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Trading Places


Jerry Welsh 

To learn more about the author of this column, 
read the author's biography that follows.


Since politics in America has increasingly been trivialized into mere entertainment, a societal dilemma in the country has arisen:  namely, what would become of traditional entertainment. Fortunately and concurrently, it seems that a significant proportion of what used to pass for entertainment has become a method for promoting and selling things. So entertainment is now largely marketing, or simply commerce. 

Interestingly, things are working out nicely for those concerned about categorical distinctions.  It is only necessary that we formally re-label activities in our lives so we know in what realm we are operating at any given time. So, for the time being, it may be useful for us to consider politics as entertainment, and entertainment as business. Not a business, mind your own just business.

To begin with the recent phenomenon of politics tending to metamorphose into entertainment, I cite three probable causative forces in this process. First, the end of the Cold War and its inherent potential to affect our lives by ending them in a nuclear war, has taken much of the drama and human interest out of international politics. True, 32,000 children still die daily in the world; and people continue to slaughter each other and innocent bystanders somewhere in the world virtually without interruption; but these matters are, for Americans, largely someone else's affair. Distant death, unless televised, has never much bothered us.

Second, America's political and social challenges are growing, not shrinking; and the core problems, if not actually unsolvable, seem too difficult to face for contemporary American politicians, who appear to seek and value, above all else, their incumbency. 

Consider for example the obvious fact that the rich in America are getting richer, and the poor poorer, and more numerous. Unsurprisingly, the rich are reluctant to give more of their wealth for the common good, so the question becomes one of who is going to tell them it is vitally necessary for them somehow to do so.

Does anybody see a man or woman on the political landscape in America or approaching on the political horizon -- in whatever party -- likely to have the courage and credibility to give the messages that America needs to hear? We can laugh all we want at the self-serving antics of Donald Trump, but his simplistic plan to redistribute wealth in one fell swoop of a radically revised tax code -- while ostensibly unworkable -- is nevertheless directionally the right idea. 

To cite another example, many Americans, steeped in the deep denial made possible only by the best of personal intentions, believe that racism is largely gone in America, and that all men, women, and children in the country have a more-or-less equal chance to succeed. In well-documented fact and common experience, however, racism, sexism, and the neglect and maltreatment of children are alive and active in American life; and they are powerful forces working at the disintegration of American society. Before such problems can be addressed, however, they must be acknowledged. 

That's the basic problem, it seems to me: on a personal as well as a societal level, we deny the existence of those things we are
loathe to fix. 

Third, we have the powerful example of our current President. Whatever negatively can be said about his melodramatic personal problems, or positively about his stellar economic performance, one thing about Bill Clinton is clear: he is not, on any front, the willing bearer of bad news. And he has been stunningly successful in his Presidential career at avoiding a meaningful confrontation with unpleasant truths, relying instead on the conviction (which in others might be considered cruelly cynical, but in him seems utterly sincere) that politics is more about comforting people rather than upsetting them, so that political leadership, in this view, becomes the artful ability to confirm popular notions, even misguided ones, rather than working to change those public attitudes and behaviors which clearly hurt the common good.

Obviously, the lessons inherent in the political success enjoyed by Mr. Clinton have not been lost on our current crop of politicians. Al Gore is surrounded and presented to us by a growing number of spinmeisters, and George Bush is awash in hard and soft money. And Bill Bradley evidently wants us to believe that his wealthy supporters in the sporting world, in the banking industry and on Wall Street are the probable future leaders of, for example, a necessary re-distribution of resources and opportunity in America. And John McCain runs against his own record and political party as he crafts a smart candidacy as the ultimate outsider who, as Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, oversees the activities of a goodly number of the hard-core Washington special interests.

The gullibility even of those among us emotionally inclined to believe has its limits.

So now politics in the country has been infused with pure entertainment. Joining Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura in that realm where politics, outrageous behavior and off-the-wall attitudes co-mingle, we now have had the spectre of Donald Trump and Warren Beatty as potential candidates for President. They've got to figure that, if Bill Clinton can do it, why can't we. Indeed, on bad days, I'm afraid they can; but the issue is, could we as a nation survive if they did?

On the entertainment-as-commerce front, the recent spate of marketing agreements between film companies and other media companies and businesses, reveals that much of what used to be entertainment -- albeit sometimes with marketing overtones -- has become pure marketing and sales promotion parading in the rather transparent guise of entertainment.

The last James Bond movie, to cite but one example, was little more than a seemingly endless series of diverse product placements, punctuated by predictable special effects, and held together by a weak story line. And the recent James Bond/MTV extravaganza took the marketing madness to new levels of ludicrous effrontery. I can't believe they actually sold tickets to this movie; they should have paid viewers to sit through the barrage of commercial announcements this wholesale assault on our pocketbooks promised to be, and actually was.

Movies like An American Beauty, The Straight Story, and Shakespeare in Love may have been overrated as cinematic art, but I believe that their success is largely due to the happy surprise many viewers felt when they realized that these three films are neither mindlessly formulaic nor a thin disguise for a hidden marketing agenda.

It may be sad that we now tend to overvalue any entertainment premise that's not cynically manipulative or inappropriately commercial; but it's even sadder, for example, that it takes the Mayor of New York City, who presumably has better things to do, to reveal to the public the blatant commercial interests behind the current Brooklyn art exhibit, which came to town in the trappings of art for its own sake, but is leaving, I expect, in the attire of commerce. One can argue what is good art and bad art, but I see little room to dispute the allegation that its exhibitors inadequately disclosed the blatantly commercial underpinnings of the exhibit. And so it goes in other, even more well-known, museums as well.

I don't intend to be unnecessarily alarmist or unduly pessimistic when I assay a few of the often bizarre consequences of politics, entertainment, art, and commerce merging and often trading places; I simply think we need a societal scorecard to tell us who is playing in what arena. In other words, for the sake of the country, and for our collective sanity, we all need to know what's for real and what's for fun. The Fox network might want to give us a clue as to whether these impromptu marriages they
perform between strangers are for real, or just outrageous fun. Even after the fact, I still can't tell what they had in mind -- beyond ratings, that is. 

Finally, I must admit that the changes in categories -- even categories trading places -- may not be all bad: Jesse Ventura may actually turn out to be a decent governor; and there is arguably more legitimate entertainment value in Donald Trump's real life and in the prospect of his running for President than there will be in the next James Bond movie. 

It's just that we need some sort of insight into what the next circus is all about; and particularly, we need to be assured that, when the circus leaves town, the clowns will leave with it.


Jerry C. Welsh, President of Welsh Marketing Associates Inc., formed his company early in 1988 to provide national and international corporations which address marketing and communication issues of particular interest to senior management.

Typically, these concerns encompass corporate and product positioning, strategic planning and development, Marketing issues, sponsorships and special events, and innovative advertising/public relations activities.

Mr. Welsh was previously Senior Executive Vice President, Marketing and Strategic Development, for the E. F. Hutton Group, Inc., until its acquisition by Shearson Lehman Brothers. Prior to Hutton, he held the position of Executive Vice President, Worldwide Marketing and Communications, at American Express Company.

Mr. Welsh is recognized as the originator of Cause-related Marketing. Now widely practiced in the United States and around the world, this blend of traditional marketing and philanthropic appeal resulted in the well-known and extraordinarily successful American Express program on behalf of the Statue of Liberty restoration effort.

He is the first recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award (for Cause-related Marketing) from the International Events Group.

Other notable achievements during Mr. Welsh’s American Express tenure included the introduction of the Platinum Card, the successful and award-winning women’s marketing program, and a worldwide cause-related effort which provided needed funding for individual national teams during the 1984 Olympics.

Because of his extensive work with events and sponsorships in general, and with the Olympics in particular, Mr. Welsh is recognized as a leading authority on event and sponsorship marketing.

Mr. Welsh also coined the term and practice of Ambush Marketing, a name given to competitive assaults on ill-conceived and poorly implemented sponsorships.

In 1989, as President of Welsh Marketing Associates, Inc., Mr. Welsh devised and launched perhaps the largest single-company event sponsorship in the history of the United States on behalf of the Philip Morris Companies, Inc. This two-year event celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the Bill of Rights. This sponsorship included a 50-state tour of the Bill of Rights, arguably the largest non-military or disaster-related, corporate-funded logistical effort ever undertaken in the United States.

From November, 1995, until December, 1996, Mr. Welsh dedicated the majority of his free time to running Worldwide Marketing -- as a consultant -- for Ben & Jerry’s Homemade of Vermont.

Beginning in the Fall of 1996, Mr. Welsh was engaged extensively in a two-year project for Gateway Inc., the personal computer marketing giant in South Dakota. This work was designed to further the vision of Gateway’s becoming a leading seller of personal computers and a recognized relationship marketer.

Mr. Welsh is a frequent and sought-after public speaker and author of several important ideas involving unique approaches to marketing, branding, e-commerce, and corporate communications. His work has appeared in The Harvard Business Review, and he has been involved with the development of a number of American Express case studies included in that (and other) business school’s marketing curricula.

Prior to joining American Express in 1975, Mr. Welsh held a variety of university and college teaching and administrative positions. He received his undergraduate and graduate education at Vanderbilt University. Mr. Welsh is fluent in the Russian language and follows closely political and economic developments in Eastern Europe and in the states comprising the former Soviet Union.

In his personal time Mr. Welsh is an avid runner and motorcycle enthusiast. A six-time finisher of the Boston Marathon, Mr. Welsh was the first person from New York State ever to complete the Western States 100-Mile Run.

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