Blogging the Bookshelf

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"Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes", Mark Penn

June 26th, 2009 · No Comments · ICT, Over-Rated, Politics


Synopsis: In/famous Clinton pollster, Burson-Marsteller CEO and Bowser look alike claims that small-scale, niche trends, identifiable through statistical analysis, are the key drivers for societal change. A long bow, stretched WAY too far for its own good.

My Take: Love him or hate him (and let’s face it, most people hate him these days), Mark Penn has played a pretty central role in progressive campaigning in the US over the past 15 years. As on e of the most influential pollsters/strategists of the Clinton wing of the Democratic party, Penn can claim to have contributed to the successes of Bill Clinton (in particular his identification of “Soccer Moms” as a key demographic in the 1996 US Presidential election), and the relative failures Hillary Clinton.

Microtrends is a bit of a microcosm of the good and the bad of Penn’s tactics in particular, but also pollsters and strategists in general (here’s a link to the Introduction). In a narrow sense, the basic principle of the ‘Microtrend’ is both sensible and important, if not revolutionary to any seasoned campaigner.  Penn reasonably defines a ‘Microtrend’ as:

a small but growing group of people, who share an intense choice or preference, that is often counterintuitive and has sometimes been missed or undercounted by the companies, marketers, policymakers, and others.

He similarly quite sensibly identifies the importance of these groups to political campaigning:

The art of trend-spotting, through polls, is to find groups that are pursuing common activities and desires, and that have either started to come together or can be brought together by the right appeal that crystallizes their needs.

It is those groups that can tip an election, make or break a business, or trigger a social movement. They make a huge difference, and yet many conventional commentators on society either don’t see them or deny them outright.

All of which I agree with. All too often political analysts confuse popular support for an issue with vote changing support. 15% of voters who are willing to change their vote on a single issue can be far more politically important than 85% of voters with an opinion on an issue,

Further, the 75 ‘Microtrends’ that Penn identifies are both amusing and illuminating. The book is probably worth reading just for these case studies. Incidentally, there’s a reasonably good promotional Facebook app you can run to see what ‘Microtrend’ you’re likely to fall into which is moderately amusing.

However, things start to go seriously astray when Penn begins to apply this sensible observation as a catch-all explanation of ALL social and political movements. For example, Penn claims that:

The whole idea that there are a few huge trends that determine how America and the world work is breaking down. There are no longer a couple of megaforces sweeping us all along. Instead, America and the world are being pulled apart by an intricate maze of choices, accumulating in “microtrends” – small, under-the-radar forcse that can involve as little as 1 per cent of the population, but which are powerfully shaping our society… Small is the new big.

This is where Penn loses me. It’s one thing to say that many people are strongly motivated by niche concerns that are common to few other people. It might even be fair to suggest that as a result of the emergence of a fragmented, ‘new media’, these ‘microtrends’ are more important than in the past.  However, it’s entirely another thing to say that there aren’t equally important, broader, society wide influences on voter behaviour.

In fact, it’s ironic that this book was released in the lead up to the 2008, US Presidential election, an election in which a single mega-trend, the mass voter movement towards the ‘Change’ represented by Barack Obama, largely determined  the outcome. You only have to read his claims in Microtrends that:

There is no One America anymore, or Two, or Three, or eight. In fact, there are hundreds of Americas, hundreds of new niches made up of people drawn together by common interests.

to see how out of touch Penn was with the US Electorate in 2008.  The fact is that electorates are more than just the sum of the individual interests of the various groupings within it. There are common issues (patriotism, justice, change, security) that cut across niches and influence votes across the electorate. Penn makes the fundamental consultant’s mistake of believing his own bullshit in Microtrends and as a result, blows their influence totally out of proportion. Which is a shame, because ironically, in a narrow sense, Microtrends has a lot of small, but interesting points to make.

Highlights: Some of the more interesting Microtrends Penn identifies:

Extreme Commuters

Among the millions of Americans driving to work every day, you’re pushing the limits (with 3.4 million others) by travelling more than 90 minutes each way. Whether it’s out of necessity or desire, you’ve taken discipline to the extreme, waking up at or before dawn to get to work. And you’re a key, niche consumer — you need ways to eat in the car, study in the car, and be entertained in the car. And boy are you interested in comfortable seats!

Caffeine Crazies

Life takes some extra energy, no? Lately you just can’t perform at your peak levels without a little help from those turbo-caffeinated, super-energy drinks. You’re part of a growing group who knows those drinks just fire you up for all the work and fun you’ve got to get done!

DIY Doctors

The biggest trend in American healthcare is DIYDs: Do-It-Yourself Doctors. These are people who research their own symptoms, diagnose their own illnesses, and administer their own cures. If they have to call on doctors at all, they either treat them like ATM machines for prescriptions they already “know” they need, or they show up in their offices with full-color descriptions of their conditions, self-diagnosed on WebMD.

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