Not that the citizenry isn't talking. On the contrary, the men and women on the street are ready as ever to offer opinions on any topic. The problem is, their likes and dislikes are colored by an anxiety that blots out facts and obscures reality. Put simply, there is a gap between what frightened people say and what they actually believe.
Take the case of Hillary Clinton. One year ago, the thought of a president's wife who wanted power--and who would know what to do with it once she got it--did not play well in focus groups. Americans have always been uncomfortable with the influence of First Ladies on their husbands, even when exercised under the guise of traditional wifely support (think back to Nancy Reagan's reign as the Wicked Witch of the East Wing).
Throughout the presidential campaign, the Republicans played to the Hillary Issue while the Democrats played around it. She became the symbol upon which Americans projected their worst fears. Even after the Clinton handlers gave her a midcampaign makeover, softening the image of the future First Lady from independent-thinking lawyer to traditional housewife and mother figure, the public remained wary.
At campaign stops, she smiled, shook hands and stood the regulation admiring distance from her candidate husband, doing nothing to provoke hostility. She virtually snuck into the White House in a Trojan horse: a chocolate chip cookie bake-off with Barbara Bush designed to soften further the image of this openly powerful woman.
After the election, when Hillary settled quickly into the West Wing, reporters dug up press secretaries to First Ladies past who warned, from bitter experience, that she would never get away with it.
But she has gotten away with it, and more. Her appearance last week in Congress--scene of her earlier triumph as star witness for the healthcare plan that is the centerpiece of her husband's administration--only serves to drive that home.
The point, of course, is that the public never really feared Hillary. Rather, it transferred its discomfort with the present into a dread of the future. And when that future was not realized--she turned out to be an integral part of the Clinton administration team, not a threatening White House dominatrix--earlier poll protestations went out the window..
For most Americans who saw the First Lady's marathon turn before Congress, the image of a woman reporting on the results of a work project seemed, well, perfectly normal. (That doesn't go for some of the congressmen, however, who lobbed softball questions and then acted as if they'd never before seen a woman give well-informed answers.)
Delegating authority to women or taking direction from women is an everyday occurrence in the workplace for millions of Americans. Offices and factories are filled with competent, intelligent women, many of them married, who make important contributions. Is there any reason why the president's wife shouldn't be among them? Bill and Hillary are that social commonplace, the two-career couple.
And now that fear has been dissipated by reality, the once-politically unpalatable Hillary has even become a political asset. Over the past few weeks, newspapers and magazines and television news-shows have regularly featured photos worth a thousand words of Hillary, flush with that post-congressional-hearing glow. There she is, in the company of middle-aged, male politicians. In one, she's sharing a laugh with a seemingly enchanted Republican senator. In another, she's hitting the campaign trail for key Democrats. And all of her photo partners are eager to stand feminine-cheek-to-elder-statesman-jowl and bask in the reflected light of her progressive aura and 61% approval rating.
In these cynical times, Hillary may be the most effective symbol of the possibility of change, because she is proof that the world has changed-- even for those Americans who don't like it. In a mere 12 months, she has gone from political hot potato to photo-op queen.
The lesson for advertisers and marketers--of both people and products--is as obvious as it is unsettling. Woe to those who fail to heed the fears of an anxious public. But even greater woe to those who take a frightened focus group or random sampling at its word. To paraphrase the husband of another well-known First Lady, the issue is fear itself.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)