Commentary

Government Beats Big Business

It’s almost as unbelievable as ‘man bites dog,’ right? Everyone knows that American industry is much more proactive than the government any day of the week, or is it?

Well, consider this week’s news published in a special report by McKinsey and Company and The New York Times Magazine. On the surface one might interpret that these reports are announcing The Internet’s lack of relevance, yet upon further evidence they represent good news for the industry.

Here’s the scoop: Yesterday, McKinsey and Company’s published “What Went Wrong For Online Media.” Pretty self-explanatory. Now real news here to this crowd. On top of that, The Times’ Magazine piece, “Silicon Valley’s Spy Game” reports the Valley’s mission “is to help the [US] government track its citizens the way Amazon tracks its customers.” To the government it’s clear that the Internet is a medium that people use heavily while they are at work. The government wants to protect that ability for us.

The McKinsey Quarterly reported among other things that Fortune top 10 corporations contributed less than 2% of the $5.5 billion spent in online advertising in 2000. Conversely, the Times article quoted Larry Ellison of Oracle, who said, “Central databases already exist. Privacy is already gone”

So, on one hand, while the Internet has been practically ignored by the world’s largest corporations, our government sees the value of working with Silicon Valley on issues ranging from national security, to the selling of America. Ellison is proposing to link the central government database to a system of digital identification cards available (though not required) for everyone. Not mentioned specifically, the White House has also been out in front in understanding the potential of the Internet’s selling power.

That’s the reason Bush brought in Charlotte Beers, former head of both Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson, two of the world's advertising behemoths into his administration as Under Secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, late last year. According to Ms. Beers, her mission is to “communicate the intangible assets of the United States--things like our belief system and our values, [to others around the world]."

Some question what an ad person brings to public diplomacy in a time of war, however in light of the communication issues we face globally, the larger focus is how is she going to accomplish her goals, especially when for the last 20 years we’ve been complaining about how government was not up to the task of serving the nation adequately.

How has the US Government suddenly leaped out in front of Big Business and Wall Street to become an activist organization once again? When’s the last time the American government was out in front of industry on an issue?

One might think back to the 60’s, when Space, Civil Rights, and the quest to improve where Americans lived and work dominated the attention of Wash. DC. It was a time when industry was too wrapped up in itself and ignored the will of the people. Back then, General Motors thought that what’s good for GM is good for the American people.

Few would accuse George W. Bush of trying to mimic Kennedy or Johnson, so efforts lead by Ms. Beers and the Office of Homeland Security are truly counter-intuitive to how we would expect the US Government to act in understanding and recognizing online media’s power and importance.

Today, we see the impact that governmental leadership has had on society. Just look at what space exploration did for satellite technology, which inevitably transformed telecommunications, or how civil rights has transformed our communities, making them much more diverse, equal and interesting. Though there’s still much more work to be done relative to the quality of our air, water and work environments, the American living standard has dramatically improved in the last 40 years. Back then, it wasn’t industry that led the way, it was government. So perhaps history is again repeating itself.

Americans practically invented juggling work and play together. The Internet’s ability to reach people at work is truly one of its most important strengths. However, most people think that the work place is off limits to marketing between 9 and 5. Both daytime TV and radio viewing and listening is much lower which is why daytime costs are so low. However, Internet is hitting its stride around 1 p.m., so why haven’t we adopted the workplace yet as prime marketing time?

To date, if we have not done much about marketing to people at work, it may be one of those paradigm shifts that must take hold on a grass roots level first to slowly work its way into the corporate mindset over time. Charlotte Beers’ job is to reach out to various cultures around the world to communicate some basic American values. We could use her skills in the online space as well, with the task of communicating the idea of marketing to people at work among our top 10 corporations.

And this is where the government gets it and big business doesn’t. Thank goodness we’ve seen this trend before. It may turn out that this new decade will be as wild, activist-driven and creative in many other ways as the 60’s itself. Who knows, maybe even bell-bottoms will come back in style.

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