Image Is Everything

We’ve ceased to care about substance anymore.  All we care about, or at least all we talk about, is what something looks like.  Perhaps because it’s easier to digest an emotional meal than an intellectual one.

This was brought to a head for me by the relentless coverage given to BP CEO Tony Hayworth’s recent yachting excursion.  Even the White House took a jab at him, despite the reality that Obama was out golfing at about the same time.  And the Republicans are ranting about Obama being out of the office as well.  The premise seems to be that there is a crisis on, and these guys shouldn’t be out of the office until it’s over.

Okay, on the one hand I get that from a public relations standpoint it’s risky to be seen having fun while others are suffering.  It’s perhaps emotionally tone deaf.  But practically, it’s irrelevant.  The CEO, whether of a company or a country, is not playing an active minute-by-minute role in resolving a crisis like the oil spill in the Gulf.  Even having them in the area for moral support is logistically intrusive.  Their role is limited to making strategic decisions that others actually implement.  This happens on a time scale of days or weeks and can occur from anywhere.

While I certainly don’t have anything close to the scope of responsibility of a CEO (nor the paycheck or the support staff), my boss knows how to find me pretty much 24×7.  If something requires my attention, you can be sure I’ll be hunted down with little effort.  Are we to believe that these executives are completely out of pocket while on the links or the high seas?  Not a chance.  This is just about how it looks.

And it doesn’t really stop there.  Whether it’s the latest sex scandal or who said what into a live mic, there is a relentless coverage of minutiae that has some emotional resonance to it.  Is this because it’s what people want?  I think the answer is no, but it is delivered in the package people want.

As a nation, we have become the embodiment of the short attention span.  If you can’t express it in a sound bite or a Tweet, we don’t have time for it. Yet this by itself isn’t so bad.  Absorbing a lot of bits can be just as informative as digesting a comprehensive analysis.  Perhaps even more enlightening in that you are getting more diverse points of view.  But the bits by themselves don’t naturally coalesce. And most people don’t spend the effort to ever sit and reflect on the plethora of info bursts they are getting to try to distill any larger coherence out of it.  So the reality is they are just left with the individual bits.  And therein lies the rub.

If you need to communicate something quickly, you don’t appeal to the intellect, you appeal to the emotion.  You can spend all evening explaining the dangers of touching a hot stove to a young child.  But if you’ve only got two minutes to teach him, you can take him over and stick his finger briefly on the burner.   Lesson done.

Now politics isn’t so black and white as touching stoves.  (It’s hard to find pundits willing to stand on the side of scorching hands.)  It’s not strictly good vs. bad.  Both sides of an issue get boiled down to emotionally charged tidbits.  And without additional data or the time and motivation to seek the data on your own, you’re making judgments not on the issues, but on the emotional resonance of the sound bite, or perhaps the perceived trustworthiness of the speaker or source.

But wait a minute… isn’t that just marketing?  The “Mad Men” of the 50’s and 60’s created modern marketing.  Ignore the head, play to the heart.  Will Geico really save you $500 in 15 minutes?  Do you really not believe it’s not butter?  Will Axe body spray really cause hot girls to throw themselves at you?  A wise consumer is more than a little skeptical.  In recent decades we’ve come to somewhat distrust ads by default.  We assume everyone is overplaying their hand.

But now news and politics are being marketed using the same techniques.  Yet we’re still in that naive phase where we largely assume what they are telling us is true.  Yet maybe this gives us some hope after all.  We learned to distrust product ads and do our own research.  Maybe we’ll mature to that point in the realm of news and politics as well.

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