American Dream

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Advertising typically reflects the spirit of the times it occurs in.  Lately, I’ve been thinking of building a time machine to escape to the MadMen era. I’ve been seeing a trend that reflects what DC likes to refer to as “our new reality”.  It is a reality that I don’t think many Americans are eager or willing to accept, which might fall under the heading of downsized dreams.

In the past few weeks, as the nation’s investment rating was downgraded and Warren Buffett expressed the odd belief that he and other millionaires weren’t paying enough in taxes, I have begun to notice some of this sentiment creeping into ads. Some of it is subtle, but the subtext seems to be that the American dream is dead or at the very least dying.

VIST Financial borrows an unfortunate image from the Depression

VIST Financial borrows an unfortunate image from the Depression

The first time I noticed it was in print and online ads for VIST Financial. The campaign showcased employees holding up “Will Work for Your Trust” signs that unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) mirrored the Depression era imagery of the perpetually unemployed holding signs that read “Will Work for Food”.  What next? Apple Annie? Pencil sales on the corner? Bank employees jumping out of office windows after each day’s stock market decline? Can we find another theme? Forget about earning trust; this is confidence-rattling.

Moving on to automobiles, we’ve graduated from Cash for Clunkers to scenes of a Mad Max future. It started with the Eminem SuperBowl spot that showcased Detroit’s grit, but the latest Dodge Durango advertising is right out of Bruce Springsteen’s “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert.” The message is that naysayers shouldn’t be declaring America’s auto industry dead yet, but the visuals suggest that it is on life support. If this is a message of hope, Norman Vincent Peale is like a rotisserie chicken in his grave.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcY4Di6OgWw

Then, there is the spot that led me to write this post — a really well produced spot. It was so well produced that I thought I was watching an ad for one of the big banks. The scene takes place as a couple prepares their nursery for their new baby. The voiceovers and supers promote the idea of starting a college fund for their kids, then for their kids’ kids, then for hundreds of kids in their community. Saving early has always been a great idea. Except the ad isn’t about investing wisely and often. It is about buying Mega Millions lottery tickets. Unintended underlying message — this may be the only way the next few generations will be able to afford higher education. Yikes!

I think we are all in need of an attitude adjustment. We don’t need Pollyanna preaching, but a little positivity in advertising would go a long way toward relieving the grim mood of the moment. Americans want to be inspired, not discouraged that the sun won’t come out tomorrow. We have TV news for that messaging.

And a moment of silence (followed by the opening chords of Layla). This week, a different kind of era sadly ended with the announcement that classic rock station WYSP would fade out, soon to be replaced with an FM simulcast of AM sister station’s WIP sports talk format. WYSP, for a long time the home of Howard Stern before his move to XM, has also long been a staple of the Philadelphia region’s rock scene. It has always been a rival of WMMR, but increasingly, other stations began carrying classic rock fare, from WMGK to BEN FM. Although classic rock has enjoyed a resurgence among younger listeners, the youth music market has many other alternatives from top 40, to hip hop. Like every other medium, radio is a numbers game and with Philadelphia’s love affair with their professional sports teams, it makes sense that WIP can reach an even wider audience via the FM dial, where it can go head to head with its own rival,  97.5 — The Phanatic. Well, at least WYSP fulfilled the wish of The Who, “to die before I get old.”

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Flush with success is taking on an unfortunate meaning.

Flush with success is taking on an unfortunate meaning.

Something is seriously out of whack. Why do so many average Americans (those with full-time jobs) seem to be unenthusiastic about their work? When is the last time you heard anyone talking about becoming a millionaire instead of just scraping by? The focus in the current economy seems to be on downsizing and unemployment instead of wild success or even just growth. No one speaks, let alone thinks, of rewards anymore. Who dares to dream about starting their own business these days? Where are all the entrepreneurs?
Incentives? Carrots have become sticks. Visions of sugarplums are gone, replaced by fears of inflation, foreclosures, and punitive taxes. Retirement plans are pushed back. Class warfare is far too commonplace. Even young guys like Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg who achieve beyond their wildest dreams talk about giving away half their fortunes. More on that in a minute.
It is easy to blame a difficult global economy and a world of low cost competitors. But the answers lie a lot closer to home. America has lost its way. This is still the land of opportunity built on free enterprise and initiative. However, decades and decades of perpetual government growth adding more and more unelected bureaucracies and departments and officials and regulators, all funded by a tax system that is Byzantine and designed to punish and disincentivize the achievers and job creators.
As the Wikileaks scandal(s) and the latest TSA controversy illustrate, the U.S. government is doing a pretty lousy job of protecting itself and its citizens. So, why is anyone still buying the concept that going after the rich, French Revolution style, is a winning strategy for economic recovery. How is giving the government more funds to waste a help to anyone?
Both major political parties and all citizens of this country have their work cut out for them in re-engineering government at all levels in the coming years. Socialists need to take a basic economics class so they understand that it is not desirable for government to take on nanny-state responsibilities for an entire nation of adult-size Depends wearers. A healthy private enterprise sector is vital to American economic vitality and global economic vitality. Capitalists need to wake up to responsibilities far beyond short-term profits and start investing more in American-based operations and communities. That includes examining government largesse toward big business and specific industries through lobbying, healthy subsidies, and tax breaks — the system is currently unfairly stacked against small businesses where so many Americans are employed and so much innovation begins. Government needs to learn to spend less and spend wisely.

If more of us were this rich, we could afford to give away half our fortunes to charities. And that's a good thing.

If more of us were this rich, we could afford to give away half our fortunes to charities. And that's a good thing.

Doubling back to Marc Zuckerberg, he has announced plans to give away half his fortune to charities, part of a campaign started by Warren Buffet, who is appealing to the consciences of the uber-wealthy. That is different from the idea espoused by another high-profile millionaires group, which has come out in support of boosting the tax rates of the very rich. Nothing is stopping these extraordinarily well-off folks from contributing more of their fair share of taxes directly to the US Treasury now. Unless it is the nagging doubt that such a generous act would be akin to flushing those funds down the sewer line.
The rest of us need to start dreaming big again. It would be great to be so successful in business that we can become like Scrooge McDuck, dancing hip-high in currency in our own private vaults, knowing we will still be comfortable and well-provided for after donating half of everything to help others.

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