilities when applied to cultural data.

Hit me in the comments if you have thoughts of your own on the matter…


This morning I heard this story on NPR about the efforts to study and improve public perception of “reclaimed wastewater,” aka sterilized and filtered sewage water that has been cleaned for re-use by the public. It made me remember this story on NPR from last night about what we should call the current economic crisis. Both of these stories essentially address the oft-referenced “what’s in a name?” question, and it is a question that has spawned an enormous communications sub-industry known as “branding.”

From an intellectual standpoint, the discipline of branding is completely fascinating. It melds science and psychology with a worship of capitalism, and produces a proscriptive and insidious process for advertising and marketing to follow. The field of branding helps companies, organizations and these days, even human beings, to develop an aura of feeling around a name, product, or icon. As Wikipedia puts it, “The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a ‘name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.’” For me, that definition is way too harmless.

You see, the way we feel about brands in modern America has been directly driven by the children and cohorts of Sigmund Freud. From Coca-Cola to Proctor & Gamble, Barack Obama to Apple; a good brand is worth billions and billions of dollars- and is a very high stakes business.

So here is where perhaps I should admit, I’m not a huge fan of branding. Though I am fascinated by it and by how powerful it can be, I also conversely often find it either insidious, or very fluffy. For instance, I often hearken back to my first job out of college where I was the account manager at my consultancy for a large tech storage company which shall remain nameless. When that company re-branded itself the client required that I and my account team attend their extensive briefing on the new brand. We sat through countless hours of presentations about the new “drivers” for the brand- items such as, “if this brand were a marine mammal what would it be? A dolphin!” “If this brand were a luxury airline, which would it be?” etc. The whole thing was such an utter waste of money and of time that I left feeling sick to my stomach. I was terrified that this was what a career in communications would lead to. Thankfully it didn’t, for me.

However, if done well, there really is a science to branding and re-branding. Some companies spend millions of dollars on U.S. census-level studies and data mining to discern what people will buy and what they won’t. In other words, once you’ve seen it on a shelf at Target, millions of dollars have probably gone into ensuring what is likely now a foregone conclusion- that you’ll buy it.

What does all of this have to do with reclaimed wastewater and the economic downturn, Jessica, you ask?

Well, taking the first topic on wastewater, the issue at the heart of this excellent NPR report is the very prominent problem of water sources in California. One of the theories and proposed solutions for water shortages in California has been wastewater recycling whereby plants would be built in California “that would clean local wastewater — aka sewage water — and after that cleaning, make it available as drinking water. “ There’s no rational reason that this shouldn’t be a stellar solution to California’s chronic droughts- if the water is 100% safe to drink, this is a phenomenal solution. The only real roadblock to moving forward with the plan? The public perception that the plan is for them to drink other people’s, er, waste.

As one of the leading professors who helped to draft the proposal, Brent Haddad, who teaches environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz attested, “The public wasn’t really examining the science involved,” Haddad says. “They were just saying no.”

Why? Because there was a complete lack of branding involved in proposing this plan to the public. They should have seen the public rejection of this coming from a mile away, especially given the utter germophobia and hypochondria the general public suffers from these days (just think about the rise of those anti-bacterial hand sanitizer bottles ).

Too often the science of branding isn’t applied where it could be most useful- moving the public to adopt new courses or policies that are agreed to be rational and most beneficial to the greater good, but that suffer from being completely distasteful given the contemporary political, social or cultural context.

In the case of the California wastewater proposal, rather than turning to a branding firm, Haddad turned to a group of psychologists for help. Enter Carol Nemeroff who works at the University of Southern Maine and studies an area of psychology known as “psychological contagion.” Still with me? Because this is where it gets really, really good.

“Psychological contagion,” or informally, “contagion thinking,” “refers to the habit we all have of thinking — consciously or not — that once something has had contact with another thing, their parts are in some way joined.” In other words, “psychological contagion” is all about how the human brain works to create lasting neural connections between two objects because of their relationship to each other. From here we are only one hop, step and a small jump from the principle of “brand identity,” where objects adopt and carry attributes of feeling or sentiment with them due to successful marketing and advertising ploys. The one item contaminates the other in our brain, and they are inextricably interlinked sometimes forever.

Nemeroff’s conclusion on the wastewater topic? “You need to change the identity of the water so that it’s not the same water. “It’s an identity issue, not a contents issue,” she says, “so you have to break that perception. The water you’re drinking has to not be the same water, in your mind, as that raw sewage going in.” Nemeroff suggested that the wastewater project managers find a way to more closely relate the purified wastewater with shared concepts of nature in order to purify the water not only in physical form, but also in its branded form for the general public. This is re-branding at its best, people. The water will be the same water, but you need to convince the public with all of the available branding bells and whistles that the water is different than it was before.

So here’s where we get to the topic of re-branding the current economy. The other NPR story from Marketplace addressed how the economic downturn is being branded, and therefore also perked my ears. This one struck me because I have felt myself grasping for a title for this strange economy, without any luck. Clearly I’m not alone, as the accompanying article to the story reads, “The subprime crisis, the credit crunch, the recession — all are clearly part of one enormous economic mess that, at the moment, is nameless. There’s no question that we’re living through a historic downturn. But what will we call it?”

NPR interviewed Jonathan Wald, senior vice president of business news at CNBC, about how they were referring to the economic period, and he admitted,

“it’s really hard when you’re in the middle of something to know what it will be called. So all you can do is brand the hell out of it. In the media, he says, if it’s not branded, it doesn’t exist”

We have “economic downturn,” we have “deficit,” we have “depression,” but none of those has really stuck. The “depression” is fairly easy to weed out of the running, since bankers aren’t out on the corner selling apples, and thanks to the infamous photographic record by Dorothea Lange, the images of economic hardship we are observing now don’t fit with the national collective memory of a “depression.”

It seems the general consensus is that a name for a historical period or economic trend only begins to take form in retrospect, as historians, journalists, novelists and documentarians begin to need a commonly acknowledged term to indicate their subject matter. I guess we’re just not there yet.

I am not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but I know enough cursorily about investor confidence to know that a brilliant brandsman or woman could easily re-brand this current economic situation into something less threatening for us all and most likely do the economy some favors in the process.

If we could all be assured that this is NOT a “depression,” or “devastation,” but rather a “temporary lull,” or a “cyclical recession,” it would be akin to the very act of taking wastewater and forcing us all to drink recycled sewage- and to feel good about doing so. Not the most palatable idea, but in the public’s best interest in order to move on.


Any student of communications worth his or her salt will have studied the infamous Nixon-Kennedy Presidential debates of 1960. Why? Because they were the first ever televised presidential debates, and they marked an inflection point in American politics, where hearts and minds were not won merely by talented rhetoricians and charming radio personalities, but increasingly by physical appearances and a demonstrated ease in front of a camera.

As the story goes, Nixon was ugly and evil looking normally, but on the date of the first of the four debates he would have with Kennedy, his physical appearance was worse than usual: “Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual ‘5:00 o’clock shadow.’” I think we can all imagine.

However, Kennedy’s appearance was another story, “Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. ‘I had never seen him looking so fit,’ Nixon later wrote.”

Whether Kennedy’s handlers were much more prophetic about the impact of TV, or whether Kennedy just lucked out, we may never know. What we do know is that Kennedy’s appearance on TV during that debate changed the path of American politics forever. A majority of Americans who listened to the debate solely via radio pronounced Nixon the winner. A majority of the over 70 million who watched the televised debate pronounced Kennedy the easy winner.

Are you beginning to see why this appeals to comms geeks? The suggestion that a newly introduced medium could so profoundly impact the perspectives of so many people in the context of a very high stakes popularity contest was tantalizing. It remains tantalizing today.

Fast forward 51 years to Obama conducting a Townhall meeting streaming on Facebook, and to GOP Presidential candidates using Twitter and Facebook metrics to potentially supplant traditionally collected polling information.

What would happen if you could use Twitter, Facebook or good old Google Analytics to accurately predict the outcome of the 2010 Presidential Election? Some growing social media analytics companies such as Likester are doing just that by measuring the uptick in popularity of pages and social networking presences. In fact, Likester accurately predicted this year’s American Idol winner way back in April.

But how scientific is this data, and what exactly is being measured? As Mashable reports, Likester mostly measures popularity and predicts winners based on the aggregation of “likes” on Facebook in concert with high-profile events. For the GOP debate, “The stand-out frontrunner was Mitt Romney, who ended the night with the greatest number of new Facebook Likes and the greatest overall Likes on his Page.” As we can see, Likester basically began the ticker right when the debate began and distinguished between unique “likes,” or “likes” that occurred after the debate had started, from overall likes. In the end Romney had 19,658 unique or new “likes” during the debate, resulting in 955,748 total “likes,” representing a 2.06% increase in overall “likes” during and directly following the televised debate.

Likester reported, “Michelle Bachmann ranked second in the number of new Likes on her Facebook Page.” In numbers that came out to 9,232 unique or new “likes,” 326,225 total, representing a 2.75% increase.

Care of nation.foxnews.com

Naturally, AdWeek threw their two cents into the discussion, arguing:

“Polling has always been an important element to any electoral bid, but now a new type of impromptu assessment is coming to the fore. Third parties, such as analytics startup Likester, are carving out a space for themselves by processing data that is instantaneously available.”

I’ll give you instantaneously available, but, again, how scientific is this? After all, no one seems to be taking into account what I would call the “hipster correlate.” The hipster correlate is the number of Facebook users who would have “liked” a Romney or Bachmann or Ron Paul page in a stab at some hipster-ish irony, thus proving to those who check their Facebook page or read their status updates their outstanding skills of irony in becoming a fan of a Tea Partier web page, etc. If we’re really doing statistical regressions here, what’s the margin of error here, Likester?

Additionally, how closely can we attach the fidelity of someone who “likes” a Facebook page to a living, breathing politician? On my Facebook page I think I have “liked” mayonnaise, but if there were to be a vote between mayo and ketchup to determine which condiment would become the new official condiment of the U.S., would I necessarily vote mayo? That’s actually kind of a crap analogy, but you get what I mean.

Before we are forced to read more blogs and news articles (like this one!) pronouncing exit polls dead and Facebook and Twitter as the new polling media, I’d like to see a very solid research study conducted as to how closely becoming a fan of a political Facebook page correlates to Americans’ actual voting behavior. In other, more web-based marketing terms, what’s the voting conversion rate for political Facebook pages?

Has anyone seen anything like that?

In other words, please, social scientists and pollsters, show us whether yet another new medium is disrupting the way that Americans individually see and interact with their political candidates, and how that medium has begun to shape the way those political candidates are regarded by an American audience as a whole.