Guest Blogger: Neal Stamell
For nearly twenty-five years, Neal has lived and breathed consumer research and advertising at agencies like Leo Burnett, Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, FCB and now Element 79 as a Group Planning Director. Along the way, he’s interviewed and canvassed all sorts of people for their thoughts and opinions on Philip Morris, Tropicana, Pillsbury, Glad, Starkist, Gatorade, Amway, ConAgra and literally hundreds of other brands. As a natural puzzle solver, he instinctively converts that kind of data into usable insights: connecting, inciting, and inspiring. Though a curious planner’s mind never turns off, Neal has also somehow found time to master the nuances of cooking classics like Kung Pao Chicken and Hot & Sour soup along with blues riffing on his electric bass. Neal also won Element 79’s very first Film Fest with his deeply-moving documentary “Inez Holly.”
Someone recently posed a challenge on the LinkedIn AdPro forum. In a nutshell, it was this: how to rebrand ‘America?’ What would you rename it, what’s the logo, the tagline or slogan, that would concisely sum up what America is, or wants to be perceived as?
This question reminded me of an article I recently rediscovered, written in 1984 by L. Robert Kohls called “The Values Americans Live By” – sort of a primer for international guests. He wrote:
“If the foreign visitor really understood how deeply ingrained these thirteen values are in Americans, he or she would then be able to understand 95% of American actions — actions which might otherwise appear strange, confusing, or unbelievable when evaluated from the perspective of the foreigner’s own society and its values.”
What are these thirteen ingredients that distinguished us as Americans twenty-five years ago? According to Kohls, with my color commentary, they were:
- Personal Control Over The Environment/Responsibility. Our lives are our own to shape, not a function of luck or fate, and of course, “we can do anything if we put our minds to it.”
- Change Seen as Natural and Positive. Tradition-shmadition; Change = Progress & Growth (the original P&G?)
- Time and Its Control. Make a schedule, keep to it, and that way accomplish more. “Idle hands are the Devil’s tools.”
- Equality/Fairness. “We are all created equal.” At least that’s the ideal.
- Individualism /Independence. We believe we’re unique, we hate being lumped into groups, and, we likes our privacy.
- Self-Help/Initiative. Land of the self-made man or woman. “Mom – I did it all by myself!”
- Competition. “It brings out the best in everyone.”
- Future Orientation. “The sun’ll come out tomorrow, Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun!”
- Action/Work Orientation. “Don’t just stand there – do something!”
- Informality. Yup.
- Directness/Openness/Honesty. Stand up for yourself, be direct; or, in the vernacular, “In yo’ face, sucka!”
- Practicality/Efficiency. Okay, this list is like way too long. I’d bundle 3, 9 & 12, and also pair 5 &6 just for starters. Hey – I’m American!
- Materialism/Acquisitiveness. Need a David Hasselhoff flip top cigarette lighter? ‘Nuf said.
So what to make of all this? And more important, will it help me win the logo contest?
Let’s assume that by and large Mr. Kohls had it right in his search for what most Americans held in common as of the early 80’s. It’s easy to trace some of the values he cites back to the country’s founding (1,2,4,5) as well as to more recent events like WWII and post-war Baby Boomers’ coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s (6-10).
And while some values seem to counter each other – Fairness vs. Competition, Efficiency vs. Informality – his descriptions make sense of the seeming contradictions. (A lot like Python’s Dinsdale Piranha: “he was a cruel man, but fair.”)
But what’s changed in the past twenty-five years, and what might be missing?
Writing in1984, Kohls was relatively closer to the post-war booms in construction, technology and materialism that so occupied our lives. The “Great Generation” that pulled itself up the by the bootstraps, rebuilt nations and scorned “wasting time” (#3) is dying out. Certainly their values were passed along, but perhaps in watered down form.
Things aren’t as seemingly simple or black & white as they once were. We live with more shades of grey and fewer solid role models to follow. And it’s become a lot harder to make it by sheer grit.
Are we as likely to think that “time is of the essence,” to worry about not losing or wasting time? Or has our informality overshadowed our obsession with being “on time?” (And has Mr. Kohls ever been in an ad agency?) It seems that some more Puritan ethics around time and work have gradually given way to our love affair with the couch, the Xbox, big screen, the popcorn. Although we also pretend to “save time” by checking email while in the shower.
I’d say our desire to acquire has outweighed our prior respect for delayed gratification. And while we’re probably still more private than other cultures, with kids expecting their own rooms and our back yards fully fenced, could someone please tell the woman three rows back on the train to get off the phone?!
And what of Competition? This may become the most challenged pillar of the American ideal, as the Millennials and “Generation O’s” (for Obama) have been raised to value cooperation and collaboration, and will expect more of it in their occupations.
So back to the challenge: is there a big enough paintbrush for a broad stroke characterization of who/what we are? Is there room in a single positioning for this remarkably diverse, varied and complex society?
Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope:
“Not only did my encounters with voters confirm the fundamental decency of the American people, they also reminded me that at the core of the America experience are a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work.”
If the President thinks there’s a common thread, well, there’s gotta be, right? With no further ado, here’s my short list of new names and slogans for America.
OPPORTUNISIA: “300 Million Immigrants Can’t Be Wrong”
MASSAFORNIA: “Mighty Hopeful”
YOUTOPIA: “Have It Your Way!” (that one might be trademarked)
Your turn. Happy 4th of July!
by Neal Stamell, Element 79