|IS IT POSSIBLE TO BE TOO WELL-INFORMED? The very idea seems counter-intuitive, and yet as market research gets better and better, the way we use what we know changesand its not clear that thats always for the better.
When both sides come so close to absolute foreknowledge of what every action will produce, however, it becomes next to impossible to justify a move that might alienate someone you already have on the chance it will win over someone you dont. The result is that both parties hug their bases like swimmers hugging shoreline; Bush would have no more said something to scare Focus on the Family than Kerry would have said something that might have kept a single unionized teacher home. The candidates start the race almost dead even and spend the entire race hunting for the tiny thing that might dislodge a single percentage point their way, without disturbing the all-important base.
The result is that the 60-40 landslide, once a normal feature of elections, has basically been focus-grouped out of existence (the last one happened in 1984). Well, better to lose by 2% than 20%, right? But its blowout losses, like Barry Goldwaters in 1964, that produce the sort of soulsearching and innovation that reinvigorate parties. A party that won 49% will keep looking for the charismatic politician who can gain it that one extra point. A party that was slaughtered at the polls will reinvent itself wholesaleand in its desperation it will generate lots of risky new ideas, one of which might be the seed for an entire new movement.
The result is that commercial radio is now perfectly adapted to the tastes of its existing listenersand basically unbearable to anyone who isnt already in that group. Which is fine, as long as nobody invents, say, a portable music player with a hard drive, or a satellite radio system with 150 channels, or any other device that will do to FM what FM did to AM.
Old school direct guys have long had a way of forcing innovation back into the process, by constantly testing small cells of new creative or offers to see if something from left field can knock off the existing champ. (It happensa few years back I did a piece that dethroned the control at MCI.) Thats a start, but advertising, like music or politics, is also a part of the broader cultureand there are some cultural phenomena (Beatlemania, Ross Perot suddenly making deficit hawkishness a viable position) that just cant be tested on any sample smaller than the whole culture. In those cases, for something new to break in requires someone with the guts to look at the numbersand then say, What the hell, lets do it anyway.