Friday, January 18, 2008

Review: Microtrends

Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes by Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne

“Many of the biggest movements in America today are small—generally hidden from all but the most careful observe.

Microtrends is based on the idea that the most powerful forces in our society are the emerging, counterintuitive trends that are shaping tomorrow right before us.”

It is this philosophy that Mark Penn is currently putting to use as he consults Senator Hillary Clinton during her current presidential campaign. Overall, the trends he spots—and the way he frames them—are interesting, if sometimes to be taken with a grain of salt.

Penn focuses on a variety of groups—single women, “working retired”, lefthanders, vegan children—that run the gamut. Throughout, he explains what he believes businesses (current and potential) and politicians can do with the data he has provided so that they can serve these near invisible, or underserved, populations.

One is tempted to take the trends he writes about and extrapolate (or infer) potential Clinton political tactics during the ongoing Presidential campaign. And Penn’s penchant for referring to President and Senator Clinton throughout the book only adds to this temptation (not to mention the endorsement by the former President).

He also can’t help but let his partisanship show every now and then. In his chapter on “Ardent Amazons”—women who are working in “traditionally” male occupations (firefighters, construction, etc.)—Penn cites a study that shows that women police officers are “substantially less likely than their male counterparts to use, or to be accused of using, excessive force.” In essence, he believes women make these professions kinder and gentler and that is a net “good.” But then he can’t help himself:

Of course, I wouldn’t generalize women’s strengths any more than I would their weaknesses. Sure, it was under America’s first female attorney general, Janet Reno, that the nation’s police forces became focused on “community policing” and preventing crime before it started. On the other hand, the first female national security adviser (and later secretary of state), Condoleeza Rice, helped pave our path to war in Iraq. And first female prime minister Margaret Thatcher deployed the British military more aggressively than any predecessor had in years.
That Penn uses a Democratic Attorney General (Janet Reno) as an example of the “good” and a Republican and a Conservative as the “bad” is one example of his partisanship. For instance, the same point could have been made—and perhaps more concisely--by showing the good and bad in one individual: Janet Reno. After all, wasn’t it she who showed (arguably) excessive force when she ordered the storming of the Branch Davidian compound?

But Penn isn’t always so partisan and there is a lot of data (he provides many of his sources, too) that is useful to anyone of every political or commercial persuasion. In fact, here is a partial list of some of Penn's more compelling points:

- Most parents think they are more strict than other parents. According to Penn, “they have at minimum redefined what strict is, and turned it from a belt on the behind to a swift chat on the chin.”

- “America’s elite—the wealthiest and best educated of our society—have become less interested in America’s economic and strategic challenges than they are in candidate’s personalities….today’s elites are so far removed from the mainstream concerns like health care, college affordability, job loss, and child care that most Americans face….While today’s elites are reading Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, the rest of America is living it. Just as college students have always had views that change when they get out and have life experiences, so today’s elites are like perpetual college students, far removed from the experiences and struggles shaping everyday American life. And so it is a lot easier to spin America’s elites than it is to spin the voters.”

- “While learning disabled kids span the spectrum of family incomes, it is practically a fad in the upper middle class. (Who else, after all, would spend serious time and money to find out why their kids are merely average?)…While regular folks may still see a stigma in kids’ disabilities related in any way to the brain, the affluent wear them like a badge of honor, aggressively explaining why their children undercompete.”

- “Unlike Mr. Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver, who got great respect, today’s Dad gets none. It is almost as though marketers see today’s society as an Amazon tribe, where women make all the decisions and men just go along for the ride….Men are spending more time with the kids, but neither Madison Avenue nor the media has picked up on it, and the potential of Daddy-and-me relationships remains untapped.”

- Grown ups are playing more video games and watching more cartoons.

- While the stereotype is that most home-schoolers are fundamentalist Christians, that is changing.

- More people are attending college—and more are dropping out, which is a waste of both current financial resources and potential earnings.

There is a lot more about which Penn has interesting and important things to say. Whether you ultimately agree with him or not, he gets the conversation started. Just remember, he's currently flacking for Senator Hillary Clinton, so have your salt shaker with you.


Tim Lacy said...


Thanks for highlighting the Penn book. In the U.S., life gets interesting when our political commitments, as in the case of Penn, mix with our professional work.

- TL

Marc said...

Thanks Tim. You got that right!