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September 15, 2008
The Palin Parable

The choice of Sarah "Barracuda" Palin as the GOP "Trophy Vice" candidate has set off the most intense and creative political debate in my lifetime. John McCain's gambit short circuited Obama's post-convention momentum, shifted the terms of debate, refocused and energized our examination of the issues and brought huge numbers of people off the bench and into the rhetorical, if not political, fray.

This move has six profound lessons for marketers.

We Can Still be Surprised. America's new favorite hockey mom was a bolt from the great white North which caught us all unaware. But Sarah's ascendance immediately provoked strong reactions so much so that feminists were caught on both sides of every nuance. Its life affirming that somebody other than Apple can instantly capture the attention and imagination of our our post-modern, cynical, seen-it-all citizenry. There's always a market for something new and something different. Success depends on timing and packaging.

Attack Existing Assumptions. Ms Palin's origins and pedigree crosscut all our notions about the national political elite. She's a small town girl out of the far west with a bachelor's degree from a former land grant college. No eastern or western coastal sophistication, no Ivy League politesse, no old-money, political dynasty or WASP lineage.  Add to that a so-so dye job, the wrong eyewear and cheap shoes and you begin to understand why she provokes such a visceral reaction both pro and con. Maybe if she were the same girl from an Ohio political dynasty with a Harvard degree, we'd react differently. We have preconceived notions about things. New data is compared and processed against preconceptions, which are usually subconscious and unarticulated, and either squared up with them or rejected.  In this context you can understand why we default to moose jokes.

Account for the Decision-making Process. The choice of Sarah Palin might just be the greatest test of Malcolm Gladwell's blink theory in which he argues that snap decisions can be as good as and often better than more deliberate and rational choices. When fly-boy McCain revisited the maverick instincts of his youth in picking this unknown, he moved fast and relied on his gut more so than a team of vetting agents. Given the performance history of all the properly vetted bozos we've endured over the years, it will be interesting to see how things turn out. Consumers/Voters make snap decisions with equal speed and deliberation in a majority of the choices they face. If you don't anticipate and prepare for this dynamic you miss the chance to persuade them.

Perceptions Can Be Manipulated. Have you noticed how effective highly charged words (liberal, right-winger, right-to-lifer) are in the political arena? Did you see how in one fell swoop a party of old pasty uncaring, indifferent , elite white fat cats was transformed into a young vibrant army of PTA-attending, child nurturing, tax reducing Sam's Club Republicans? Labels and slogans matter. They are the short-hand tools that drive public debate. In politics and at retail, its the label and the volume not the facts or the nuances that triumph. It ought not to be. But it is. Marketers must take heed.

Reputation Management is a Fantasy. Nobody, not even the world's greatest PR guy or the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party, could be prepared for the onslaught that Sarah Palin has endured. Imagine an army of reporters investigating your life, scores of instant experts and pseudo-psychiatrists pontificating about who you are and what you stand for or represent or an army of bloggers writing snarky comments about every aspect of your life or dredging up kids you hated in high school for their 15 minutes of revenge. The rush to judgment --with or without the genuine facts -- is real. In a 24/7/365 always-on multi-channel media world you can never nail everything down or spin all that needs spun. So you have to work to create an overall impression. Ignore anyone who tells you they can manage the buzz.

The Conversation Counts. The most valuable aspect of the Palin nomination is the fast-acting hyper-energy injection it gave to the global conversation about America's future and our presidency. The terabytes of commentary in words, pictures and music from the big corporate media superstars to the nobody solo bloggers is the essence of democracy and the dynamo that powers and shapes our evolving culture. In this crucible of babble and ideas the big issues of experience versus promise will be hashed out. In this maelstrom without manners we'll decide what feminism means and what priorities we expect a working mother to set. As our social media and technology evolve these conversations will reflect the pulse of our culture and project a mirror image of who we are, what we want and who we want to be. 

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Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.
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