Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Jesse Jackson's Branding Meltdown

When you've been around the business as long as I have, you get to see a lot of great brands being born. The only trouble is, you get to see a lot of great brands die, too. Actually, that's not the only trouble. The real horror is watching once-mighty brands decay. To see one breaking down in real time, one need look no further than to the midwest, where we join the meltdown of Reverend Jesse Jackson, already in progress.

There are some of you reading this who never knew a life without online access. There might even be a few of you who can't remember life without fax machines and MTV. But I assure you, there once was a time before technology kept prompting you to look over your shoulder. There was a time when nobody had a cell phone to capture police beatings, upskirt shots or air show disasters.

Of course, even before the age of invasive video, there were such things as TV cameras, microphones and sheer human stupidity. This would be about the same time that one American electrified black audiences and terrified more than a few white ones with his ability to raise political awareness in direct proportion to the volume of his rhetoric. That man was Jesse Jackson.

To you Obama fans, the off-air/on-mike racist comments of an old, tired black social leader is no big deal. So what, you might say, if this ancient relic from the sixties dished out some street trash in the studio. But you'd be missing the big story here. Back in the sixties and seventies, Jackson was a political and social icon. The man mobilized millions, instilling African pride in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, fighting for justice wherever he could and for publicity whenever he could. Okay, he was a showboat. But he presented America with the first legitimate image of political black power.

It was Jackson who launched the first credible effort to elect a black president -- and he did it more than one time. In fact, it might be fair to say that if it hadn't been for Jackson's shouting, Obama wouldn't be waxing quite so eloquently today.

But just like General Motors, Maytag, Kodak and a host of other great American brands, Jackson reached the point at which he no longer felt he had to nurture and sustain it. He came to believe his own invincibility and his hubris began to eat away at his virtuous image.

He fathered children out of wedlock. His political and social movements deteriorated into shakedowns of private and public enterprises -- one of which resulted in a lucrative beer distributorship for one of his sons. Jackson soon turned to the dark side, forsaking his conscience for personal gain and losing his following until all he had left were his greed and ego.

This week, Jackson was caught off the air (but on mike) threatening Obama's own social programs and referring to his own people as niggers. Not the hip-hop "niggah" that still sends a shiver down my spine, but the real, old-fashioned boy-is-that-racist term.

And this from the guy that stood by the side of Martin Luther King.

People might be thinking about how to punish a guy like Jesse Jackson, but I assure you, he won't get anything near the treatment they gave Don Imus. In the long run, there's really no need to punish Jackson anyway. He's suffering enough, doomed to live in the past for the rest of his life.


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