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Mark Penn's Cynical "Microtrend" View Under The Microscope In Clinton's Fading Campaign

Posted by: David Kiley on February 22, 2008

As I have been examining the commercials and stump rhetoric of Senator Hillary Clinton, I keep wondering why the once presumptive Democratic nominee’s message has come across as so cynical.

There is an aspect of the Senator’s lapses into Rovian-like message making like “words don’t matter,” “talk is cheap,” “I’m the only one who is ready,” “plagiarism,” etc. But then I remember where I read political philosophy and practice just as cynical; in Microtrends, the book written by chief Clinton strategist and message shaper Mark Penn.

“America’s elite—the wealthiest and best educated of our society—have become less interested in America’s economic and strategic challenges than they are candidate’s personalities.”

“…in the American meritocracy of the twentieth century, elites were a special breed who had worked their way up the ladder and had a very real appreciation for those now struggling to come up as well…Today’s elites have been spoiled longer, and are more removed from the struggles of their parents and grandparents.”

“While today’s elites are reading Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, the rest of America is living it.”

And he is talking about the very Democrats Clinton has tried to target!

My question for Senator Clinton: If you won’t do an interview with Bill O’Reilly, then why did you hire him to be your chief strategist?

There’s more:

“Come to a political town hall, with America’s regular voters, and you’ll see that personality never comes up. Voters zero in on healthcare, education, and friends serving in Iraq.” They have levels of knowledge about Medicare, Medicaid, our school system and the global economy that would put many PHds to shame.”

Really? Some do for sure. But the gross generalizations in Penn’s view of the electorate are cynical and irrelevant.

Reading Mictrotrends, one gets the distinct impression that Penn views the country under a microscope, and also that he views too much of it through the lens of focus groups, surveys and polls. Having watched, covered and practiced marketing for more than two decades, I have seen an awful lot of bad decisions made by people who do not have good instincts about the brand they are handling and the customers they are targeting.

Companies today are nearly obsessed by “return-on-investment.” ROI” tools can be valuable tools, but not determinants of strategy.

Senator Clinton has changed slogans and messages with the wind, with each passing defeat. This is the recipe for failure written by 90% of the chief marketing officers I have observed. And for this, Penn, according to The New York Times, has collected some $10 million, including spending for direct mail. Direct mail—perhaps the most ineffective primary tool there is in terms of ROI and message delivery.

It appears that while Penn was pushing this year’s election as a collection of mind-numbing microtrends—commuter couples, extreme commuters, pro-Semites, sun haters, Old New Dads, Christian Zionists—he missed the idea that national elections tend to turn on macro effects. One thing that will never go out of style—voters want to be inspired. To do that, you have to be tapped into the common denominator of a majority of voters. That’s where Penn’s strategy went off the rails. He never saw it, while his nose was buried in his microtrend focus roups and surveys.

Reader Comments


February 26, 2008 8:22 AM

David, I wonder why you would declare that when Penn talks about spoiled, out of touch elites, your mind goes straight to the Democrats and treat this an an insult to the liberal base? Did you buy into the Rovian memo that the Democratic base is a bunch of Hollywood fat cats who are so out of touch with mainstream America they might as well be considered extraterrestrial life forms? [insert obligatory dig at Tom Cruise and Scientology here]

There's also data out there which would prove your assertion that Penn is digging on Democrats, wrong. If you were to take a look at some exit polls for national elections, you would see that the very low earners in minimum wage or just above jobs, high wage union workers, young, urban professionals on the coats and the small clutch of Hollywood mega stars tend to vote Democratic. Middle income farmers, urban professionals in the Plains and business magnates tend to vote for the GOP. Overall, incomes across party lines would average out with Republicans coming in at maybe just a little higher thanks to idustrial magnates' outsize paycheks, barely enough for statistical significance.

So if anything, Republicans have tycoons and C-level executives making millions per year firmly on their side. Do you think someone with an average annual income of $10 million actually has to worry about schools, healthcare, credit card debt and energy prices? They have enough money to afford virtually anything the mere middle class mortal needs and hence, these aren't pressing issues on their minds. Same goes for the fat cats in the Democrat camp.

Finally, look at the commentary their favored reading materials have. Gossip about candidates. Who paid who, who slept with who, who said what to whom... I had an executive from the above described category go on at length about a story he saw in the New Yorker about how Kerry is totally dependent on his father for every little decision in his life and how this immediately and unconditionally disqualifies him from being president. (As if all of Kerry's other shortcomings weren't enough.) And this wasn't the only case.

Look at the political media for those making an average of $100,000 per year or more. Pundits raging about vicious Capitol Hill gossip and executing smear campaigns to the party to which they're loyal with no explanation other than "my party is the best for America in every way, period." I could swear (and then testify) that in the last decade, political coverage turned from policy to the Valley High Gossip Column. And this is the favored media for the out of touch elites that Penn describes very correctly and very thoroughly.

As for your experience seeing people make bad decisions with their branding and advertising, how pray tell does it apply to politics? Politics and marketing are very different. I know. I have a degree in marketing and worked in media and I know people who work in politics. Branding a car or a bag of potato chips and putting together a platform and image for a candidate both require a lot of time, effort and communicating but they're very different. You're comparing apples to tomatoes. Both round, both fruits, some are similar in color, but very different once you bite into them.

Maybe you should ponder things like this a little before you write and angry rant about them. If you disagree, wonderful. You have every right to. Go ahead and rant all you'd like. But if you're disagreeing on the basis of what you thought the author said or meant while there's plenty of evidence to prove your assumptions incorrect and there's much more to the argument than you acknowledge, my humble belief is that someone should cry foul.

chris boak

February 27, 2008 5:05 PM

Right on eloquent sage once wrote, when discussing focus groups and polling, "TESTING PROVES TESTING WORKS".

More to the point.....A brand is a promise. And Hillary is becoming like the man her husband beat in 1992...

chris boak

john polifrono

March 11, 2008 3:44 AM

"Fading campaign?" If mainstream media had simply reported news about this presidential contest, instead of protecting Obama, and constantly attacking and insulting Hillary, she would have already won the nomination. Now, it seems, as of Mar. 11th, when I'm writing this post, though the odds are against her, she has regained the momentum, and your biased nonsense about a fading campaign, are a joke.

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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