SXSW 2015: The End of Techno-Joy


Art by: Sue Zola


I used to be pretty excited about technology. I’ve worked in social media since before the term existed; I co-created an app, I wrote pretty rah-rah-tech essays that people liked, like “Why Iron Man is the First 21st Century Superhero” (hint: his relationship to tech). I, like you, side-eyed wet blankets like Evgeny Morozov and Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier, like, sucks to be them; glad I don’t have their problem. Until, one day, I did. It started when I was writing Objectionable, and it never really went away. But perhaps nothing has made it feel quite as immersive as going to South By Southwest Interactive 2015.

The first time I went to SXSW was 8 years ago. The social web was a wild west where new and interesting things were emerging, and, unless you worked in music at the time, you probably didn’t give a shit. (Myspace was still the social network running everything, so don’t even). Twitter didn’t take off until, in fact, SXSW that year, and Facebook wouldn’t do anything at all even remotely relevant to brands until a few months later. At the time this was all a ghetto called “new media;” I had a title with the words “electronic marketing.” Since then, the tech startup industry has become a major, entrenched, cultural establishment, disrupting and colonizing other culture industries like entertainment and music. The SXSW festival, because it spans Music, Film, and Interactive technology, has come to occupy a unique position on the venn diagram of these 3 main influences of contemporary culture. So here’s a few snapshots from where we are in 2015.



Pretty much all the highlights of my third SXSW trip that are fit to print, involve music, so we might as well just get the fun out of the way first.

Before I even got to Austin, the coolest flight I’ve ever had happened to me. I was seated next to an awesome, come up rapper from Miami, called Enoch da Prophet, whom you should listen to immediately:

We talked for a bit about how the new generation of hiphop (J Cole, Kendrick, etc.), is rebelling against the violence, materialism, and other stereotypical “bullshit” of what’s become the established hiphop mainstream in order to define themselves and their own, new sound and vibe. If this is what the future of hiphop sounds like, I am soooo into it.

The moment I landed in Austin, my major evaluative criteria for which otherwise indistinguishable tech-sponsored parties to attend quickly turned out to be based entirely on music. There were parties with performances and / or DJ sets by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Busta Rhymes, Nas, The Flaming Lips, and more — all as part of Interactive. You could tell the difference between Interactive parties and Music parties because the former all had nostalgia-wave acts with name recognition among middle-aged marketing executives. By contrast, if the people on-stage and mostly everyone else are in their 20s and more interested in dancing than networking and the majority of the visible badges people are wearing around their necks have the word “STAFF” on them and the air smells like Swisher Sweets and hash, you can easily tell you’re at Music.

Mostly, the event that lived up to and exceeded the anticipation I had for it was Odesza at the Spotify House. It was their first time playing SXSW, and they were super adorable and excited and totally rocked the shit out of everything and got everyone goin’ up at 5 pm on a Tuesday.

Also fun was the party at the W with The Jane Doze, where my best friend, Jason, was managing a bunch of mermaids. Jason lives in Austin and co-runs Sirenalia, which creates custom, high-end silicone mermaid tails. The startup-sponsored party had hired a few of the mermaid performers to hang out in the pool and be generally Instagrammable.



Jason and I spent a lot of time talking about parenting in the age of social media, since Jason had just become a father 8 days prior. There’s a lot to consider now, like what your general philosophy is going to be about how you treat technology and content sharing, when the subject of said content is your progeny. Kids don’t get to “choose to be online now,” Jason says, “any more than they got to choose to have a mailing address.”

In retrospect, Music (and also music) turned out to be a welcome, transportive reprieve from the relentless grind of Interactive.



On the plus side of what I got to see as part of the official Interactive programming was a talk by Martin Harrison, Planning Director at Huge, entitled,  “The Empathy Gap: Why Stalin Nailed Big Data.”

“One death,” Harrison quoted Stalin, “is a tragedy; one million is just statistics.” Basically, at a certain point the scope of violation becomes so massive that our minds kind of break at trying to comprehend it or calculate a just recourse. We literally can’t even. For example, in an experiment, people gave shorter jail sentences to food company executives who knowingly poisoned 20 people (4.2 years), than 2 people (5.8 years):

One of the most notable things about this talk was that it was so good even the questions asked by the audience at the end were legitimately interesting and extended the conversation (a phenomenon as unheard of as sitting next to someone relevant on an airplane). One of the questions was how can we institutionalize empathy within risk-averse organizations reliant on the dehumanizing safety-blanket of data? Harrison had some interesting thoughts about this, namely to do with having diversity among the decision-makers.

On the other side of the spectrum, I also went to a panel called Culture Clash: When Marketing and Product Converge, which I had actually been really interested in, not only personally, as this is the exact intersection of disciplines I’ve found myself straddling since launching Mirrorgram / SparkMode, but also from a macro, inter and intra-industry perspective. For marketing, this is the next big step in the evolution of the agency model — as Deutsch’s VP, Invention Director, Christine Outram says, “from ads that are designed to die, to ads that are designed to live” as products that people use every day. And for the product side, marketing is a critical capability to understand and embrace. What the ad world (at its best) has done for the length of its existence is seek to understand and leverage insights about human behavior. (Happiness is a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing… it’s okay. You are okay.“) This human competency is necessary to surf the culture currents and capture lifestyle opportunities in a way that just features alone don’t.

Spoiler alert, the above paragraph is not what the panel was about at all. At least not the first 20 minutes of it, after which my friend, Rachel Rutherford, the Co-CEO of fashion startup, Pose, said we had to go. It was hard, she said, to listen to what marketing considered to be product successes.


@rachelaubrey's shoe game tho…

A photo posted by babiejenks (@babiejenks) on


“Welcome to how the other half lives,” I told her.

But that’s kind of how the whole premise of SXSW is flawed, though, isn’t it? Because so few things really are the kind of marketing or product successes we’re all claiming they are — in one day I managed to attend two different presentations that both referenced the now half a decade old, Old Spice Guy campaign. But you can’t sell a $1200 festival pass on the reality that most of what attendees are going to hear is aggrandized to sound amazing, to look epic, to seem important, to be Instagram-worthy. SXSW Interactive has a mass hallucination to uphold. And you’ve got an expense report to justify. One talk for real included a slide titled, “So what do I need to tell my boss I learned from your presentation so my expense report gets approved?” —

FullSizeRender (1)

Ppl photo’d the shit out of that.



One of the most jarring things that happened at SXSW was at the start of the Flaming Lips show sponsored by Spreadfast, which was super cool-looking and also had the feel of being deliberately reverse-engineered for Instagram. At one point, Wayne Coyne literally stopped a song and restarted it because the audience participation on the lyrics call-and-response wasn’t up to par for the optics “for YouTube.” Later, when I relayed this story to my friends they insisted that Coyne’s way too punk rock for the whole thing not to have been a joke, and maybe they’re right, but here’s the thing…. no one in the audience got it. This is 2015. We do as many takes as it takes to get something share-worthy. It’s not a joke; it’s where we are now as a culture.

Everything feels inescapably more cynical now. One night at a party at the Handlebar, I was talking to a couple of guys from San Francisco. I mentioned that I’d used to live there, and they asked me the standard followup, “Where?” But I shook my head and said, “The question isn’t ‘where,’ it’s ‘when?'”

I lived in San Francisco in 2000. It was a totally different city then than it is now, 15 years later. One of the guys from San Francisco was working at a new mobile search app, or whatever. (The goal being to take away even just .5% of Google’s market share. #Innovation!) He was describing the environment in San Francisco now. “You go out to cafes or anywhere, and it’s just” — he hunched over, smushing his arms against his chest like a Tyrannosaurus, fingers manically typing from flaccid wrists. “Meep, meep, meep,” he said in a robotic voice, completing the pantomime. Then he lowered his hands and confessed, “I’m shitting on the situation, but at the same time, I work in this industry.” He shook his head, sighed into his drink, “I’m part of the problem.”

Earlier, at the W party with the mermaids, Jason was wearing a sailor hat to complement the aquatic motif. A guy walked up to him, his eyes darting back and forth shiftily, his voice so conspiratorially low I could barely make out what he was saying; a question that seemed too absurd and sketchy to be real. Jason smiled carefully, and shook his head.

“Did he just ask to buy your hat off of you,” I said as we walked away.


“Jesus. I thought he was looking for drugs.”

“I know.”

There was a relentless, transactional quality to SXSW Interactive interactions. You could imagine people picturing price tags floating above everyone’s heads like Sims character diamonds. Is that for sale? Is he for sale? Are they for sale?

I remembered an article I’d read a few months ago in Fortune, The Age of Unicorns, that began, “Stewart Butterfield had one objective when he set out to raise money for his startup last fall: a billion dollars or nothing. If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation for Slack, his San Francisco business software company, he wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a pre-IPO tech startup with a $1 billion market value was a fantasy. Google was never worth $1 billion as a private company. Neither was Amazon nor any other alumnus of the original dotcom class. Today the technology industry is crowded with billion-dollar startups. When Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee coined the term unicorn as a label for such corporate creatures in a November 2013 TechCrunch blog post, just 39 of the past decade’s VC-backed U.S. software startups had topped the $1 billion valuation mark. Now, casting a wider net, Fortune counts more than 80 startups that have been valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists. And given that these companies are privately held, a few are sure to have escaped our detection. The rise of the unicorn has occurred rapidly and without much warning, and it’s starting to freak some people out.”

On my last day in Austin I heard about Jumpolin, a local piñata and bouncy house store, that was torn down to make space for parking for a South by Southwest tech party:

The morning of February 12, 2015, Austinite Sergio Lejarazu was driving past his small business, Jumpolin at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez Street, on his way to drop his daughter off at school. That’s when he noticed something strange. Jumpolin wasn’t there anymore. He pulled over and quickly learned that his new landlords, Jordan French and Darius Fisher, operating as F&F Real Estate Ventures, had demolished the building that Jumpolin occupied for eight years. The building still had all the inventory, cash registers and some personal property inside. Sergio and his wife Monica say they were given no prior warning and were up-to-date on their rent with a lease good until 2017.

In the end, the sponsor wound up moving the party to a different venue anyway due to the controversy. (Although not before one of the landlords managed to make an analogy to cockroaches in regards to his tenants.)

Reading about this happening — for a festival, for a party for all of the entitled, out-of-towner assholes like me and you and everyone we know in our badge-holder echo chamber — I felt gross. We are all sighing into our free drinks now; we’re all part of the problem.

Beyond the impact of its output, undoubtedly the most pathological impact technology has already had on our culture is economic. The increasingly stratified division between the people who make a living in some technology-adjacent field, and everyone else. And worse — the way people in technology treat “everyone else.”

When you ask people if they’re from Austin, the real locals consistently add the phrase “born ‘n raised.” My best friend is one of these people. He moved back to Austin after a stint in San Francisco came to an end when he was no longer able to afford to live there. Now he sees “the Google glass people” moving to his hometown, “and they have nothing to contribute to the culture except money.”

It’s beyond a cliche now to talk about how San Francisco has changed. Living in LA (where we don’t have a non-exploitable culture anyway, ha ha ha), I’ve heard the conversation about San Francisco turning into Monaco humming away up north in the distance. But in Austin, it felt very real and present and metastatic — it felt like everywhere else would be next.

If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation, he wouldn’t bother… How much for your hat?…  Is he for sale?…  20 people… 4.2 years….

One city gone is a tragedy. The rest is just statistics.


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“Our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”
President-Elect Barack Obama

516 Years since Columbus discovered America.
232 Years since the first democratic government was established in the United States of America.
143 Years since slavery was abolished.
138 Years since black people got the right to vote.
54 Years since it was agreed that “separate but equal” was bullshit.
26 Years since the coinage of the Bradley Effect.
3 Days since Barack Obama was elected the next president of the United States of America.

Those Obama posters proclaimed “Change,” but I don’t think it ever really occurred to anyone, not even to his most avid supporters, just how sudden, and overwhelmingly personal this change would feel. In the past three days the most profound change I have witnessed has been in people’s perceptions. Perceptions of their personal identities, of their cultural identities, of their national identities, and their perceptions about the very process of affecting social change, and personal opportunity.

These changes that happened, literally, overnight, are undeniably going to be important in shaping the future of this country, and the world. So as every trend forecaster and futurist gets down to the task of figuring out how the result of this election is going to impact our culture, I offer these three-day old observations.

What Obama’s victory means for:

1. Black People – As Sherri Shepherd summed it up on the View, “People of color, we’ve always had these limitations on us. I remember, somebody in my family said one time, when I said I want to be a comic, and an actor, they said, ‘No, you will get a job at the post office. They don’t let people like us do that.’ And so, to look at my son and say, ‘You don’t have to have limitations’… It is an extraordinary day for me.” Unlike too many examples of black achievement in the past, Obama’s win does not signify an exception, but rather a symbol of opportunity for all people of color. The idea that there is only so far you can go if you are black, or that you can only succeed up to a certain point, has been shattered, and I think it’s possible that something in the very sense of black identity itself has been affected here. This is such a huge deal that it’s pretty impossible to really grasp the full magnitude of what this will mean for the future of the Black community specifically, and race relations in the in the U.S. in general yet.

2. GEN Y – Much like black people, I know, from personal experience, that the general under-30 population is feeling something right now that they’ve never experienced before either. The picture below was taken in the Mission district in San Francisco on election night:

Sean Bonner, who took the photo, later wrote, “19th and Valencia. One of the last places in the country I would expect a crowd of people waving American flags. But sure enough it happened. I talked to people today who said for the first time in their lives they hung flags in and out of their houses and finally understood what patriotism is all about. That’s kind of a big deal if you think about it.” It’s a huge deal. Think about this: The first election that my generation was old enough to vote for was stolen. All the other elections we’ve ever known involved George Bush. Neocons aside, the general population born after 1981 has never known what it’s like to not feel resentment and embarrassment about our country. We’ve never felt like our country reflected US, until now. As with the Black community, I think the impact of Obama’s win on the future of the youth of this country, and the future of our affect ON this country that we can now feel is ours to care for, is still unimaginable.

3. America’s perception in the rest of the world – A friend of mine who’s leaving for a tour in Europe next week said to me, “It’s going to be SO different traveling abroad now.” At first I wasn’t completely convinced. My dad has a joke. He says, “Anywhere in the world, Russians and Americans walk into a bar the same way. Loud and obnoxious. Americans do it because they think they own the bar. Russians do it cuz they think they can beat up anyone in the bar.” And it’s not like the way Americans walk into a bar changed with Obama’s acceptance speech. But something definitely did change. “I travel a lot,” Sean Bonner also wrote, “And I’m constantly faced with people from other countries saying ‘Well, you are cool enough but obviously you are the exception, the rest of your country must be idiots to have voted for that Bush guy.’ When I try to tell people that not everyone voted for him, and even people who did vote for him aren’t 100% down with his actions over the last several years, they usually scoff and point out if the country didn’t like him he’d get kicked out, so clearly people are behind him. That’s not something I heard from one person in one country, it’s a feeling I got repeatedly all over the world. The US electing Obama over McCain is a clear message to everyone else on this planet that the US isn’t happy with the leadership we’ve had and we want something to change. This is good for all of us.”

4. Politics – Politics–and I do mean the political process itself, not simply “being political”–is not just for your conservative, older uncle-in-law anymore. Politics is YOURS. Something really remarkable about the Obama campaign is that it offered an outlet for channelling that political youth energy that since the 60’s has been expended on efforts “outside the system,” INTO the system. (Counterculture is dead, after all). I think having felt cheated and ignored by the political process for so long made the prospect of trying to affect institutional change seem impossible. The low-hanging fruit of “personal growth” has all but replaced institutional change as the means for solving society’s problems. But at the end of the day, institutional change, is, in fact, the change we need. So will this new experience of feeling that the political process CAN be ours to affect motivate more of the activists of my generation to give it a rest with the protests-slash-street festivals, and instead put on a suit and tie and do the work it takes to create institutional change? Man, I would really fucking like to hope so.

5. Government – Have you seen this Government has NEVER looked like this before. Not just American government. Not ANY government. Fucking amazing! Yesterday, in a cafe, I was watching as CNN announced that Barack Obama had appointed his chief of staff, and I was riveted! Everyone else in the cafe was watching it too. It was the kind of scene that makes you think something terrible is happening on TV, but it wasn’t terrible at all, it was just the new president forming the new government…and it was fascinating! Maybe it’s just cuz it was day 2, maybe this interest in our government that we all seem to suddenly be possessed by will wane, but I’ve gotta say, before, I NEVER used to be interested. Not on ANY day. I think the initiative to run the government in a more transparent, responsive, open way will help to sustain our feeling of personal connection to and investment in the government, and help prevent all of us from slipping back into the general detachment we’d had from it up till now. Consider how a focus on a shared, mutual government vs. on self-segregated communities might affect the dismayingly polarized American landscape we’ve come to know.

6. The American Dream – In Generation Me, Jean Twenge suggests that my generation is too full narcissism and entitlement, that we’ve got massively unrealistic expectations, and we need to be made to face reality, and realize that our dreams are just that. Even for many who did not vote for Obama, there is an undeniable sense of something profoundly impossible having been achieved in his victory. It’s the kind of profoundly impossible achievement that is, and has always been, the hallmark of America, and Obama himself said as much in his victory speech. For those whose dream has been to become Britney Spears, perhaps you might want to take a cue from Twenge’s book. But for those of us whose dream has been about succeeding at doing what we believe in, at doing things our own way, about succeeding at doing the thing that brings us joy and fulfillment, Barack Obama’s victory is a testament to its possibility. The “American Idols” we have had to look up to for too long have either been utterly disposable, recast every season to feed the celebrity tabloid industrial complex, or otherwise icons of unattainable privilege and luxury (think: Paris Hilton). Barack Obama has worked his whole life for everything he has accomplished, and what he’s earned now is the responsibility to do yet more work. I really cannot remember the last time someone like this was an icon of the American Dream, and I can’t wait for a generation of kids who will grow up wanting to become like Barack Obama.


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how not to use condoms

I know the Trojan “Evolve” Campaign has been going on for a while now, but just recently something occurred to me that I hadn’t quite realized about it before.

The campaign started out last June, with the premiere of a commercial featuring women being hit on by a bar full of anthropomorphized pigs. It’s only when one of the pigs finally shuffles off to the men’s room, and purchases a condom, that he is transformed into a hot guy, and returns to the girl he was chatting up to find that she’s now suddenly totally interested in him.

In addition to the ad, whose message at the end reads: “Evolve. Use a condom every time,” the campaign also includes a website,, driven by celebrity and user-generated videos dealing with the subject of sexual health, the Trojan Evolve National Tour, a mobile, experiential campaign “Raising awareness and stimulating dialogue about America’s sexual health in towns and campuses across the country,” radio ads that deal with STDs as Christmas gifts (“How about Herpes? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” / “Would you like Chlamydia wrapped?” / “No, I’ll give it to her unwrapped.”) and more. All of this, hinging on the word “Evolve.”

“Evolve is a wake-up call to change attitudes about using condoms and, on a larger scale, the way we think and talk about sexual health in this country,” said Jim Daniels, Trojan’s VP of marketing. As Andrew Adam Newman pointed out in the New York Times piece, “Pigs With Cellphones, but No Condoms,” the campaign is an evolution for Trojan itself:

While Mr. Daniels does not disparage the company’s double-entendre-heavy “Trojan Man” campaign from the 1990s or similar Trojan Tales Web site today, the tone of the company’s promotions is moving away from “Beavis and Butthead” and toward “Sex and the City.”

“The ‘Evolve’ ad does a nice job of being humorous, but it’s also a serious call to action,” Mr. Daniels said. “The pigs are a symbol of irresponsible sexual behavior, and are juxtaposed with the condom as a responsible symbol of respect for oneself and one’s partner.”

Newman suggest that “The perennial challenge for Trojan and its competitors is the perception that [condoms] are unpleasant to use.” But I think, for a company that, according to A. C. Nielsen Research, has 75 percent of the condom market (Durex is second with 15 percent, LifeStyles third with 9 percent), Trojan oughtta have really known better than that.

“Over the last few years conservative groups in President Bush’s support base have declared war on condoms,” wrote Nicholas D. Kristof, in an opinion piece, also in the New York Times:

I first noticed this campaign last year, when I began to get e-mails from evangelical Christians insisting that condoms have pores about 10 microns in diameter, while the AIDS virus measures only about 0.1 micron. This is junk science (electron microscopes haven’t found these pores), but the disinformation campaign turns out to be a far-reaching effort to discredit condoms, squelch any mention of them in schools and discourage their use abroad.

Then there are the radio spots in Texas: ”Condoms will not protect people from many sexually transmitted diseases.”

A report by Human Rights Watch quotes a Texas school official as saying: ”We don’t discuss condom use, except to say that condoms don’t work.”

Last month at an international conference in Bangkok, U.S. officials demanded the deletion of a recommendation for ”consistent condom use” to fight AIDS and sexual diseases. So what does this administration stand for? Inconsistent condom use?

Kristof was posing this question back in 2003, while he could still add, “So far President Bush has not fully signed on to the campaign against condoms, but there are alarming signs that he is clambering on board.”

In the now almost six years since, the very subject of contraception has become as politicized as abortion, and the emphasis on condoms’ ineffectiveness has become a standard component of Abstinence-Only sex education. (You knew about that, right?) It’s even begun to affect mass media. In a written response to Trojan about why they would not air the pigs-with-cell-phones ad, Fox (which had aired prior Trojan ads) said “Contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy.” CBS refused to air it, too, and didn’t even offer further comment. Meanwhile, as paid advertising for condoms is being turned away, in the past few months I’ve seen at least two TV shows where characters made a point of mentioning that condoms don’t work: Fringe, and The Practice–a show about DOCTORS for cryin’ out loud! (Clearly, “First do no harm” must not apply to the practice of TV medicine.)

As a teenager of the 90’s, I’ve never known a world where AIDS didn’t exist, and where condoms were anything but an unequivocal necessity for “safe sex” (also a 90’s-ism that seems to no longer be in use, replaced instead by the millennial “sexual health crisis”). Sure, no one was going around preaching that condoms are 100% fail-proof, but in the decade when Magic Johnson and Greg Louganis both came out as HIV-positive, I can’t imagine any TV program deliberately broadcasting (or being allowed to get away with it), the kind of message that says, “Condoms don’t work. So why bother using them at all?”

As of 2006 the birth rate among 15 to 19 year-olds in the United States has risen for the first time since 1991 (that was the year of Johnson’s announcement). While teenage sex rates have risen since 2001, condom use has dropped since 2003. In other words, more teenagers are having more sex, and using less and less condoms in the process. But then, Jamie Lynn Spears or Bristol Palin could have told you that.

And so it is we find ourselves in a situation where Church & Dwight—the consumer products company that owns Trojan—is taking on what should have been the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services. Teenage or not, the U.S. apparently has the highest rates of unintended pregnancy (three million per year) and sexually transmitted infections (19 million per year) of any Western nation. (What the fuck?!)

“Right now in the U.S. only one in four sex acts involves using a condom,” Says Daniels. “Our goal is to dramatically increase use.” Then what in God’s name convinced the Kaplan Thaler Group, the New York advertising agency that created the “Evolve” campaign, that aligning condoms with evolution was the way to go about achieving this?

Cuz here’s the thing: The majority of Americans do not believe in evolution!


In fact, according to 2006 research in Science Magazine, out of 33 European countries where peolpe were asked to respond “true”, “false”, or “whuuuu?” to the statement: “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” the only country that scored lower on belief in evolution than the US is Turkey (Also what the fuck?!)

Disturbing as this unfortunate reality may be, this is the contemporary American Landscape, and pushing Trojan as “Helping America evolve, one condom at a time,” in the face of it, seems ludicrous.

Hell, why not just call the campaign “Darwin’s theory of contraception,” while you’re at it?

The biggest threat to condoms is not the perception that they don’t feel good. It’s not even condom fatigue. The biggest threat to condoms is the Christian Right’s propaganda that they don’t work, and the government’s, and much of media’s, wholehearted complicity. And it’s the same people who are waging a war on contraception that don’t like Evolution either. I don’t know about the ultimate impact that the Evolve campaign is effecting (or not), but in my view, if, as Daniels says, Trojan’s focus is on growing the market beyond the–pardon the irony here–already converted, and getting more people to use condoms, I think a completely different slogan/campaign theme would be the way to go.


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two kinds of people

“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”
– Robert Benchley

This election process is driving me crazy. I wish we could just pick someone already, and get the fuck on with it. I mean, yes, I do hope a particular someone gets picked, but the longer that keeps not happening, the more disturbing this whole having to root for “my” side, and having to hate the other side, and having to bear witness to an ever increasing enmity widening the divide between the two sides, thing is becoming. Is anyone else feeling worn out, here? And it’s no longer relegated just to the 24-hour news cycle anymore. It’s in, like, everything. Video games, porn, pumpkins! Tried choosing a cup at 7-11 lately?

It’s like Bloods vs. Crips gone wild out there!

Binary battle lines are permeating the atmosphere, and they’ve been seeping into everything I seem to be writing recently, too. From the “sluts” vs. “virgins” pop-culture war, to the schism in conservative vs. liberal moral psychology, to PCs vs. Macs even. That’s all within the past month. It feels like everything is being forced to become a dichotomy. Which is a really dangerous kind of trap to get stuck in, and it’s prompted me to take a step back, and examine this phenomenon itself, rather than end up writing yet another post that would inadvertently fall into the same pattern. What I’ve realized is–surprise surprise!–I have two very powerfully conflicting reactions to this polarization that will be holding our reality hostage officially for 3 more weeks, but whose legacy will linger much, much longer.

Wait, before I get in to that, I just want to say that I realize that it’s not like this election invented the social/cultural/psychological divide between liberals and conservatives that politics has been exploiting since who knows when, but I really do think this particular election season has galvanized it to a degree that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in the United States in my lifetime. A few weeks ago on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart suggested to guest, Bill Clinton, that “This election has apparently taken us all the way back to 1968 and the Nixonian and McGovern culture divide.” So it’s clearly not new, what’s going on today, but its degree of vehemence is not particularly familiar to anyone under 40, either.

Watching the preceding two elections go down, it had become increasingly clear that the left simply wasn’t getting it. It was like the nature of the electoral playing field had changed in some very crucial way, and the Democrats hadn’t gotten the memo. Which is why it feels like Barack Obama has offered a total departure from the kind of democratic nominees we’d gotten used to. People aren’t for Obama just because he’s the non-republican option. They are actually for what HE represents (which is, amazingly, a myriad of things to a broad spectrum of people, which he has, nonetheless, managed to bring together into a miraculously unified concept, and that unto itself is yet another aspect to his appeal), and they are for him in a fervent, decisive way that for the past 8 years has seemed to be the sole province of Republican candidates. So yeah, on the one hand, I can definitely say it’s been pretty gratifying to all of us who’d gotten tired of losing during that time, to watch the Democrats pull their shit together, and run a seriously strategized, legitimately competitive campaign. Booya. Bring it on. Go, team, go!

But here is what I personally find incredibly dismaying–even more than the right’s recent effort to cast Obama as a Muslim terrorist (I’m kind of surprised it took them this long), even more than the prospect of Sarah Palin possibly getting to make decisions about…. anything whatsoever (well, ok, dismaying on par with that)–is it’s precisely because Obama has been so successful at mobilizing the left, and the right has been forced to stake out even more desperately polarizing territory in response, that we’ve now gotten to a point where the cost of an election involves tearing the country limb from limb, first.

I said that this kind of social division that makes the air itself feel dense with tension is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in the U.S., but I have felt it somewhere else before: Jerusalem. There is a word in Hebrew that’s used for how Jerusalem feels–“Lachatz.” It literally translates to “pressure.” And in that city, that’s had contention in the air for millennia, that is, indeed, the right word. Like something intensely volatile, tenuously bottled up. In Jerusalem the binary conflict is ingrained, literally, into the walls, and it demands a constant vigilance of one’s affiliation. There are certain sections of the city where you are not allowed to go if you are Jewish, and others you cannot go to if you are Arab. Making sure you’re staying on your team’s side is not just a matter of politics, it’s how everyday life plays out. That’s what this election season, which has turned even regular, every-day actions into declarations of allegiance, is reminding me of. There’s this incessant perpetuation from all directions, whether it’s the media, or our friends, or slushie cups, of an us-vs.-them mentality, and I feel like it’s affecting how we think about everything right now, political or not.

Obviously, this is more or less inevitable when you’ve got a two-party election, and while it’s not like there’s anything that can be done about that situation now, I think it’s important to be aware, while we’re cheering our team on, of the underlying hazard in enjoying the polarization too much. Our human proclivity for this kind of binary divide is one of the most dangerous social situations that we can–and perpetually do–get ourselves into, and the massive eagerness with which both sides are relishing this particular battle is a little bit freaking me out.

Maybe it’s making me lose my sense of humor, too, cuz I totally can’t seem to find stuff like “McCain Be Old” to be funny… Or useful, for that matter. On that same episode of the Daily Show, Clinton said, “I’m glad [Obama]’s got people that love him that much. But those are not the people that hold this election.The people that hold this election are the people that think that he is on their side, and he loves them.” In other words, is it really necessary to incite alienation of people who could hold the swing vote, like, oh… you know… old people? Why not take a cue from Sarah Silverman instead, and shlep over to see your grandparents down in make-or-break-an-election state Florida? As Silverman says, “There’s nobody more important or influential over their grandparents than their grand-kids. You. If they vote for Barack Obama, they’re gonna get another visit this year. If not….”

As a marketer, I think one of the most crucial things to understand about people is just how diverse and nuanced the spectrum of identity and culture and personality is. In this long-tailed, custom-tailored, niched-up world we’re living in now, understanding the importance of approaching different groups on their own terms is the difference between success and irrelevance. Less than a month out from what I fully admit is the most important presidential race of my lifetime, may not be the time to start preaching plurality or diversity, or anything that could be undermining to in-group solidarity, but I think even through this process we do need to remember that with people things are not just black and white, or blue and red, or binary at all. One of the things that makes Barack Obama so appealing for me is that, as he himself acknowledges, as the product a Kenyan father, and an American mom, who was born in Hawaii, grew up in Indonesia, and became a Senator in Chicago, his mixed heritage has given him an understanding of America that is informed by a global, and uniquely modern perspective. That’s the kind of perspective that makes sense for the president of the United States when I think about the 21st century future not just of America, but the world.

Now, if we could just get through this election already…..


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