Yet Another Offensive Aspect of "Homeless Hotspots"

Let's put aside the obvious patronizing and exploitative features of the BBH-marketing-firm-driven "homeless hotspot" stunt. That's an exercise left to the reader. What I want to focus on are the assumptions, stated by BBH's Saneel Radia on Marketplace, that (1) this is simply using the Street Sheet "model" and (2) that the point of writing, editing, printing, and distributing a newspaper by the homeless and about homeless issues is all about... getting a wee bit of social interaction.

What we're doing is we're taking a model that exists already -- street newspapers. It's really that social interaction point, the ability for them to express themselves, to be a bit entrepreneurial. Again, if you really get into the experience, it is the opposite of condescending. It's very empowering, actually.

I call multiple, steamy layers of BS. Have you ever read Street Sheet? It's usually well made, insightful, and brings to attention issues affecting millions of people that you don't see on CNN. Just recently, the San Francisco-based Street Sheet collected position statements from candidates for District Attorney, had been active in the issue of making MUNI (local public transit) free for youth, and been on the scene at various Occupy protests. Hey, marketers: there's value in content, and content is not fungible.

Also, the process of reporting, writing, editing, producing, and distributing an actual product (as opposed to, say, doing whatever marketing firms do) keeps a person's mind sharp, which is hard to do when you can't afford an iPad or are engaged in daily work beyond survival, and provides skills and job training. There are many stories of homeless people pulling themselves up, as the saying goes, through the work street newspapers provide.

So, those are the "models" street newspapers provide. You think all a homeless person wants is to be graced by your patronizing presence for a few moments, in exchange for a few pennies?

Go market yourself, Saneel.

Mitt and Dale: Why Mitt Romney is a Bad Implementation of a Candidate (and What That Says About Him)

If you want to know the true measure of someone, it's all about how they react when things aren't going their way. By now, the one thing we really know about Romney as a person (aside from the fact he's fabulously wealthy, to the extent that he and his family are almost on another, gated, branch of the evolutionary tree) is his ability to say jaw-droppingly awkward things when forced to talk to, you know, people. The examples are legion: "I like grits", "the trees are the right height", "who let the dogs out?", "garbage bags", and many, many more. What's in common in these gaffes? Why can we almost see the "I need to note something about an individual or locality, express that I see it, and say that I, too, am that" app load screens come up on Romney's main display?

Of course I'm guessing here, but I think it can be traced back to Dale Carnegie's "Six Ways to Make People Like You". My sense is that this framework is still floating around management training courses that were the Petri dishes Romney swam out of at some point, and since a small use worked once for him, he's upping the dose in order to Make It Work on a large scale. The problem he doesn't see is that it doesn't scale, and it doesn't work when you can't pull it off.

Six ways to make people like you 1. Become genuinely interested in other people. 2. Smile. 3. Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. 4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. 5. Talk in terms of the other person's interests. 6. Make the other person feel important - and do it sincerely.

We can give him a partial pass on #4, as most of the interactions where the Romney suite of apps fail are not interactive, but variants on PowerPoint -- that is, he's presenting, not collecting data. Though his "I give the answers I want" moment near the end of the 11,432nd CNN debate is a fail. And really, not something you want the leader of a nation to be in the habit of saying (accountability is A Good Thing).

As for #1, well, empathy to strangers wasn't in the original design specs for Romney. And, again to be fair, it's a hard thing to ask given the nature of a campaign -- though Bill Clinton was amazing at it (I once heard him at a mall greet of thousands of people, and when someone said he was so-and-so's old roommate, Clinton knew who he was talking about, and asked him personal questions about their mutual friend).

#2 is an interesting case. Of course it's good to smile when you meet people. But again, Romney has taken the "it's good, so more is better" idea to the point it stops working. Or maybe he's afraid that dropping the smile will dock his relatability and likability rating even below that of, say, an STI. Take a look at how Romney holds on to that rictus in tough situations -- being pressed for answers, being challenged in interviews or debates. Is he trying to signal "I'm above this attack", or "this doesn't bother me"? I suspect someone once told him that Carnegie's #2 was key -- because the business world is small, and even if you screw someone over in a deal, you want them to think there's a chance it wasn't personal, just a game, and that there's so little bad blood between you that they'd be willing to get into a position for you to screw them over again.

(You could see something similar, though at a smaller scale, in Wesley Clark's 2004 bid. Look how the military man responds to a military question and compare to his face at the start of a Chuck Todd interview.)

The meat of it is a combination of #1, #3, #5, #6, and the special sauce of trying to show that one can relate. The problems arise in that a) Romney is not genuinely interested in these other people and b) he tries to combine #5 and #6 by saying "I do that, too" -- but not only does he not, he doesn't realize that replacing "that" with his closest match is not a viable substitute.

Just type "Romney NASCAR" into your favorite search engine and you'll see only ridicule about his comment -- at a NASCAR event -- that though he's not a big fan, he has "some great friends that are NASCAR team owners". This is a great example of the big fail of blindly applying Carnegie's rules. If he were honest, he could say something like, "I've never been to one of these -- it seems cool! Tell me more about it?" People actually love sharing their interests and passions -- if you're American, go to a pub during the World Cup, buy a pint, and ask someone to explain what they love about soccer (excuse me, football). But Romney was programmed to show that he already shares your interests, and that Your Concerns Are My Concerns, Too, So We're The Same. And that this will lock in someone's vote.

What's worse about this, aside from seeing the last dregs of someone's soul evaporate before your eyes, is it signals not just a lack of true care for individuals (to be fair, who can really care about every random stranger one meets when one is faced with hundreds, if not thousands, of them on a daily basis for months and years on end?), but the worldview that people are fungible products, means to an end, and not an end in themselves. They are assets to be collected and traded in for what you really want, stars or rings that'll add up to a power-up in a video game. It's an asset manager's view of citizens, and a blind application of a limited algorithm.

And what's even worst? What this shows is a blind application of learned rules, not the ability to think critically and rigorously. It's the same as a student turning in lecture notes about a Shakespeare as an original paper. This actually happened to me, as did the student asking, "Why, isn't this right? It's what the professor said -- are you saying he's wrong?" At some point this tactic worked for Romney, so now he's applying it. The goal is bigger? More cowbell.

This does not seem like a winning strategy for the leader of a complex, contradictory, nation.

True, not Right (Part 2)

(Though I'm far more on Dean Starkman's side, I'll give in to Jeff Jarvis' trope of "iterative journalism" here. That'll teach me to dash something off in the WordPress interface, rather than using a text editor and forcing myself to revise between the cut and the paste.) In a recent interview with On the Media, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of and, also gets a bit into the conceptualizing of the political TV ads that I bemoaned, though obliquely. And one of her quantitative claims might make me back away from my thoughts that the current state of ads is not just poor, but anti-democratic.

The focus of Jamieson's segment is on how watching the debates is good for you, in that the questioning could knock candidates loose from their proscribed talking points (of course, the first precept of being a politician is answering the questions you want to answer, not the one you're given, but the "batter up" of this is one of the reasons we watch). This is in opposition to the controlled and carefully staged medium of an ad. She also takes the example of the whole chorus line of Republican candidates responding to the hypothetical of a 10x spending cut/tax increase, or to "Obamacare"; of that mass mindset, she says, "you can't learn all of that in advertising".

But when Brooke asks whether she sees any value in political ads, Jamieson lets drop that "advertising, in general, contains accurate, not inaccurate statements." When Brooke -- and, I'm guessing, the rest of us -- expresses surprise, Jamieson replies, "That's historically true. And I tell you that having spent more hours than I'd care to count analyzing claim by claim in the ads." Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't serious deceptions, she adds. (I have to award her points for her "and that's why we need a lot of good journalism wrapped around this political process" plug. Full employment for journalists!)

As I wrote in the previous post, the major theories on voter choice in modern political science research tend to assume that potential voters act based on rational choice. Voters may be motivated to find the candidate or party that is the "nearest neighbor" on positions, or which candidate will "balance" the government, or who culturally is closest. These theories are not empirically well tested, and are vulnerable the same way economic theories based on the "rational actor" hypothesis are -- but the point is all rely on not only the voter collecting reasonably accurate information about the candidates, but that the voter has high confidence that he or she can collect reasonably accurate information about the candidates.

If these ads can dole out even bits of accurate information, as Jamieson suggests is true in the aggregate, I suppose I can live with their horrible production values, their smarm, their general suicide-inducing aura. If they even provide hooks for as-well-distributed journalistic annotations, they might serve an actual pro-democratic function (again, small-d democratic). But this requires not just institutional resistance to that Romney's staffer's promotion of the medium as "propaganda", and the small degree of righteousness to believe your production of an ad is to help the country, not to help Candidate A win.

True, not Right

The days of hard-drinking journalists (at least drinking on the job) are long over, but it's hard not to picture the anonymous "top operative" of the Romney campaign having to be plied by a few shots, in a dim corner of a motel bar, before he'd let go to the NY Times the following quote:

"First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art."

There's just something to the overly associative attempts at justification, of moving the context of the political ad (let alone this specific political ad), the undergraduate stabs and big words, coupled with the macho defensiveness one usually only sees in 22-year-old traders after some Ketel One and/or blow in a Wall St. afterhours club, that speaks to a slightly altered state of mind.

Not to mention the giant question of whether political ads really should be ads in the same way "buy our soap" ads are ads.

This summer I got to dive a bit into the political science literature around theories of how voters choose. The three big kahunas are proximity theory (voters pick a candidate with positions most closely matching their own), discounting theory (voters pick a candidate to balance ideological power in the government), and directional theory ("I've always voted for Party A, and never gonna vote for Party B"). As you can see, though these theoretical frameworks and assumptions at times overlap a bit and at times are, they carry the same base "rational actor" assumption we see causing such problems in economics. But let's put aside that weakness, along with the fact that none of these have been empirically studied in depth -- the point is that all would suggest the key information voters require for choice is on positions and ideology: where the candidate stands on Issues A-Z, and what course of action that candidate would follow if elected. Do you see any of that going on in political ads? Soap ads may make mention that the product will get your clothes clean, but what they really sell is some emotional connection -- and here is where I have the feeling the above political science theories break, especially in the U.S. system, and why I have the feeling that election tools such as voter advice applications will be problematic in the U.S. where they are catching on in Europe.

So, in a way, what that drunken operative blurted is true. These ads are propaganda. But he's not right, in his implication that damn it, since we're doing it this way, that's how it should be.