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The Sunday Times: Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrows Big Changes by Mark J Penn with E Kinney Zalesne

EXTRACT: He is also the chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, (part of the British-based WPP Group), a public relations firm that in the course of its career has been retained to winch some sensationally grimy clients out of the mud, such as Union Carbide after Bhopal, the Argentine military junta and Royal Dutch Shell after some very poor publicity in Nigeria.

THE ARTICLE

October 21, 2007

Reviewed by Aledander Cockburn

Mark Pennâ€s America – the America of Microtrends – is a bright-eyed, mostly upbeat world. As he bowls along, Penn tosses market-researched stats and polling data like confetti, and soon the reader is spattered with golly-gee micro-measurements: growing numbers of home knitters (“knitting is very hip”), decline of baseball fans, burgeoning population of vegan children, rise of women archers, longer bestselling books, more college-educated nannies, a surge in employees in the nonprofit sector, more kids who are cross-dressers and who, Penn says brightly, “are triggering a large, new tolerance movement in schools and communities”.

There are no Columbines in Penn’s index, no Goths intolerantly spraying the schoolyard with machine-gun fire. Why look on the dark side when Penn’s researchers excavate the news that there are more left-handers, hence – Penn boldly claims – the probability of more da Vincis. Now that’s a microtrend worth savouring. The factoid lies on the page, awaiting an entrepreneur and a business plan. Will some niche “trep” (teen entrepreneur – a microtrend) change the zipper seam on guys’ trousers, so lefties can unzip with their left hands? Will guys wear trousers? Will there be any guys? Yes, says Penn, the long-term trend is towards more guys, hence more gays.

“Part of the reason I love this work,” burbles Penn about his polling, “is that every day I find out some new aspiration, hope or concern people have, and I get to help my clients shape their products and messages based on these findings.” The people who find it easiest to contact Penn to communicate their aspirations, hopes and concerns are the people who can afford to meet his hefty bills, meaning the rich and the powerful, starting with Bill Gates and heading on through Silvio Berlusconi, the nuclear industry, Monsanto and other clients in need of image refreshment.

Penn’s polling played a crucial role in Bill Clinton’s recovery from the nadir of mid1993, when he joined Team Clinton as part of the rescue party summoned by Hillary and headed by Dick Morris. Penn has been joined at the hip politically to Mrs Clinton ever since, as a prime adviser during her successful senate bid and now in her drive to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. He is also the chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, (part of the British-based WPP Group), a public relations firm that in the course of its career has been retained to winch some sensationally grimy clients out of the mud, such as Union Carbide after Bhopal, the Argentine military junta and Royal Dutch Shell after some very poor publicity in Nigeria.

“We live in a world with a deluge of choices,” Penn exults, in a characteristic paean to modern times. “In some sense it’s the triumph of the Starbucks economy over the Ford economy. . . Starbucks is governed by the idea that people make choices – in their coffee, their milk, their sweetener.” It’s the way Bill Clinton used to burble on, using research briefs and polls concocted by Penn and Morris to persuade Americans that with Bill at the helm the nation would be on the cutting edge of innovative thinking and performance. Actually, in terms of their respective products Fordism offered a lot more choices than Starbucks. In the mid1950s, the options available to the purchaser of a Chevy Bel Air four-door sedan were infinite, from a rainbow of paint and fabric combinations including a paisley pattern roof. The shapes and styles of the cars were prodigious in their baroque variety. And the cars were often cheap. As for Starbucks, the company’s basic signature is overroasted beans, and its core achievement is to have people fork over £1.89 for a cup of coffee. Starbucks is a predatory franchiser and its arrival in any town usually heralds the extinction of existing small cafes and diners. Its signage, across America and around the world through 13,000 outlets, advertises not Penn’s “customised, personalised products” but unending repetition.

In the tapestry of Microtrends the spotlight is not on America’s awful health system with more than 40m uninsured, but on Do-It-Yourself Doctors (DIYDs). Penn tells us “it’s the biggest trend in American health care”, spearheaded by women and the young and promoted by Penn and Burson-Marsteller, working diligently for the pharmaceutical companies whose products, freed from the trifling restraints of a doctor’s prescription, will be at the disposal of the DIYDs in the chain stores. Thus do microtrends find their due place in the great scheme of things.

MICROTRENDS: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes by Mark J Penn with E Kinney Zalesne
Allen Lane £25 pp426

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/history/article2677334.ece

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