Steve Jobs: A Model Failure

October 25th, 2011

As a marketer, as a consumer, as someone who appreciates genius and beautiful design – as a human being – I was tremendously saddened by the death of Steve Jobs.

Every homage to him, every video, every shrine feels right and well-deserved.  But there is another side of Steve Jobs that is important, as well.

Steve Jobs was a failure.   Not once but several times over.   How about the Apple III?  It was so poorly designed that Apple suggested owners pick it up and drop it a few inches when it stopped working.

Or Lisa?  Now that was a spectacular failure.  Though significant in many respects, the grossly overpriced machine survived for about 18 months before it  was discontinued.  Apple ultimately dumped 2,700 Lisas into a Utah landfill to capture a tax write-off on the unsold inventory.apple lisa.jpg

That was, of course, after Apple had spent $50 million on developing Lisa.

Oops.

But of course, the ultimate Jobs “failure” was getting unceremoniously shoved out of his own company in 1985 by a more politically-astute John Sculley – a big-company executive.

And after getting dumped by Apple, NeXT didn’t do so well, either.

On and on.  Over and over.

“We Americans have a terrible habit of distilling stories of our great men and women into simplified and boring sound bites of success while ignoring the long, crooked, difficult, brave roads they took to realize that success,” says Augie Ray, author of a wonderful blog post called The Failure of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.  “We like to believe that success is what defines the American spirit, but the truth is the opposite:   failure is what defines the people who achieve greatness.”

I’ve been thinking about how many of us could or would have “come back” from the truly crushing (and very public) failures Jobs endured.  Thrown out of your own company?  A spectacular product failure?  His story is obviously unique, but size these disasters down to something that could happen to any of us and ask yourself what you would do.

How would you feel? Could you still be a leader, a seeker?

This is a dislocating time for many, and everything seems weird.  I would advise the average executive as follows:  be certain of what you care about, do something about it, and stay focused on what’s really important.  Know your story.  Believe in your story.  And just keep going.

When talking about getting booted out of Apple, Jobs once said, “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick.  Don’t lose faith.”

No one could have said it better or with more credibility.

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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executive Networking Group‘s blog, MENGBlend.

I was in a client meeting when an earthquake shook New York City a couple weeks ago.  We all stared at each other for a few seconds and waited for the building to fall down. When it didn’t, we went back to business.

Back to the same agenda, for sure, but not before the New Yorkers in the room had conjured 9/11.  The few, quiet comments didn’t turn into a conversation – no one wanted that – but the sickening feeling was there, in the room with us, as fresh and raw as ever.  Interestingly, the morning actually started with someone remarking that the beautiful weather reminded her of that lovely clear day almost ten years ago.  In New York, good things remind us.  Bad things remind us.  It’s just here.   All the time.

I personally was not in New York on 9/11.  I was in San Francisco, and the flight freeze meant I couldn’t come home.

I felt awful.  I wasn’t there when my city got hurt.  I wasn’t there when friends died.

When I finally did make it back, I took the 6 Train down to the Financial District alone.  I think it was September 21.  When I climbed out of the subway, I discovered a planet I did not recognize.  Crowds were everywhere.  People were crying.  Others were clutching photos of loved ones for whom they were still searching.  The sidewalk was thick with people, milling around, shouting to get each other’s attention, taking pictures, and generally contributing to the chaos.  I took five or six steps and just froze.  When I stopped, I could finally see the gray particles floating in the air, landing on my shoulders and in my hair.  It took me a few seconds to realize what they were.

It was the end of the world, and all I could do was stand there under a big scaffold, staring in the direction of a smoking hole in the ground.

I don’t know how long I stayed immobile, with the flakes wafting down on my sweater.  It must have been a minute or two because, as in some slo-mo movie scene, a cop seemed to emerge from nowhere.  He walked over to me, put his hand on my arm and said, “Are you OK, miss?  Do you need help?”  And then he stood there, waiting, as if I was his only concern in the world.  He maintained eye contact and just – waited – with the kindest look on his face.

Snapped out of my daze, I immediately said I was fine, embarrassed that I’d taken this guy away from others who were clearly in greater disress.

I have never forgotten that moment and never will.  That cop had everything more important to do, but he saw me through a huge mass of people.  He took a couple of seconds to care.  He put a human face on the inhuman.  I think he saved me, in a fashion, right there on the sidewalk.

I’m not saying that I haven’t paid attention to reality in the last decade, but that experience changed my view of the New York City Police Department brand, just a little bit, forever.

I have written before about tiny moments of truth that can make a huge difference.  Small gestures of grace, seemingly disconnected from the main event, which land with such a force (because the consumer expects so much less) that they have a material if not permanent impact on a brand’s ability to truly connect.

Look for the individuals who can do this for your brand.  Take care of them. Because in a stressful moment, you are not there, your CEO is not there, your PR is not there, your advertising is not there.  But that lone person is.  And for a customer, he or she may be all that makes your brand human:  something it seems the entire world could use a little bit more of right now.

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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executives Networking Group‘s blog, MENG Blend.

Will Donald Trump’s personal brand take a hit from all his recent tomfoolery?

Check out my second blog for the post, TRUMP IS JUST BEING TRUMPY.

Is Santa the best marketer ever? Perhaps.

Consider the evidence:

Long-term reputation management. No steroid use or bogus investment schemes here.  Ever.   

Take Coca-Cola with its 80-year investment in the big guy.  Do you think that Coke worries that a YouTube video will surface, showing 7-year-old girls making lead-laden toys in the Korean outpost of Santa’s Workshop Inc.? Not likely. 

And then there’s the third rail: do you think that Mrs. Claus has ever found “hundreds of texts” between Santa and that dumb blonde the Easter Bunny married? Or that’s she’s had to accompany her husband to the hospital for alcohol poisoning (paging Charlie Sheen – again)?

No, no and no.  Santa is one reliable dude. And he appears to do what’s right even when no one is looking.

Brand promise and the “continuous connected experience.” No matter where you go, you get the same reinforcing message from and about @SantaClaus.  Movies, television, email, social media, online video, radio, snail mail, retail – it doesn’t matter.   He has a booming voice, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he brings good stuff. 

And the other thing is… even if you bop from one medium to the other, you won’t lose your place.  Forrester calls this the continuous connected experience.  Santa is suggesting you be prepared to deliver your own in 2011.

Engagement.  Is there any experience more anticipated than Santa’s arrival?  And how about expectations met and exceeded? That’s unless you’ve been bad, of course, in which case you should consult the Terms and Conditions.

Accurate, On-Time Delivery.  Neither WikiLeaks, nor Chilean mining disasters, nor 0% interest rates will keep Santa from delivering the goods on Christmas Eve.  Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24.  Every year. And the idea of getting your neighbor’s gift by mistake is simply inconceivable.

Supply Chain Management.  You have to admire the man’s ability to manage his vendors, handle inventory, move the merch and turn on a dime.  Your kid decides at the last minute that she wants a Wii instead of the bike that Santa has already bought and loaded on the sleigh?

The Wii will be under the tree, for sure.

Never any hidden charges. There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers. There are no pending FTC rules in the pipeline. No small print.  Just because you get one set of skis, doesn’t mean that you’ve “agreed” to receive a new set every month (along with the bill). No nickel and diming. No charge for the second bag.

Santa’s pricing policies appears just perfect, in every product category ever invented.  And shipping is always free.

Brand advocacy. Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa and tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents.  Even adults will sometimes tell each other what they want from Santa.  The dude’s got an army of advocates carrying his message each and every year, and everyone’s happy to do it.

Wow!  That’s gonna be a lot of “Likes” on Facebook.  A lot.

No invasive pat-downs.  Do you remember leaving cookies and milk out for Santa, and then sneaking down the stairs just in time to see him putting your presents under the tree? Well, when he saw you, did he beckon you over, force you through a machine and feel up your naughty bits?  Or when he came down your chimney, did your parents do these things to him before letting him into your living room?

TSA does not stand for “Total Santa Aggression.” Personal respect is important to ol’ Kris Kringle.

Returns and Exchanges.  No problem.  While one of Santa’s elves may ask you to accompany him to the mall, that’s a small price to pay for better loot.

Long-term view of the customer relationship. Santa is committed to lifetime value.  If you’re a kid, he wants you to tell your parents and your grandparents and your teachers all about what you want.  He wants you to post what he gave you on Facebook.  He wants to take a picture with you and your friends at the mall.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.

Santa: the ultimate “circle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization. If you ask Santa for an iTouch, you’re going to get an iTouch. You might also get underwear and dental floss (paging my childhood), but he will be sure that your music itch is scratched. And if you state a preference, Santa is also highly likely to deliver an iTouch in the color of your choice. With the accessories you mumbled something about last March.

He invites you to be a vital part of his brand and help make the world a better place.  Be nice, get your gift. Be naughty, and you’re on your own. No anonymous troll behavior on the Web, no TMZ stories, no threatening or yelling. Everyone knows the rules, the rules don’t change and there are big rewards for all. Or not.

Brand benefits powerful enough to overcome controversy. Santa has a problem that few other brands ever experience: that is, some people don’t believe he exists! You may not like Red Bull, or Microsoft, or Kim Kardashian, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet.  And yet, Santa transcends even this existential challenge. Even those who say they “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand. Name me a pizza chain or a department store or search engine who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, customer service support…), but you get the idea.

I did think of one problem area this year: money management.  In his zeal to delight his customers, Santa does sometimes buy things he can’t really afford.  His heart’s in the right place, though, and I think a little executive coaching might do the trick.  I am confident that he will want to change once he understands the problem.

And so, as yet another December passes, perhaps we should all look to #Santa for guidance in the coming year. After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and a new, devoted customer is born every minute. I think most of us would be happy with that.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Marketing Executive Networking Group’s blog, MENGBlend.

It was my pleasure to be interviewed by Peppers & Rogers1to1 Magazine for a story on the evolution of branding.  My responses were folded into the article “Hasbro Gives Control of Its Brand to Customers” HERE

Below is an expanded version of my answers.  It’s a topic that’s at the very core of how I think about brands, communications and the marketplace.  I would welcome your thoughts.

I’m doing a story about the evolution of branding: particularly the growing influence of the customer experience in branding strategy.  How is branding strategy different now than it used to be?
The biggest difference is that a “brand” is something that marketers and companies are accustomed to controlling. In the past, a company sent all of the brand messages that general audiences heard.  Brands pulled the strings – they had all the information that was to be had, and so were able to manage consumer expectations and impressions. In that kind of world, an unhappy customer or supplier – or a disgruntled employee or competitor – could only reach as many people as were in his or her own circle of friends and associates.

Today, any individual can reach literally millions of people in real-time.  The message is whatever each person wishes it to be.  Even if that message is inaccurate or unflattering, its reach is almost limitless.  And a message someone posts can grow in influence as others pick it up and begin circulating it to ever larger circles – that’s how something becomes “viral” – which means that marketers have to be as viral as their customers, ever- vigilant and ready to address whatever comes their way from any corner of the world.

A quick example is Motrin. Motrin created an ad in 2008 that used an irreverent tone in an effort to sympathize with moms who have sore backs from carrying their infants.  This offended some moms,  Had this happened in 1988, you probably would not have heard about it unless you were personally close to one of these women.  Today, moms created and posted angry videos of their own online, the Motrin ad was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and thousands of comments were posted on Twitter alone.  And this happened on a Saturday, by the way: we’re on consumer time now, not brand time.  So same reaction, perhaps, as many might have had 20 years ago, but much bigger megaphone.

This is something that companies and marketing teams are not organized to address – and it exposes all elements of a brand, warts and all, 24/7.  Brands are no longer the shouters: they’ve got to be the listeners. For brands that embrace a conversational relationship with the market, this can be an exciting experience that ultimately creates even more respect and love for a brand.  But for marketers who are accustomed to maintaining a tight rein, there are fundamental challenges ahead.

Branding used to be a way to gain awareness to a mass audience. But tools like social media, more robust customer data, and increased online activity in general seem to be pushing branding toward more personal engagement. What are your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s an either/or: each makes the other better.  Better data helps companies spend their mass advertising budgets more effectively and more precisely, which in turn provides air cover for more personal, individual efforts on the ground.  But there’s no question that it’s always been somewhat difficult to measure the effect of many forms of mass media, and – as other customizable channels become even sharper – there will be even more pressure on companies and their media partners to “prove” value from TV and other big efforts.

Personal engagement has another effect, as well: it raises consumer expectations.  How many times have you heard a frustrated person say “but they know me!” in response to an email addressed in the wrong language, or to the opposite gender? Consumers now know that companies have all this data, and they expect to benefit from it.  How well this data is, in fact, applied may then have an impact on whether the market listens to any messages a brand might send in any channel.

How do trust and credibility play a role in branding strategy these days, and how is it different than before?
Everything’s laid bare now.  There is virtually no nugget of information that isn’t available with a quick Google search.  An employee can create a pseudonym, for example, and tell the world how things “really” work, or that a company is being misleading or untruthful.  There’s no way to hold things back, or sweep something under the rug anymore. 

This puts intense pressure on brands to be more authentic and more worthy of consumers’ trust.  Let’s say a company manufactures merchandise overseas in unacceptable or even illegal conditions: in the past it could continue to do so for years, if not forever.  Now that people walk the globe with high-speed Internet access and cell phones that capture video, those times are over.  And if a company does get “caught” doing something today, these dynamics make the blast exponentially more damaging.

Where do you see the future of branding headed?
I’m hopeful about the future. My own professional community is full of marketers who understand that a brand is no longer corporate IP that needs to be policed and protected: it’s the beating heart of the enterprise. Instead of being talked at, consumers want to talk with a brand, and see the very human passion behind what you sell.  That can be scary, but it’s also pretty darn exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to getting there?
One of the most difficult challenges is the uneven level of understanding and expectations of those who surround the marketer: the CEO, the CFO, the pressured head of sales and the Board, to name a few.  Executives already know what television advertising or print is, no explanation needed.  There’s comfort in that.  There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about dipping into a world that looks a little crazy, to do something a brand’s never done before.  And the road won’t be smooth: it’s already difficult to explain why something “negative” that’s said online is par for the course and why the brand must continue to engage, not back away.  I am very empathetic to the people on both sides of that table.

Any other thoughts?
For those who already know that good ideas rarely come from sitting behind a desk and who get charged up by listening to product users, prospects and partners, this is a great world.  Assuming a brand is being authentic, there is no real “bad” feedback – there are only lessons that help make you better and better.  There’s going to be plenty of trial and error, but this is all about getting closer to your customer, and that’s a great thing.

 

In A Fog

September 1st, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

There’s been a bit of a scramble among brands seeking to leverage AMC’s popular series, Mad Men. BMW is one of the largest and most frequent sponsors, prompting an auto site to gush, “BMW’s underwriting for Mad Men is mad marvelous.”

Maybe so. After all, the series is about an advertising agency and the supposed glamour of the post-War period, all glowy and wistful. It’s an unusual opportunity to create a fresh and fun message… IF it makes sense for the brand.

BMW did two things right. First it aligned itself with the overall je ne sais quoi of the show: the ambience, the characters, their lifestyles, their appearance, their tastes, the physical environment. That provides a very broad base upon which to construct an association. BMW is already an upscale, luxury brand, so this association is more of a positive reinforcement than a flat-out creation.

Second, this attachment is even further strengthened because BMW’s ads run during the episodes themselves. As the show transitions almost seamlessly from content, to commercial, and back again, the company and its cars place themselves directly alongside the target of their (and your) dreams. The viewer sees both in the same sitting; the brain experiences both in the same moment. The connection is made in real time.

London Fog‘s new Mad Men-related ads, on the other hand, miss on both these counts.

Unlike BMW, London Fog’s owner, Iconix, chose to bet all its chips on one single character, Joan Holloway (aka Christina Hendricks). This demands a plausible or at least believable connection between what the product and the individual represent, which is not present here.

Today, London Fog is generally utilitarian, functional, male (androgynous?), classic (tired?) and generally unremarkable, while Hendrick’s Joan is nearly the polar opposite: voluptuous, sexy, powerful, womanly, stimulating. She’s brightly-colored cotton candy in a dress. When you watch the show, her sexual presence makes her nearly every man’s fantasy at one point or another. She’s unattainable, like a rare luxury item.

London Fog is the opposite. By its own admission, the brand has far-flung distribution and high consumer awareness: it holds little mystery, no magic, no unattainability. Mad Men‘s Joan would not wear a London Fog, and no woman (consciously or unconsciously) believes that she will be “more Joan” by wearing the brand. The effect is double-whammy, given that the clothes (which might look fine on “normal” people) appear boring, dull and awkward draped on Hendrick’s frame. The two zeitgeists are just too far apart.

Iconix may have thought that Joan’s essence would rub off on the product. And, prior to Hendricks, Iconix enlisted Eva Longoria and Giselle Bunchen for its ads, presumably with the same objective. The problem is that consumers cannot make brand connections that aren’t there or – worse – pulling in opposite directions.

Forcing an otherwise adequate brand into an environment that makes it appear inadequate is sad and unnecessary: an embarrassing kind of brand dissonance that can do the brand more harm than good.

Lastly, the Joan ads do not have the benefit of being absorbed in the same moment as the story itself. The connection failure is particularly dramatic when experienced in the middle of a fashion magazine, surrounded by circa 2010 fashions, photos and messaging.

Managing a brand – particularly one trying to meld a perhaps very different past with the present – is a fine art. The brand steward must have an unblinking grasp on what the brand is and is not, what it might become, how fast such a change in direction might be made and how to begin. If that direction is wrong, or the speed too fast, the desired messaging won’t find its target and you may needlessely displace the neutral-to-positive feelings most people have about the brand in favor of all the characteristics the brand does not possess. It’s work grounded in an almost DNA-level of understanding of brands, consumer desire and human behavior.

Most brands have positive if not wonderful attributes to emphasize. Show yours in its best light. Avoid whatever might be hot right this second if it just doesn’t fit, and create an environment in which the product can truly shine.

Mojo readers know that I follow two wise marketing/business cartoonists and like to share their work once in awhile. On my second blog, Marketing Observations Grown Daily, it’s David JonesAdland. Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp.

Both offer observations that – in a very tiny space – say volumes about just how goofy this business can be. 

As you might expect, this is not the first time I’ve posted one of Tom’s cartoons about social media.  Enjoy!

Is Santa the best marketer ever?

Think about it:

Long-term reputation management: No Tiger Woods problems here. Ever.  Do you think that Coca-Cola worries that it might go to sleep one night and wake up to find a sex tape of Santa on the Web? Have you ever noticed that the whole “Mommy kissing Santa Claus” business never seems to go past a certain point (paging Charlie Sheen…)?  Nope, not gonna happen.  Santa is one reliable dude.

Brand promise and channel integration: No matter where you go, you receive the same disciplined message.  Movies, television, email, radio, social media, Web, snail mail, music, retail… You get the same message everywhere and each channel builds upon and reinforces the others.  He’s big, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he gives you what you ask for on Christmas Eve. Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24. Every year. The end.

Never any hidden charges:  There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers.  There is no small print.  You are not likely to be subscribed “accidentally” to a magazine simply by unwrapping a gift beneath the tree.  Santa’s pricing appears to be entirely above board. And somehow, shipping is always free.

mom-reading-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpgBrand advocacy: Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa, tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents… Santa has a virtual army of adults carrying his message each and every year, in the exact way that will have the greatest positive impact on each individual child.  Wow!

Long-term view of the customer relationship: Santa is committed to NPV, and everyone’s NPV is BIG.  If you’re a  kid, he wants you to tell other kids what he gave you.  He wants you to talk to your parents and grandparents about what you want.  He wants you to bring your friends to meet him.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.  Santa: the ultimate “cycle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization: If you ask Santa for a bicycle, you’re going to get a bicycle.  You might also get socks, but if a bike is your preferred method of transportation, you won’t get a wagon by mistake. Further, Santa is very likely to build the bike in the exact color you specify. 

A message of “giving back” that’s attainable and not too sanctimonious:  Be nice, get your gift.  Be naughty, and you’re on your own.  No chest-beating, no lectures, no threatening.  Everyone knows the rules, and the rules don’t change.believe-in-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpg
 
Attributes powerful enough to overcome controversy: Santa has a problem that I don’t think any other brand has ever experienced – that is, some people don’t even believe he exists! You may not like a brand like Reebok, or Microsoft, or Hanes, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet. And yet, the core attributes represented by Santa transcend even this existential challenge. Even those who “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand.  Name me a pizza chain or a department store or TV manufacturer who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, efficient manufacturing, distribution and customer service support…), but you get the idea.

Though another Christmas has past, perhaps we should all look to Santa for guidance in 2010.  After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and he never loses customers.  I’d be happy with that.

For more marketing thoughts and ideas, check out my second blog at Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

gucci-sunglasses-stephanie-fierman.jpgA recent article made me think back to a post I wrote last summer titled “Stephanie Fierman Likes Plastic Gucci Sunglasses – And Is OK With It.” The post says that experts who say that not-rich consumers are essentially duped into buying luxury goods are missing a large swath of buyers who know exactly what they’re doing: that is, buying fun, knowing full well that they could buy functionality at a far lower price. Hence, Gucci vs. $10 plastic sunglasses I can buy on the street. Plastic is plastic. But that dopey logo represents an indulgence a reward – for which I am sometimes willing to pay full freight.street-vendor-stephanie-fierman.jpg

BusinessWeek outlines the efforts of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and author of the book Predictably Irrational, who has spent the past year trying to figure out the forces that drive people to cheat (paging Bernie Madoff…)

Ariely’s very very boiled down conclusion is that individuals who are not directly faced with evidence or reminders that what they are doing is wrong are more likely to plow ahead and conversely, those who are reminded are less likely to do so. He describes a couple of experiments he used to try to measure “deception’s slippery slope.”
* Subjects who knowingly wore faux designer sunglasses later cheated twice as often on an unrelated task than those wearing authentic goods – take the first step and it’s that much easier to take the second.
* Get an auto insurance applicant to sign his name on the top of the application rather than the bottom, and he will be more honest about his driving habits – put the consequences right in someone’s face and you’re likely to get “better” behavior.

Here’s a TED video of Ariely talking about why people think it’s ok to cheat:

This has extreme ramifications and potential opportunities for luxury goods manufacturers like LVMH who spend a lot of money and time drawing attention to the costs of counterfeit goods.

Part of the problem is the arguments these companies use. Does the average woman – out with her friends to have a little fun on a Saturday afternoon without a lot of money – have any sympathy when the luxury companies are described as the chief victims of counterfeit buying? I don’t think so.

But what if these manufactures took a different tack, promoting the fact that buying faux fuels organized crime and following it through with stories of what these same criminals did with the $30 I paid for a fake Chloe bag? It certainly wouldn’t be possible in all venues, but could some of these firms visit places like Canal Street in New York and engage directly with potential buyers about the consequences of buying fakes? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen. I’ve seen local TV and newspaper stories about how a luxury company has done a raid with local law enforcement… but never a company interacting directly with consumers at the street-level point of purchase.

If was looking at a table full of fake Tiffany merchandise and given proof of the spot that my money goes to fund terrorist groups, what would I do? Would I stand there and think of the two friends I lost on American Airlines Flight 11? I believe I would – and I think I’d walk away from the table, and tell my friends about the experience.

The Guccis and Tod’s and Burberrys of the world need to find a way to debunk the idea that buying fakes is a victimless crime, and they need to do it as close to the moment of impact – the moment I’m about to buy that fake Cartier watch as possible.

Yesterday’s New York Times book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell‘s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture was, I thought, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. [If you cannot see a video about the book below, click HERE.]

The author’s well-researched hypothesis is that we are either ignorant of or – in many cases – simply choose to ignore the profoundly negative, corrosive effects of needing to have everything cheap, cheap, cheap.  The article’s primary example from the book is shrimp, which went from an expensive treat to something you can get at any cheesy seafood chain restaurant nearly any night of the week on the “all you can eat” menu: a phenom fueled by so much greed and artificial chemicals that what they should serve at our tables is the resulting “pollution and toxic waste,” with a side of the “ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute” in Thailand and other countries.

Yummm.  Pass the garlic bread.

But do Americans care?  Lower food prices at Wal-Mart are impressive because, even if you never set foot in one of its stores, its mere presence drives down food prices in the surrounding area.  Hurray!  Forget about the fact Wal-Mart’s brand-name food items aren’t all that much cheaper, in fact, and how do you know that that chicken isn’t cheaper because it’s of lower quality?  What we do know is, well, all the things we know about how Wal-Mart has historically kept its prices down. 

These practices are why I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  But I’m in the minority.

And has this obsession American’s have with inexpensive goods damaged us in macro ways that are now coming home to roost?  When prices are too low, innovation is nearly impossible, reports a Harvard economist. 

Paging General Motors. Oh, and this moribund company is already “out of bankruptcy?!” Paging the U.S. government…

The only true major American innovation outside of Apple that’s gotten any real attention… has occurred on Wall Street.  And we all know how well that’s going for millions of people.

So I’m worried.  There are a lot of executives who have generated a lot of shareholder value by sticking the low-price needle into our arms… and consumers like it.  Now we’re in a recession, which is likely to compound the effect: many now have no alternative but to shop for the least expensive goods – and others use it as a sadly understandable reason to reverse course and cut back.  People are worried, and conserving:  I’ve seen several studies where people say they’re cutting back on “values” purchases, such as “green” and organic goods for example.

Where does it end?  What do we care about the most?  The U.S. is consistently on the wrong side of global lists of developed countries ranked for homelessnessobesity, high school graduation, health care quality… and we’re the biggest polluter in the world.   

There’s a lot of chest-beating on television about the national debt.  “We’re saddling our grandchildren with crippling debt! Gahhh!”  What about what we’re doing right now – what we care about today?