|Barry Blitt's impish New Yorker cover as Mike|
Bloomberg's millions exploded
in his face
If they stop and think about it, the Bloomberg debacle cast a deep shadow on their basic beliefs in marketing, advertising and the virtues of data collection that underlie our consumer society. The entire structure of the communications industry -- from advertising paying for programming, streaming fees based on past practices and promotions built around expected behavior – has been called into question.
Bloomberg may be one of the smartest capitalists on earth, but he himself seems duped even more than the public about the value of “data driven” methods that landed him his billions. His sophisticated team of strategists mined the data and saw a path to victory – until a few well placed blows knocked him off his perch and sent them sheepishly to tell the boss they were dead wrong. (Though he is spared the decision of whether to rename Bloomberg News to something like Not the Bloomberg News at All, to avoid cries that he is using the presidency for profit, a Trump-like issue he could have faced.)
Thousands of expensive Bloomberg terminals that financial offices rely on were built around his ideas of complexity, accountability and instant analysis. They anchored his fortune.
Add to that the lucrative fees his data-snappy news delivery and pulsating highs and lows have brought in, and add his promise to use new data-driven information systems and complicated algorithms to defeat Trump. All these ought to be thrown into sharp questioning.
If Bloomberg could be so misguided as to invest $500 million in himself – even given that noble aim of beating Trump – why should anyone stand in awe of his wealth? He emerges as the biggest patsy of his own beliefs. Could it also be that we have been handed a bill of goods on our consumer driven models of success? Bloomberg in many ways is the tip of the financial spear that drives the engine of market research.
Even the important corrective he announced in March – to help Democratic candidates up and down the ballot as well as helping Joe Biden toward the presidency – is not sufficiently reassuring. He no longer will make himself the main vehicle, but he still will decide who to help and how. It is his money and he has that right -- though we should all have doubts about following him down the rabbit hole.
The good news is the cold water Bloomberg inadvertently threw on people’s attitude about big money. Maybe even Bernie’s. I don’t know whether Sanders is right about 60 billionaires giving to the Joe Biden campaign, since Biden won spending very little money. But being torn among 60 billionaire’s desires seems healthier to me than being beholden to one.
For a long time, people have been fearful about the single-minded purpose of Republican big money and power. We are learning anew how powerless all that is when the public is motivated in different directions.
Trump’s direct $23 million in TV and digital ads over the last year is married to PACs that command some $150 million more and all that sounds enormously scary, but all that pales next to the $60 billion Bloomberg can command.
And that $60 billion pales in comparison to what can happen when the public panics or resists the smart guys and their smart predictions.
Anxiety – in the US form of doubting how well the Trump administration can deal with the coronavirus – has pushed a global economy into panic. Even though COVID-19 may not engender the degree of illness and death worried about by pessimists, the slowness to test for it and explain the community nature of its progress has infected our universal attitude. It can’t be explained away as something not to worry about – or something those durned aliens brought to the country.
Why has this Trump lack of candor taken hold of public angst in a way that impeachment and general White House ineptness didn’t? One thing for sure – a pandemic has made the current leadership seem painfully less reliable, underscoring the limitations of Trump’s ability to control his own fate.
And inevitably all this raises questions about the financial systems our economy is built on.
The passion to get rid of Trump is a big factor in the public turning to tried and tested means – like Joe Biden -- rather than leaps into unknown voids of policy. Maybe you’d like to believe Bernie that we need a revolution, though in his years in the Senate he has always insisted on his own way and then buckled or amended to others. But this time it’s a difficult sell to predict his behavior.
Millions of voters so far have rebelled against being branded establishment Democrats by Bernie. They are the bulk of black voters and middle class workers, yet they are rebelling by leaning away from his concept of revolution in favor of smart reversals of Trump policies and believable advances on climate change, health care, immigration and so forth.
You can argue whether the public should see that more in Biden than Sanders, but that is the argument for today – more than how either candidate voted decades ago –that people want to hear. And clearly folks are reacting to what they can see and feel rather than what others think inevitable around the corner.
The Bloomberg debacle may actually take hold on Madison Avenue and Wall Street and throw into new doubts not just the power of money but the reliance on polls and digital track records to evaluate consumers. Maybe we all have been led down a garden path of financial stupidity.
It’s more than you can’t sell the wrong product with big money, as Bloomberg tried. Many still assume he has so much money that he can re-evaluate and choose a new path for $445 million so far in TV, radio, billboards and digital ads.
But this is far more than Ford’s 1950s disaster with Edsel, which in calculator conversion math cost the car company more than $2 billion in today’s dollars (and $250 million then) or Coca Cola’s 1980s debacle with New Coke. Those were simply products aimed at a market that wasn’t there. But remember how much consumer research drove the bad results.
All manner of data analytics are being called into question. Review any of Harvard Business School’s so-called Bibles of consumer analysis and you’ll see how many are based on expectations that consumers will continue past practices, that sales people must be rewarded with very specific incentive motivations, that people in general are responsive to established norms of behavior and Pavlov responses and that marketers must learn from what the customer looks at or says they’d like to look at.
Only a tad of these manuals explore what may be happening in modern society with the advances of social media (Facebook and Twitter) and the consumers' growing awareness of their own identity and how they are being manipulated by digital presumptions. The public recognizes they are a floating Petri dish if isolated on a carnival cruise, but they are becoming more aware and more resistant to being treated as a Petri dish on shore.
All America is becoming much like the comic “Magic Town,” a Capraesque movie from 1947 actually directed by William Wellman but larded with many regulars from the Frank Capra movie machine. The good idea in a bad movie was an opinion pollster (Jimmy Stewart) sees a fortune having identified a city whose opinions reliably reflect the whole nation – until the community becomes aware of how mirror fashionable its ideas are and start changing its opinions to fit the circumstances, becoming useless as a weather vane.
The Bloomberg debacle suggests that US consumers have reached that territory. In certain instances they don’t jump as once predicted to advertising come-ons. Maybe they still will with individual products or local political campaigns. But maybe not. They may have become self-aware enough to balk at being expected to respond like sheep in the face of awesome big money or saturation advertising.
If advertisers become aware of the change, they will react to how much money the communications industry expects them to spend. If they doubt that Madison Avenue or Facebook can shape the results, they may leap to other methods.
The consumers may, horror of horrors, be more willing this election year to think for themselves.