I’ve been working on a theory lately about why Sarah Palin is still so popular and how this relates to the way people view advertising. You see, I think that part of the equation with Palin, (and this is likely a subconscious thought) is that there’s a strong feeling on the part of most of her supporters that all the experts, all the smart guys, all the pundits and gurus and PhDs have messed up. That despite their stellar credentials, they’ve managed to do nothing more than lead us into the morass. So that a Disney-movie heroine can’t actually do any worse. And if her entire foreign policy experience is limited to the ability to see Russia from her house, that doesn’t really put her at a disadvantage compared to the guys with Harvard PhDs in Islamic Studies who still can’t seem to find Osama Bin Laden or figure out a way to keep the Muslim extremists at bay.
Now I realize why this is a flawed theory, but I suspect for a large number of Americans, it’s the math they do to get to “Palin is okay.” And it’s the same calculation they use when deciding to trust Mary Rose from Paducah, Kentucky and her review of a Mr. Coffee machine on Amazon over the brilliant and persuasive copy and clever imagery in the latest Mr. Coffee ad.*
You see, they’ve been lied to by clever and persuasive ads before. Fell for products that were supposed to make them slimmer and hipper and younger and happier, but didn’t. And so now they’re tired of ads. Sixty years of Bernbachian advertising has made it difficult to remember which product is "the hip one" this week. So the messages all start to blur. Every consumer product is for the young and hip, everything even remotely related to technology works faster and frees you up to… use even more technology. It’s all become one giant blur.
Now Mary Rose from Paducah may not know much about coffeemakers and her review, even if it’s favorable, would likely not pass muster with a coffeemaker expert of even the Mr. Coffee client. But at some level, we get the sense that she can’t mess up more than the experts already have. That maybe she’s hung up on the shape of the handle, which is something we’d never notice, but that’s no better or worse than the actual ad for the product which focuses on the new and improved taste of the coffee, which is something we’ve never noticed either. That, and the fact that Mary Rose's opinion on the handle feels like an opinion, whereas the "new and improved" bit feels like a lie.
Now I suspect this is all just a shakeout, and that soon enough people are going to want to find experts again, people to help them sort through all the information that’s out there that they don't have time to sort through themselves. Only this time they want the experts to have different credentials. And that for many people, being a self-possessed hockey mom is credential enough for a job they feel the so-called experts have proven to be incompetent at as well.
*I'm just using Mr. Coffee as an example here. I can't remember the last Mr. Coffee ad I've actually seen.