Second That Emotion: How Decisions, Trends, & Movements Are Shapedby Jeremy D. Holden
Conventional wisdom has it that spin doctors and Madison Avenue are responsible for manipulating our thoughts, causing us to/b>
An advertising and communications expert traces the fascinating process whereby a passion for an idea, a politician, a celebrity, or a brand gives rise to a set of illogical beliefs that becomes the basis for a powerful movement.
Conventional wisdom has it that spin doctors and Madison Avenue are responsible for manipulating our thoughts, causing us to endorse ideas or buy products that we would otherwise reject outright. Holden shows that while advertising and propaganda can provide a spark and social media provides the kindling, individuals create consumer, political, and cultural trends based, more often than not, on thinking that they know logically to be flawed.
For businesspeople who want to see their company or brand break through, this book is both essential and entertaining reading. For the rest of us, the author provides a window into our decision-making processes, and how emotion-based illogical leaps drive our support for movements, whether they are political, commercial, or related to popular culture.
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SECOND THAT EMOTIONHow DECISIONS, TRENDS, AND MOVEMENTS Are Shaped
By Jeremy D. Holden
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2012 Jeremy D. Holden
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE ROLE OF SOCIAL CONTRACTS
"Half the promises people say were never kept, were never made."
—Edgar Watson Howe, E. W. Howe's Monthly, 1911–1937
Social contracts represent the essential ingredient in creating movements, whether those movements are historical, political, populist, or commercial.
There was a moment in the 2008 election campaign when a rather shambolic woman approached the platform at one of Senator John McCain's rallies to express her concerns about Senator Barack Obama as a future president. After some inaudible words of support for the candidate, she stumbled toward the real emotional basis of her opposition to Senator Obama: "I have read about him and he's an Arab!"
In that moment, the truth behind the cause she felt she was part of—and the basis of her illogical beliefs—was revealed. The fact that it shocked Senator McCain was evident. In an unguarded moment, he spontaneously countered her words: "No ma'am, no ma'am. He's a decent family man and a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with."
The disappointment among the assembled crowd was audible and palpable. Senator McCain's gracious and reasonable statement literally sucked the life out of the room. In that moment, the senator had broken the terms of a social contract that a group of his supporters had entered into with him, but which he wasn't fully aware of. In a heightened emotional state, these supporters had taken a set of facts and morphed them into a reality that was meaningful to them. The terms of their social contract with the Republican nominee stated: I will support you if you recognize that Senator Obama is a Muslim who seeks to destroy America from the inside out.
At the core of the contract was an illogical leap: Senator Obama's ethnicity is unclear from his appearance and he spent time in a Muslim country in his early years. Arabs attacked us on September 11, 2001. Therefore Senator Obama is an Arab who seeks to destroy America.
Senator Obama's ethnicity isn't obvious from his appearance. He had spent part of his early life in the primarily Muslim country of Indonesia, although this was mostly unknown when he started his campaign. Arabs did attack the United States on September 11. The (illogical) conclusion was that he was an Arab, and because he was an Arab he was an enemy of America bent on destroying the United States and her citizens, from the inside out.
In February 2011, the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of Republicans polled believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim while 39 percent responded that they didn't know. Only 27 percent believed Obama when he said—and demonstrated on numerous occasions—that he was a Christian. The fact that the campaign had highlighted his attendance at the incendiary Reverend Wright's church in Chicago was known consciously, but it only added fuel to the fire. Almost a third of Republicans demanded that their candidate recognize the threat to national security that Senator Obama posed—more than enough to deflate the Far Right, limit their turnout, and shape the election.
Only in that moment did Senator McCain truly comprehend the basis of support that he had from that group. His surprise and concern was evident in his reaction, and from then on his campaign, to his credit—or at least the elements of his campaign that he fully controlled—never sought to perpetuate that type of myth and misinformation.
Senator McCain had seen hateful propaganda peddled against him in the 2004 Republican primary, where leaflets and e-mails had been routed suggesting that his daughter, whom he had adopted from Bangladesh, was actually the product of an illicit affair. He had also seen his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Senator Max Cleland, branded as soft on national security and therefore lacking in patriotism. Mr. Cleland is a triple amputee as a result of injuries sustained during his tour of duty in Vietnam and clearly was, and is, a patriot.
The natural reaction for many of us is to shake our heads and condemn both the ignorance of our fellow citizens and the immoral and exploitative nature of the propaganda peddlers. But what if these kinds of mass illogical leaps are not exclusively the result of manipulative propaganda, and what if they aren't just limited to those who are malleable or uninformed? What if each of us—every day—build belief systems based on illogic that impact our affiliations, as well as our brand and lifestyle choices?
As the example of the woman at Senator McCain's rally illustrates, social contracts are formed when a large swathe of society is in a heightened emotional state, and its passion for an idea, politician, celebrity, or brand gives rise to a set of illogical beliefs as the basis for a movement. Social contracts are pivotal to the creation of culture shifts, and my purpose in this book is to explain the strange psychology behind how they are formed, how they spawn passionate Zealots and committed Disciples—how they are universally celebrated and perpetuated through social media—as well as how they can be broken.
Conventional wisdom has it that spin doctors and Madison Avenue are responsible for manipulating our thoughts, causing us to endorse ideas or buy products that we'd otherwise reject outright. But while advertising and propaganda can provide a spark, and social media provides the kindling, it's we who create the terms for a social contract, more often than not based on thinking that we know logically to be flawed. We choose to enter into the contract, we perpetuate it, and we determine when its terms have been broken.
Recognizing and nurturing an emerging social contract is essential for any businessman or businesswoman if he or she wants to see his or her company or brand break through and create a culture shift. And for the rest of us, social contracts can provide a window into our own decision-making process and how emotion-based illogical leaps drive the personalities we support and the movements we choose to become part of—whether they be political, populist, or commercial. Let's look at some more examples from the world of politics.
When President Clinton left office, his approval rating was 66 percent, as high a poll number as any president had received upon departing the White House in living memory. And yet the last two years of his presidency had been overshadowed by the scandal surrounding his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, his subsequent denial, and the resulting impeachment proceedings.
By all rights, his supporters should have felt deeply resentful of the national disgrace and distraction that his actions had caused, and wished to punish him accordingly. After repeated denials that he had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, under pressure from the special prosecutor, Clinton was forced to publicly acknowledge having had an "inappropriate relationship" with her—and through the intensely embarrassing reporting about stains on Lewinsky's dress, it became clear that he'd engaged in a sexual act with her in a small corridor just off of the Oval Office itself. His own administration members and political partners clearly felt angry about the lost opportunity of his last year in office and the embarrassment that his actions had caused. It created a cooling in his relationship with Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had put his own credibility on the line in vouching for Clinton. It also created a rift between the president and Vice President Al Gore, as Gore felt the scandal would undermine his chances in the forthcoming election. As a result, Gore damaged his own chances by hardly involving the still-popular president Clinton in the 2000 election campaign against then governor George W. Bush.
Yet the response of Clinton's supporters, who overwhelmingly maintained their support for the president, was anything but logical. President Clinton has stated that people were able to see beyond the scandal and focus on the bigger picture of his presidency, specifically the relative period of peace and prosperity under his leadership. Yet people have always struggled to take a broader view and see beyond near-term events when judging their political leaders, so by all rights there should have been an outpouring of righteous indignation reflected in Clinton's approval rating.
Perhaps the true nature of the social contract that American voters had originally entered into with Bill Clinton helps to explain their puzzling reaction. The social contract stated: You are a smart, hardworking, charismatic leader who will represent our country well at home and abroad, and so I will overlook your obvious character flaws, most notably your rampant infidelity, which was quite apparent even before you were first elected as president. After all, even Hillary Clinton (former senator and then secretary of state) once acknowledged that her husband was "a hard dog to keep on the porch."
Against this criterion, President Clinton had not broken his social contract and thus continued to receive widespread approval. Perhaps the illogical leap in this case was to assume that someone with his evident character flaws—which had been apparent before his election during his time as governor of Arkansas—wouldn't inevitably compromise himself in such a way as to undermine his ability to function as president. But the nature of social contracts do not allow for that type of reasoned or predictive thinking.
To further emphasize this point, contrast the public's reaction to President Clinton's infidelity with that of another politician and former presidential candidate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Senator Edwards cheated on his wife with an employee (Rielle Hunter), and President Clinton also had cheated on his wife with an employee. Both attempted to lie about it and were eventually discovered and forced to admit it. Conventional wisdom has it that Senator Edwards was treated more harshly in the court of public opinion because he cheated on his late wife, Elizabeth—at a time when she was battling breast cancer—and certainly his behavior didn't exactly endear him to the average woman voter, in particular.
The real answer can be found in the nature of the social contract that had been established with Senator Edwards in his first presidential campaign in 2004, based in large measure on his own personal biography. The social contract stated: You are a clean-cut, morally upstanding family man with small-town values, who used your legal talents to fight for the little guy and got rich in the process. I'll support you because of your moral character and because I think you can bring the country prosperity.
In Senator Edwards's case the illogical leap was evident from the outset. Ask any person whether they think the average class-action attorney follows a strict moral code, and they'll probably laugh in your face. I know a number of lawyers who are both wholly ethical and morally upstanding, but that is not the general public perception, as lawyers fall just below politicians and just above advertising executives in the table of least trusted professionals. Nevertheless, the contract Senator Edwards's supporters entered into with him demanded that he adhere to the moral terms that his supporters had laid down. His actions broke those terms in spectacular fashion, and he paid the price with his political career.
With reference to the figure whose shadow loomed across the American political landscape for almost fifty years, I had the pleasure of watching the Clint Eastwood–directed movie J. Edgar (2011) about the life and times of the founder of the FBI. And if anyone is still laboring under the misperception that Leonardo DiCaprio is getting by on his good looks alone, they should watch his moving portrayal of a deeply private, complex, and contradictory man. I went to see the film primarily to learn more about the origins of the G-men, but the lasting takeaway was of a sensitively observed and portrayed love story between Hoover and his longtime colleague and companion, Clyde Tolson.
My perceptions of Hoover walking in were probably similar to many in terms of the social contract he'd established during his life with the average American, and which has now been passed down to this generation. Hoover's social contract stated:
You were secretive and scary, and many believed you were the most powerful man in the country because of the sensitive information you kept on the presidents you served. I heard some weird stuff about you being a cross-dresser and they said you kept all the credit for the bureau's success for yourself. But you rooted out militant extremists, tackled organized crime, battled the communists, and kept us safe for almost five decades, so I'm glad they named a building after you.
Whether it's a public figure, a media celebrity, or a consumer brand, it really doesn't matter what was intended when one first came to prominence. The only thing that matters is the illogical and jumbled concoction that becomes fixed in the mind of the consumer. My perception of J. Edgar Hoover didn't change fundamentally after seeing the film, but rather it expanded. I came away with a richer picture of this secretive and at times misguided American patriot who was able to function because of the emotional stability offered by Clyde Tolson, the love of his life. Public images are illogical and contradictory, and marketers and image makers, who still advocate a linear approach, would do well to broaden their perspective.
When we establish a social contract with a political figure, we bundle our hopes and beliefs onto them, and we expect them to live up to the standards we've set. The nature of politics is such that a candidate tends to be relatively ambiguous in stating his or her positions in order to appeal to the widest electorate—and that opens the door for us to project views and values onto them that ultimately they'll be unable to live up to. Of course, most politicians just want to get elected and generally are happy to receive our votes on pretty much any terms. But as with the examples I've cited, when politicians fail to understand the nature of the social contract that voters have established with them, the results are often terminal, and the movement they've created is fatally undermined.
SOCIAL CONTRACTS IN HISTORY
When Margaret Thatcher became the first female leader of a major political party in the United Kingdom—after unseating former Conservative Party prime minister Ted Heath—and then won a national election to become Britain's first woman prime minister in 1979, she didn't so much break the glass ceiling as demolish the entire building.
Thatcher was the daughter of a middle-class grocer from the largely forgotten town of Grantham, in the middle-eastern region of England. Bright and ambitious, she went to Oxford University and became a barrister (lawyer) before entering politics and being elected to the UK Parliament in 1959, where she represented the North London district of Finchley. She rose up through the party ranks to become education secretary before ultimately challenging and defeating the then leader and former prime minister Ted Heath, and becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 1974. The notion of a woman prime minister at that time was unusual enough, but for a middle-class woman from Grantham to ascend to the leadership of the oldest and most elitist political party in Britain—whose former leaders had included William Pitts, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Winston Churchill, and Sir Anthony Eden—was an extraordinary achievement in itself.
People tend to embrace dramatic change only in times of crisis, and Britain's economy and the resulting unrest at the time certainly warranted that label. The so-called winter of discontent, in the United Kingdom in 1978–1979, with the resulting labor strikes, sky-high taxation, and record unemployment under the Labour government of Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, opened the door for dramatic change and reform, paving the way for Thatcher's Conservative Party to win the 1979 election and make her Britain's first woman prime minister.
Excerpted from SECOND THAT EMOTION by Jeremy D. Holden Copyright © 2012 by Jeremy D. Holden. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jeremy D. Holden, PhD (Raleigh, NC), is a branding and research strategist with twenty-five years experience consulting with global organizations. He is currently Chief Strategy Officer at Publicis New York, whose clients include P&G, Citi Group, and Nestle. Previously, Holden was Partner/Director of Account Planning at McKinney, where his clients included Audi, NASDAQ, Realogy, and Sherwin Williams. Holden's work has garnered numerous industry awards including the Sustained Success Gold Effie (the top industry award for commercially effective advertising), the AAAA Planning Gold Award, the MIXX Awards Best in Show, the Yahoo Purple Chair, and a Cannes Lion. Holden has an eclectic background having run for political office in the U.K. as well as having performed "Improv."
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Captivating! As a business person, this book gave me a lot of insights that I can use in my day to day leadership. The practical relevant examples Holden uses to make his points are fascinating and I would have never seen the relevance and connection before reading. But don't let the fact that you'll learn something by reading the book scare you - it's highly entertaining and a fun, fast read. After reading this book I look at trends around the world in a different way.