Friday, February 08, 2008

The Homeland Security Hoax

I spend a lot of time analyzing, articulating and -- well, let's face it -- just plain bitching about brands, branding and brand strategy, the general lack of which forms the basis of all the miscommunication in the known universe. Okay, that may be overstating it a tad, but to a great extent, I find the reason why so many people don't understand what other people are saying is due to the fact that the people initiating the speech aren't really saying anything to begin with.

Sure, there are taglines and slogans and catch phrases designed to sound as if something important is there. But more often than not, once you peel away the verbiage, there's absolutely no content of any real value. Barack Obama can chant all about change as much as he wants, but I have yet to meet an Obama supporter that can articulate even one aspect of those changes Obama claims the nation so dearly craves.

And it's not just him. In fact, it's not just politicians. In my book The Revenge of Brand X, there's a section I call Saying Something, Meaning Nothing that explains all of this. I don't have to bore you with it here. What I would prefer to bore you with is the tactic I use to pierce the puffery to which the American public at large is exposed on a daily basis.

The tactic is as simple as it is old: Never judge people -- or their brands -- by what they say as by what they actually do.

Now that two centuries of good old American optimism has been undermined by our Culture of Fear, it seems that no matter where you look, there must be some kind threat. Indeed, I've been witness to the profound shift in marketing from Be the first on your block to Don't let this happen to you. Fear is a great motivator, but it's even better at debilitating and freezing people in their tracks, lest they make the wrong move which leads to their demise.

The move from "can do" to "better not" has crippled our notion of risk, with fewer people thinking they can realize their dreams and more people thinking of how they can be sued if they try. And nowhere is this more telling than with our very own Department of Homeland Security.

If you're as big a fan of the truth as I am, the first thing you have to question are the inconsistencies of a brand's claim. The Department of Homeland Security would have you believe that there's a terrorist hiding under every American's bed. The truth, at least according to a well-known Israeli terrorism expert, is that there are fewer than 10,000 active terrorists on the planet. To put that into perspective, there are over 6 billion human beings here. Which means the chances of you -- or anyone else -- bumping into one of these terrorists is less than your chance of getting zapped by lightning over ten times on the same day. Way less.

But maybe you're not one who fancies the statistical argument. Maybe you're more skeptical of numbers that can be manipulated to prove an argument. Alrighty, then, let's take it down a notch. Let's take the threat all the way down to where you and I and every other ordinary citizen can feel it: Let's go to the United States Post Office.

Assume, for the moment, you want to ship a paperback book weighing two pounds (32 ounces) to someone across the country. If you're like most people, you would wrap up the book, slap on the appropriate postage and drop the package in the mailbox. The only thing is that within a day, the package wouldn't arrive at your friend's mailbox, it would arrive in yours, because owing to the Department of Homeland Security's edict, any package weighing over 13 ounces must be hand-delivered to a United States Post Office and handed to a mail carrier. You can't just drop it in a mailbox. The reasoning is that any package over that weight could be "suspicious."

Okay. I can accept that someone, somewhere on the government payroll abstracted the numeric equivalent of a mail bomb to be anything over 13 ounces. But here's what I have trouble with:

If anything over 13 ounces is considered a viable terrorist threat by the Department of Homeland Security, why is it that Federal Express, DHL, UPS and just about every other overnight delivery service has no such requirement? Every one of these companies is just as American as the United States Postal Service. Just as big a target. But Federal Express, DHL and UPS don't have the one thing the United States Postal Service has: subordination to a bloated government agency of questionable authority.

With any of those other services, I just drop my package in their drop boxes. No bomb threats. No extra hassles. No superfluous fanning of unwarranted anxieties.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that the United States government protects me around the clock. I'm glad they keep AWAC planes and electronic surveillance and lord knows what else up and running on a 24/7 basis. That's their job. That's why I pay my taxes.

What I don't need is their play-acting and promoting a culture of fear that's designed to spur a security industry that has no real problem to solve and doesn't even begin to solve the true threat at hand: the elimination of the perpetrators of that culture.

If you want to look at a brand's credibility, don't listen to what they say. Watch what they do. And pay attention to that man behind the curtain.