When a Snake Eats its Tail: Media, the Economy and Advertising in a Frightened World

The following article was written by bfw President & ECD Christian Boswell, and appeared last week in The Butler Report.

4 November – Election Day

Someone – I think it was JM Keynes – once observed that a banking panic tends to end when every one involved is just too tired to keep it going. I get the sense that we’re getting tired.

Not just in our capacity to consume endless hours of brutally overblown and unlearned commentary about the state that we’re in economically, but in our ability to continually absorb the crap we’re fed by pundits, commentators, “experts”, wags, bloggers, panelists, talk show hosts, columnists, and every other assorted variety of talking head.

I am writing this on Election Day, and I feel very much like an alcoholic or a drug addict – sitting in my car in the parking lot of a rehab center, taking one last swig from a bottle of Cruzan and one more hit off a blunt – before I walk through the glass doors, check myself in, and settle back for a month of detox, and maybe a little silence.

Tonight, like most Americans, I’ll park myself in front of the television, and submit myself to one last media orgy. One last cable news bender.

Tomorrow, I’m deleting my bookmarks, un-Tivo’ing Rachel Maddow and buying a novel.

I wish it would end there – but it won’t. Because, as a red-blooded, card-carrying, tax-paying, car-leasing, mortgage owing, kid-raising, American consumer living on the grid, I cannot escape the white noise that passes for the American Experience these days. And neither can you. The elections will end, and the media will cycle into an interesting new phase in which it will attempt to un-do the mess that it has created for itself.

I make my living in advertising – my job is to sell stuff for my clients. And that’s pretty much what I was asked to write about – the state of advertising in this new and uncertain economic environment. The problem, as I see it, is that there’s no simple observation to be made; no grand critique that makes sense; no polemics to trot out. The fact is, the snake has eaten its tail. And it’s working its way up, with no end in sight.

Turbines Turn in a Circle

Since the end of the Second World War, the American economy has been built on a single idea – consumerism. Consumerism as both the cause and effect, consumerism as both the ends and the means. We make stuff. We sell stuff. And everything in between is focused on helping one of those things happen. My job included. Probably your job, too.

Theoretically, this concept is elegant, optimistic, productive, and provides an endlessly regenerating social benefit. It’s self-regulating, and relentlessly biased toward innovation and productivity. And because it’s self-regulating, it’s cyclical.

An economy’s forward movement depends on increasing consumer demand, which, in turn, requires a consumer that is either increasingly wealthier, or ever-willing to become poorer in the pursuit of consuming stuff. When consumers begin to shut demand down, a new phase of the cycle begins, and the turbine that is consumerism begins a new arc in its circle that reflects these new conditions. And that arc turns downward.

This down-cycle is referred to as a “recession” – and it’s normally expressed in terms of productivity – did our economy produce more this quarter than it did last quarter, or did it produce less? If it’s less, then we’re in a recession.

The fact is, what we’re actually doing is not consuming as much as we were. We, as consumers, are either not wealthy enough – or not willing enough to be less wealthy – to sustain more consumption. And, in this self-regulating economy, that decreased demand functions as feedback for the economy. It provides the impetus for innovation and efficiency; for new ideas and products, like fuel-efficient cars, cheaper computers, and cooler James Bond movies.

Historically, that’s the way it’s worked – the economy has gone through up cycles and down-cycles. Unfortunately, we seem to have moved into an era in which decreased consumption is something we’re less willing to tolerate. We use phrases like “stimulus” and “continuing access to consumer credit ”, but the fact is, the contemporary economy is built on the a priori acceptance of the idea of consumers consuming – all the time – and in an ever-increasing manner. It’s not built for a down cycle any more.

And the proof’s not just in the pudding – the proof is in the problem.

Whereas earlier downturns spawned innovation in what the economy produces, our last recession – the one that came on the heels of the dot.com melt down and 9/11 – spawned innovation in ways to convince consumers to consume more. We replaced wealth with something that felt a lot like it – liquidity. Liquidity in the form of easy access to credit, online commerce, exotic financing instruments and tax incentives to draw down equity on the single most important asset we own – our homes. And we rewarded people who screwed on risk – short term, long term, primary, derivative – it didn’t matter. Leverage and profit. Consume and consume more.

And it worked like a charm for awhile – in fact, this new idea of fake wealth actually created another level of fabulous wealth. And it went like gangbusters for almost half a decade. As long as the dude at Best Buy kept scoring commissions on plasma TV sales, he was fine tapping his home equity line for a brand new, tax-deductable turbo charger for his Mitsubishi Eclipse. It felt good. It felt rich. It felt American. It felt patriotic.

It was consumerism in motion. “Lloyd Dobbler” as an operating principle. And everything – everything – was driven by it. Even stuff you’d never heard of until a month ago, like credit default swaps, are based on the idea that money keeps moving – from a seller’s hand to a buyer’s; from a borrower’s to a lender’s. Once that stops, everything stops.

And stop it did. The snake had eaten its tail – and then some. Lacking the ability to borrow from ourselves anymore, we were no longer able to borrow from the market. And as consumers we began, for the first time in a long time, to feel…uneasy.

And since unease makes for a good story line, it became part of our collective media narrative. And time passes, and uneasiness becomes uncomfortable, and uncomfortable becomes troubled, and troubled becomes panic. And panic? Panic sells.

The snake began eating its new tail almost immediately.

This is where we find ourselves now. We’re pretty sure we’re in trouble, because that’s what we’re hearing every day. We’re brow beaten with our profligate spending habits. We’re keelhauled for our anemic savings rates and our dangerous debt load. We’re eviscerated for our crass commercialism, our addiction to $6.00 double mocha lattes, ninety-nine cent ring-tones, our inability to cook our own food in our own home and our propensity to use half a roll of paper towels to wipe up a spill.

And you know what? We’re starting to listen. We’re pulling back and hunkering down. We’re afraid to spend money. We’re afraid of the future and terrified of living in the moment. We’ve given our government unprecedented power in – and access to – our markets. We’re content to let ourselves be lulled into a stupor by an increasingly weird array of televised and online programs, many of which involve the ritualized humiliation of our citizens. In short, we’re becoming Japan. And that isn’t good for business.

What will happen next is – logically – the only thing that can happen: in a system built on consumerism, and driven by media, the disconnect between the current storyline and the system’s fundamental need to sell stuff will begin to close. Put another way – after a year of scaring the s**t out of the average American citizen (and getting record ratings in the process) the media is beginning to realize the corner they’ve painted themselves into. After all, they’re in the business of selling advertising. And advertisers will only invest if they see a potential return. And since people only consume when they feel secure, I suspect that in very short order, we are going to start hearing and seeing lots of reasons to feel great about our lot in life, and our super bright future.

In the next year, look for a shift in the overall tone of our media.

Instead of focusing on stories about working class families struggling to make ends meet, you’ll start to see heartwarming profiles of how communities are pulling together; how innovative housewives are launching lucrative home-based businesses, how growing families have been able to take advantage of the new affordability in the housing market, and move into that home of their dreams.

And the thing is – all of those stories will be true. They’ll reflect the other side of all of this – the narrative we haven’t been getting, because it hasn’t been interesting enough to sell in an environment where we can’t wait to see the next train wreck.

Even more important, the tone will change because we are reaching our saturation point. It’s like a broken fire alarm in a building. Your stomach may drop the first few times it rings, but if it rings all day, eventually you’ll begin to tune it out. And you’ll start shopping for a new fire alarm.

Then again, I’m in advertising. I’m an optimist.

5 November

The bender ran until 1:00 last night and started up again this morning about 6:00 am. My eyes are bleary, and my hands are shaky from too much coffee, but my ears work fine.

And, for the first time in a year, I don’t hear that f**king fire alarm. Maybe it finally ran out of juice. Maybe someone fixed it. Maybe I just can’t hear it this morning because I refuse to listen any more.
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Christian Boswell is President & Executive Creative Director at bfw Advertising in Boca Raton, Florida. bfw Advertising is a full service marketing and communications firm with strong competencies in new media. The South Florida advertising agency creates and builds client brands with strategic thinking and on-target creative executions. For more information call (561) 962-3300 or visit www.gobfw.com on the web.

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