Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic – Millennium Overkill: Too Much Of A Good Thing

If you’ve been looking forward to the peak of millennial fever, I have some bad news: You may have missed it.
Of course, the actual event, when it finally arrives, should be pretty wild. But it’s so long in coming that fatigue has set in. If you’re looking for the height of millennial anticipation, the party was over in 1998.
That was the year the Y2K Chicken Littles were in full cry, warning of the coming collapse of techno-civilization as the triple zeroes drove computers to a nervous breakdown. The travel industry jacked up prices to watch the sun rise over the pyramids or to cruise over the international date line.
When 1997 ended, we were told that if we hadn’t already made our reservations at a restaurant or with a caterer for the Big Night, we’d be stuck at home celebrating with a bag of chips and Dick Clark. The trademark office was inundated by applications from ambitious entrepreneurs eager to claim ownership of millennial tags like “Year 2000” in the hopes of attracting official sponsors.
But with a little less than 200 days to go, the anticipatory excitement and/or dread seems to have topped out. In the face of slack demand, the tour companies have begun lowering the prices of those year 2000 jaunts.
The latest bulletins from the war on the millennial bug–in the U.S. at least–have been encouraging. We’ve been reassured that the stock exchange will work, Social Security checks will be issued and airplanes will not fall out of the sky (though don’t try flying from Moscow to Irkutsk).
Even more important than official statements are the quotidian signs. Like millions of other Americans, I have used a credit card that expires in 2001 hundreds of times without causing a meltdown of the global financial system. What me worry come 2000, as long as my credit card works?
Along with a rising complacency is just plain boredom. Is there any field of human endeavor so obscure or thankless that hasn’t been treated to an obligatory 100 best/most important list? It seems we’ve been saying goodbye to the century for, well, a century.
I knew the millennium-as-marketing hook was DOA when I first saw the “Official Candy” spots for M&Ms in 1998. Flattering the marketing insider every consumer fancies himself to be, they featured the animated candies pitching the CEO a preemptive millennial sponsorship, timed to grab the thunder before the hordes of marketers descend on the year 2000. Clearly, the prospect of millennial marketing was so numbing it was ripe for parody before it even happened.
This long-goodbye syndrome is not limited to phenomena like the millennium. One of the lesser recognized effects of our cluttered media environment is that it tends to prolong events. That is, intense competition for our eyeballs drives the media to pounce on coming events sooner and flog them endlessly. The result is that the most feverishly anticipated events, such as the premiere of The Phantom Menace, tend to be “over” before they even take place.
Consider the current presidential campaign. It wasn’t that many decades ago that presidential campaigns started on Labor Day. Now they start on Memorial Day–the year before the election. It is a cruel irony that the more the American people profess utter boredom with politics, the longer the political season gets. And it’s not as if the extra time devoted to selecting our next commander-in-chief means more opportunity for conflict, debate and suspense.
To the contrary, the prolonging of the event pushes the decisive moment further away from the decision making itself, turning the months between the anointing of the front-runners and the election into an interminable snore for everyone but the fundraisers.
Thanks to the “front loading” of the primaries, this will be truer during this election than ever before. Imagine once the primaries are finished in early spring, the long, empty contest between George W. and Al Gore: the vague versus the bland.
Six months of jokes about Gore inventing the Internet! Six months of watching Bush’s war chest grow like a lottery jackpot! My eyelids grow heavy merely contemplating it.
Yet who can blame so many states from competing against Iowa and New Hampshire to secure a say in a contest that, in the minds of many, is already decided. As those wily M&Ms knew so well, the more prolonged the buildup to an event, the more important it is to be first. Wait too long and you’ll be engulfed by clutter.
The Olympics have taken that lesson to heart. Its marketing season now routinely begins a year before the event. Is it mere coincidence that both the Olympics and the presidential election happen every four years? Soon, these †ber-events will seem to last four years as well.
As for the millennium, the good news is that once it finally arrives, it’s a blessed thousand years until the next one.