Thursday, September 8, 2011

Claire McCaskill: Naive, Pollyannish, and Correct

On Wednesday’s episode of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart ridiculed Senator Claire McCaskill for her comments in a hearing on the financial future of the United States Post Office. She recounted sending letters from college to her family, and lamented the fact that there are no such physical keepsakes arriving at her home from her college-aged children today. She then mused that an advertising campaign promoting the value of physical letters might have a positive impact on the USPS’s revenue stream.

Mere moments after I watched the Daily Show segment on Hulu, I read a post at Jack Marshall’s blog, Ethics Alarms, in which he thoroughly upbraided McCaskill for the same commentary. He concluded his post by saying that her remarks constituted a “level of demonstrated incompetence and stupidity that mandates removal from high office.”

I dare say it’s a little extreme to advocate that someone be removed from office based on having simply expressed an off-the-cuff idea, and one which McCaskill prefaced by acknowledging that it may seem “naïve” and “pollyannish.” Now, of it was foolish of McCaskill to bring it up in that context, and to apparently be just spit-balling ideas during an official government hearing. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, though, as far as I know, that’s just the way these things go. There may often be an informal tone in these sorts of hearings, which encourages a free exchange of thoughts. And appropriate or not, that is exactly what McCaskill was engaged in. That is not demonstrated incompetence. She didn’t actively structure a policy around her reflections. She didn’t do anything except share an idea that some people took very seriously and saw as a decidedly bad idea.

I actually disagree with them. I don’t think it’s all that bad an idea. Now, if she thought that effective advertising would completely turn around the Post Office’s revenue problems and that they would all then be able to go on with business as usual, her naiveté is quite incredible. There’s no reason to assume that, though. I see no reason to assume that she meant anything other than that it might help a little, which I think is true.

Jack Marshall’s derision of the idea almost comes across as a tirade against letter-writing, and both he and Jon Stewart seem to be of the opinion that traditional mail is dead, that nothing will revive it, and that technology moves inexorably from one item to the next, leaving the past buried in its wake. That perception is disputed at least in a modest sense by a study that was detailed on NPR some months ago, in which the author claimed that nothing that had ever been produced in the past has since stopped being produced altogether. Of course, that’s far from saying that any older technologies or practices remain commonplace, or rebound, but in my observation some do.

Marshall writes:

"If the Senator’s idea works, maybe we can use the same approach to bring back the use of other obsolete and inferior technologies. Like…typewriters! Didn’t you love that ‘clack-clack-clack-ding!‘ sound? Phonographs! And telegrams! Ah, there was such a thrill when you got one of those!"

I found that passage amusing to read, considering that I am twenty-six years old and I own two typewriters and a record player, both of which I use. The record player is a Crosley model that was manufactured in recent years. I do as a matter of fact like the clack-clack-clack-ding of typewriters. As a writer, I find that it reassures me of my progress and helps me to establish a rhythm. I also appreciate the concept of having a physical concept of my work without having to go through the further process of printing it out. That is essentially the same reason why I prefer personal correspondence in the form of handwritten letters, rather than e-mail. I know for a fact that I am not the only one in my age bracket who feels this way. When I was in college, e-mail was already quite dominant, but I had several friends with whom I exchanged letters, because we thought it preferable to have a space of time between correspondences, and to be able to open physical envelopes, which imbued the messages with greater significance.

Marshall seems to not realize, or to ignore the fact that some of the technologies he refers to as obsolete and inferior have remained current even in the presence of domination from their competitors. I was able to buy a new record player a few years ago because they are still marketed to some segments of the population. Naturally, some of these are seniors with disposable retirement income, who still have vinyl records from their earlier years and would like to hold onto them, and perhaps convert them to mp3 and CD formats. However, newly pressed vinyl has seen a significant resurgence in recent years, because advertising and word-of-mouth has informed people that it actually provides a better sound quality than the alternatives. It is a niche market, but audiophiles and music snobs are now willing to spend more on a high-quality vinyl record than a CD. For my part, I am happy to purchase used records for one dollar at the local thrift store because as long as they are well-preserved, the overall sound quality remains superior, and I also like the hands-on aspect of it, the fact that the need to turn over the record at the halfway point encourages you to remain engaged with the music, and to listen actively.

I have noticed the same sort of resurgence with typewriters, which I began to see being sold new in office supply stores starting a couple of years ago. I expect the reason is that people have realized – or manufacturers have realized they can try to convince people – that they are preferable in some professional contexts for fundamentally the same reason that I prefer them when writing fiction. That is, they provide an immediate physical copy, a fact that probably benefits businesses when they would rather not waste time by scanning, modifying, and printing existing forms and documents.

So why not actually promote the USPS as a means of personal communication? It’s not unheard of. The Swedish post office embarked on a creative ad campaign in the Christmas 2009 season, and from what little I know it was rather effective. It seems to me that the mistake that the government and the Post Office has been consistently making is that they have been going about business as usual, failing to make necessary structural changes to their operations in order to reduce costs, and also failing to implement any strategies in order to increase revenue. Both are necessary to save the institution, and despite what Jon Stewart or Jack Marshall would have us believe, it’s not all that ridiculous to think that people can be guided towards choosing something in spite of its not being on the cutting edge.

To my mind, this entire subject speaks to something deeper about modern American perceptions of marketing. That is, we seem not to have any such perception. In the context of constant information and ongoing consumer profiling, people who are in the business of selling things to other people have gotten so caught up in the “people” and “things” elements of that equation that they’ve utterly forgetting about the “selling” part.

In season four of Mad Men, there is a scene in which Don Draper clashes with an expert brought in to do market research on how to sell skin cream to women. Her interviews find support the notion that the traditional angle is the only angle: convince them that using it will help them to get married. Draper had been pushing for another interpretation, no doubt guided in part by his own resistance to the confining set of options offered by society, and the woman insists that there doesn’t seem to be a new approach to be had. Draper stands his ground by saying that of course no such approach would come out in the market research. Neither the product manufacturer nor the potential customers would know what they’re looking for until someone tells them. That’s what makes it new.

Was marketing really like that once upon a time? Is there any creative appeal left in marketing now? All the sales of products seem to be obtained through algorithms which pick out the sort of people whose consumption patterns demonstrate a proclivity for consuming those products. We seem to feel that all we need to do is isolate the people who want something, and then tell them to obtain it. But good advertising is capable of targeting people who don’t yet want something and convincing them that they do. Great marketing can convince them that they want it even though it’s different from what they’ve gotten accustomed to, even though it seems, at first blush, to be inferior, even though it’s old. But that idea is apparently so passé that Jon Stewart and Jack Marshall find it to be laughably indefensible.

1 comment:

GAL said...

I hope you (the writer) see this post. I'm writing to commend you on this very well written story. I do not have a typewriter nor a record player and I love sending hand written notes to family, friends, and business associates. I have found many younger people can't read cursive writing. Another passe time consumer quickly becoming a lost "art" I suppose. Posting, blogging, texting is okay and necessary in our new instant economy. A well versed handwritten letter is a pleasure to send and receive.