Franklin D Roosevelt
32nd President of the United States
March 4, 1933 – April 12, 1945
FDR was the first sitting President to fly in an airplane. In 1943, he boarded a military transport from Miami to Morocco for a conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
This is part of the FDR monument in Washington, DC. I’ve seen it. It’s inspiring. What makes it “so special” is that it shows the President in a wheelchair … because, of course, people wouldn’t “accept” that until now … because we’re so much more enlightened. However, there’s a problem with that storyline. People did know about it back then. They simply didn’t use it to judge him. I wonder? Which group of us is more “enlightened?” Hmm. I have an opinion on that…
. . .
Yes, the American public knew FDR had a disability. No, they didn’t care.
. . .
I cannot imagine the sheer terror in Franklin Roosevelt’s mind.
In August of 1921, Roosevelt and his family had been vacationing at Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada. Even in the summer, the waters around the border between Maine and Canada are frigid. On Tuesday, August 9, Roosevelt fell in the Bay of Fundy. No big deal. A vigorous and physical-active 39-year-old, FDR laughed it off. The next day, as if nothing had happened, he had a full day – chasing his children, doing chores, and even battling a small fire. Like his cousin, Theodore, FDR loved the active life. The outdoors defined his family legacy.
By that night, however, FDR began to feel like crap.
We’ve all been there, right? A bad cold was coming on, and he knew it. He had the chills. He wanted to throw up. He had muscle pain … especially in his lower back. Out of character for Franklin, he skipped dinner and went straight to bed.
Unlike a bad cold, however, his condition would not improve.
A catalog of the coming days shows a frightening deterioration in FDR’s condition. In the first hours, he spiked a fever. He had weakness in both legs. By Wednesday evening, he couldn’t move one of them. Fast forward another couple of hours, and the other leg was becoming weak. By the next morning, both legs were paralyzed. His fever remained above 102 degrees Fahrenheit. He couldn’t bear the touch of clothing; the pain was that severe. Breezes coming from the window to help keep him cool triggered agony. He could not urinate without catheterization. He could not defecate without enemas. Diagnoses were inconclusive. Treatments (such as they were) proved agonizing. FDR was mildly sedated, frozen in place, and delirious from fever.
It was now the following Monday. This was no cold or flu. Something was very, very wrong.
Let’s pause here for a moment, please.
I’ve skimmed over FDR’s life in the years before the moment he found himself sweating and near death on a rugged island on Canada’s Atlantic coast. To properly understand FDR and his mindset, it’s important to add a bit more of that context. As we’ve noted, FDR was a cousin of the former President, Teddy Roosevelt – a beloved figure at the time who loomed large in American politics of the era, and even larger for Franklin. He had a lot to live up to, and he seemed to be doing it.
TR was vigorous. FDR was vigorous. TR was brought up in privilege. FDR shared that privilege. TR fought for the average person. FDR would do the same. TR would serve as Secretary of the Navy. FDR too. TR served as New York’s governor. FDR filled the same chair. It didn’t take a genius to see the parallels. FDR was following in his cousin’s footsteps. The next step was President. FDR seemed on that path as well. Everything was going his way.
In a sweat soaked bed in a cottage near the ocean, FDR faced a fate worse than death. He would fail to live up to his expectations. It may seem difficult for most people to understand his perspective, but for his entire life, FDR was groomed for greatness. And now, it was all over.
His body had failed him. And deep down, I think he knew it.
The diagnosis was polio, specifically, poliomyelitis, and even less specifically, “infantile paralysis.” That last part is instructive. The disease struck young children the most frequently and most severely. Without any treatment (or a vaccine – that would come decades later), polio terrified parents. That Roosevelt was diagnosed with the “infantile” (read: childlike) version of the condition wasn’t unusual, but it could point to a misdiagnosis. Later physician historians would claim a better diagnosis was Guillain–Barré syndrome, a different degenerative neurological condition that better matched the symptoms. The correct diagnosis doesn’t matter in FDR’s story. Neither condition was treatable.
Now, back to the story.
After a grueling months-long battle, FDR came out of the acute phase of his illness. What lay ahead was years of experimental treatments and ineffective therapies. During the years following the onset of his illness, FDR retreated from public life. He remained in tremendous physical pain, and even worse, emotional pain.
Politically, Roosevelt was “lucky” to miss the 1920s. A time of general economic prosperity, FDR’s populist message would have been a tough sell on the American people. He had lost an election as the Vice-Presidential candidate in 1920, and he was not keen to repeat the experience. He would spend the early part of the decade attempting to recover both physically and mentally. He would be successful only on the latter front. He would never walk again.
FDR would struggle mightily to maintain some ability to present himself in public. He wanted a political career back, and he would attempt any treatment to achieve it.
During the back half of the 1920s, Roosevelt would fight his way back into the political scene. Though not recovered – he would need braces to stand and a wheelchair to get around – he learned that he could campaign and persuade convincingly. In 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, Roosevelt would be elected governor or New York. His activist approach to addressing the crisis stood in marked contrast to Hoover’s more patient approach. In 1932, he would win the Presidency in a landslide. FDR would go on to win an unprecedented (and not repeated) four terms as President. He guided the country through the depths of the Great Depression and the upheaval of World War II. He transformed the psyche of the country in the process.
Quite the quick summary, huh? Entire books have been written about single phrases in the paragraph above. I won’t attempt to go any deeper than this. I’m more interested in one of the most persistent myths in all American Presidential history: FDR’s physical disability. No, I’m not claiming he wasn’t paralyzed, but rather the myth that the American people weren’t aware of it.
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Like many myths, this one has a grain of truth to it. Perhaps, more than a grain.
In an age before television, Presidential appearances were carefully stage-managed affairs. FDR’s press secretaries would not allow President to be photographed in a wheelchair. If a reporter happened to snap a photo at an inopportune time, that camera and film were … ahem … dealt with. The offending reporter would not be allowed back. Journalists who asked about the President’s physical condition were curtly told, “It’s not a story,” and given no further information. If pressed, they would refer to earlier physician reports that showed Roosevelt did suffer from polio, but that he would “recover fully” in time. Visitors meeting the President would find him already seated behind his desk. Advance teams built ramps discreetly behind buildings so that the President could enter without people seeing him. When FDR would rise to the podium, he would lean (heavily!) on at least one aide.
But once FDR flashed his trademark grin – a smile that captivated in much the same was his cousin Teddy’s did – and especially once he began to speak – all was forgotten. People were enthralled by one of the most persuasive politicians – most persuasive people – in American history. That FDR couldn’t use his legs was a closely guarded secret that few knew, and no one discussed.
Why all the secrecy?
The standard storyline goes something like this: Roosevelt’s political career could ill-afford a perception of weakness. This was the Great Depression and World War II, for crying out loud! Since the founding of the Republic and the Civil War, this was perhaps the most dangerous time in the country’s history. Its Commander in Chief must be the paragon of strength. What’s more, polio was terrifying – images of the “iron lung” and the word “infantile” in FDR’s diagnosis were images no politician wanted associated with their career. In many areas of the country, so-called “Ugly Laws” remained on the books; these were restrictions on what “crippled” and “retarded” people could do, and the role they could play in society. And finally, this was a different generation of people. Today, we might be obsessed with a politician’s private life, but back then, we weren’t. There were things you just didn’t talk about. It was a more stoic era. More reserved. There were boundaries no one would cross. If FDR wanted to hide his paralysis, he not only could do it, he had ample reason to.
It all sounds convincing, doesn’t it?
The problem is, it’s not true. At the very least, it’s not even close to the full story. And when you know that story, you’re forced to come to a very different conclusion.
Let’s examine additional evidence.
. . .
The press absolutely knew, and they did report on it.
Reflexively, we believe the media was somehow “kinder and gentler” in years past, especially before television, and especially before the internet. However, ask any historical journalist: That was not true. The popular news magazines Time and The New Yorker showed photographs of FDR in a wheelchair in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression. Fast forward to the eve of World War II in 1941, and Life published its own wheelchair photos. Does this sound like a mass media avoiding the issue? Not to me. Perhaps most striking, however, was a 1931 Liberty article. The 1934 and 1941 pieces were published after Roosevelt became President. The Liberty piece, as you’ll note from the date, was published during his first Presidential campaign. Its title read: “Is Franklin D. Roosevelt Physically Fit to Be President?” A bit cryptic. They could mean anything, right? The first sentence of the article would clear up intentions: “The next President of the United States may be a cripple.” Liberty was among the most popular and well-respected publications of the time. No, the press might not have harped on FDR’s disability at every opportunity, but they didn’t ignore it either.
Opposing politicians knew it.
How could they not? Political campaigns of that era (and any other era, really) aren’t run in absentia. Gone were the early days of the Republic where candidates for high office allowed surrogates to campaign for them. FDR was on the campaign trail. He debated other opposing politicians. He was seen by tens of thousands of people in the New York race alone. Yes, surrogates played a role (especially his wife Eleanor), but FDR didn’t hide. And if you believe opposing politicians were more congenial in those bygone days, they were not. Rumors, lies, innuendo, sabotage – those strategies were just as common then as they are now. Politics is, and always has been, a brutal power game. It’s notable that even Henry Luce – FDR’s fiercest rival – didn’t choose to make a big deal about Roosevelt’s paralysis. Perhaps he thought it would backfire? That’s a reasonable assumption, and perhaps a correct one. But it’s not because opposing politicians were ignorant about the President’s condition.
World leaders knew it, during wartime.
Again, how could they not? Churchill wrote about it. Stalin did too. Hitler didn’t mention it, though German propaganda floated some messaging to that effect (“a physically broken person who is constantly venting his hysteria,”) … but they never lingered on the topic of FDR’s disability. The closest any world leader came to making an issue of FDR’s disability was Italy’s Mussolini: “Never in the course of history has a nation been guided by a paralytic.” But again, he didn’t dwell on it, and that phrase was uttered in frustration, and not part of a strategy. Wouldn’t you think that enemies (or frenemies in the case of the Soviet Union) would have made a bigger deal out of this? It’s wartime. An “enemy” leader who’s too weak to walk sounds like propaganda gold. I think we’re starting to sense a pattern. More on that later. But again, it’s not because they didn’t know.
Soldiers knew it.
In World War II, basically every adult male had some role to play in the war effort – a majority of them directly in combat operations that put themselves in harm’s way. Many, as we know, came back broken and maimed. Following a tradition set by every President since George Washington, FDR visited soldiers in the hospital – lots of them. His visits there weren’t stage managed. He rolled in; he didn’t walk in. He wanted to show the soldiers (many of whom were struggling emotionally as much as physically) that they could live a full life – maybe even become President! – without the use of their legs. Do you think those men weren’t transformed by that experience? I suspect they were. To think the public “didn’t know” about Roosevelt’s paralysis seems unreasonable to the point of silly.
Hundreds of people in his clinic in Georgia knew.
In 1926, FDR purchased a rundown resort area in Warm Springs, Georgia to transform it into recuperative center for persons with paralyzing disabilities. Hundreds of people would visit the center as part of their treatment that included physical exercise, experimental treatments, and group counseling. Here’s the thing: FDR was there too. He visited often, and during those times, was fully open about his challenges. He would get in the pool. He would visibly struggle. He would encourage children. He would coach adults. He changes the lives of dozens of people on a deeply personal level. It’s not as though the people who visited the clinic didn’t go home to their communities. It’s not as though this clinic was a secret. It’s not as though these patients signed a non-disclosure agreement. And, um, the President of the United States founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (better known as the March of Dimes), a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting infantile paralysis – aka polio.
Seriously. He fucking promoted his disability!
And to take the cake…
In 1944, he said so to a live session of Congress
Here is the exact quote:
Members of the Congress, I hope that you will pardon me for this unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say, but I know that you will realize that it makes it a lot easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs; and also because of the fact that I have just completed a fourteen-thousand-mile trip.
The American people knew. There’s little doubt of that.
. . .
Historians credit FDR’s experience in giving him the empathy to see the country through the suffering of the Great Depression and World War II. I don’t disagree with that.
But what’s less obvious – but I hope is obvious now – is that others around him, from the media, to opposing politicians, to leaders of hostile nations – didn’t feel that his disability hampered him in any way. Japanese leadership, frankly, was utterly terrified of him. After touring the United States during the Great Depression, they couldn’t help but realize the sheer industrial output the United States could put into a war effort. They saw evidence of FDR’s obvious persuasive skill everywhere they looked. It was a level of persuasive skill none of the Japanese leaders could match. They weren’t scared of Roosevelt physically. They feared his political and persuasive skill.
The American public absolutely knew that the President was paralyzed from the waist down. They not only accepted that, they loved him for it.
So, why does that myth persist?
It’s obvious, isn’t it? We’re Americans. Americans believe in progress – that things are better today than they were in the past, and that things in the future will be better than they are now. It’s a mindset that attracts people from all over the world. But that mindset can blind us as well, as it does here. The myth of FDR’s “secret” disability is so popular because we look down on people in the past – they used the words “crippled” and “retarded.” They shunted people off into asylums, institutions, and orphanages. They were racist, sexist, and homophobic. FDR had to keep his disability a secret because people in the 1930s and 1940s were so socially backward that they would never have elevated him to the Presidency had they known. The only thing that protected FDR was his money and his privilege. We are so much better now.
I call bullshit.
Sorry. The evidence (from then or now) doesn’t support our cultural superiority complex.
What’s clear from the evidence is that the American public looked at FDR, judged him on his merits, and deemed him worthy for the Presidency. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have his detractors – he did then, and he does now. But none of them believed his faults can from his inability to use his legs.
I think Al Smith, FDR’s predecessor as governor of New York, expressed it best:
“A governor does not have to be an acrobat. We do not elect him for his ability to do a double backflip or a handspring.”
. . .
Segmentation or Stereotyping?
. . .
I’m a biased person. I suppose that’s true of everyone to some degree. But as easy as it may be to admit my biases, it’s much harder to see them—particularly the truly pernicious biases about how people are and how the world works—play out in my daily decisions and interactions.
Most of the time, our biases serve us well. Biases and stereotypes are shortcuts for our brains. If we had to think about every interaction—every day, in every combination—with no starting point, we would quickly exhaust our mental resources. The problem with shortcuts is that they work . . . until they don’t. And what’s worse, we often don’t know they’re failing us, even when evidence to the contrary presents itself.
While biases in my personal life might lead to strained relationships, in the marketing world, they make me far less effective that I could be. I might comfort myself that better and more abundant data and feedback will make me immune to biases, but I know that isn’t true. Like most people, I’m good at selecting data points that confirm my views and ignoring those that don’t.
If biases are so pervasive and hidden, how can we uncover them? I got a front row seat in just how to do that.
The lower level of the Ramsey County Courthouse in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, stinks. It’s an aroma I know well, a mix of stale carpet and poor ventilation. Even after spending nearly $20,000 renovating a downtown office years before, that same smell never went away. If other buildings in downtown St. Paul don’t smell like this, I have yet to find one.
It’s funny how scents can bring back powerful memories. I thought about my old office on the surprisingly slow elevator ride to the basement-level waiting area. I was on jury duty.
Like most of the two hundred or so people with me that Monday morning, I was resigned to being there at least a week. Any thought of escaping early or claiming some hardship was quickly squashed by the oddly jocular, but no-nonsense jury pool coordinator. We weren’t going anywhere until he told us to. That included the bathroom.
I might not be happy about it, but I was determined to make the best of it. I had a front row seat to jury selection—a public process in which all our prejudices are laid bare. And because this was, by design, a random slice of life, I could be assured of a representative sample for my analysis. If the State of Minnesota was going to get something out of me for being there, I was going to get something out of them for my trouble.
We rarely have such a structured opportunity to study how people’s biases impact their decisions. It’s like the best of a quantitative study and a qualitative study combined. No, it wasn’t studying laundry detergent purchase patterns or motivations to use the gym benefit in a new health plan, the kinds of questions marketers usually ask. But emotionally charged court cases have a way of airing the soul. I was going to get to observe how people process their preconceptions. That’s the whole point of voir dire—the lawyerly name for the questioning of potential jurors.
As a marketing professional with a couple of decades under my belt, you would think this would be old hat. I wish it was. As it turns out, at the same time I was called for jury duty, I was in the middle of completing a research project on bow hunters.
I’m not a hunter; a few of my friends have gone so far as to describe me as “indoorsy.” I probably wasn’t the best choice to conduct a nationwide survey of bow hunters, but then again, you don’t always get to pick your clients.
As the results came in, most of the answers didn’t surprise me . . . except one. In this question, respondents listed the game animals they hunted. As I expected, deer and their ilk were at the top of the frequency chart, with pheasants and turkeys a strong second. But number three forced me to do a double take—they hunted bear.
Freakin’ bears! With a bow and arrow!
I was pretty excited. Not only did I consider that . . . well, badass, I thought it was an interesting and actionable finding. It was the kind of survey result researchers dream of. But when I presented it to my outdoorsy research partner, he quipped, “Oh, that’s not a big deal.” Apparently, because bears don’t travel on game trails as deer do, you can bait bears, if you have a license and depending on the state’s regulations. That means a bow hunter sitting in a tree stand can shoot a bear munching on a bucket of apples. Not exactly what I had imagined.
That didn’t seem very sporting to me. I felt an odd combination of irritation at the hunters who did it and disappointment that the finding wouldn’t lead to any grand conclusion. I said as much to my research partner. He didn’t speak for a few heartbeats.
“That moment before I pull the trigger, I think about it. I know I’m taking a life. I’ve made peace with that, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean anything to me.”
His eloquence caught me by surprise. I apologized and asked him what that meant for the results of the survey and our recommendations to the client. Perhaps there was a higher angle we could take, something more uplifting and spiritual.
“Whoa, slow down,” he said. “We’re not all like that. Some guys just like to shoot stuff.”
This was going nowhere. In the space of fifteen minutes, my preconceptions about our target audience were fundamentally wrong no less than three times.
Hunting a bear with a bow is badass: Wrong.
Hunters don’t think deeply about the life they take: Wrong.
Hunters do think deeply about the life they take: Wrong.
I thought about that experience as I struggled to find an empty seat in courthouse waiting room. Hopefully, seeing professional interrogators in action would help me brush up on my own skills. The timing was good. I received my jury summons in the middle of the project. So far, everything was going according to plan.
Unless, of course, I wasn’t selected for a case.
Day 1 passed without my name being called.
Day 2 passed into the afternoon before I heard my name mispronounced. (It’s VOY-oh-vitch . . . I don’t see what’s so difficult about it, but the butchering happens with such regularity that I respond to just about anything phonetically close.)
I was in! Until I was out.
Apparently, if the judge doesn’t need everyone called, you get sent back to the basement.
Day 3: With far fewer people left in the pool, I hoped my chances would improve. At 9:35 a.m., I was called again. This time, after taking the elevator to the fourteenth floor, I was instructed to take a seat in chair number 8 in the jury box.
For those of you who haven’t been called for jury duty, it’s a bit surreal, purposely so. The authority embedded in the woodwork of the courtroom is meant to cow participants into taking the experience seriously. No one said a word. We took our seats in silence, but I smiled privately—I was in!
Our judge introduced himself, along with the prosecuting and defense attorneys. The defendant sat in the courtroom as well. After some brief pleasantries, the judge got down to business. Only twelve of the eighteen potential jurors in the pool would be “seated” and hear evidence in the trial. In addition to the eighteen of us, three alternate jurors waited in the seats outside the jury box in case a potential juror was immediately disqualified.
The judge engaged in a casual, yet thorough, discussion of each of our backgrounds. It was conversational and, I dare say, interesting. With a few pointed questions, he was able to learn how the lady who knitted in retirement used to earn a living as a computer programmer and engineer. The gruff man in the motorcycle jacket taught trumpet lessons. The woman next to me, who had three advanced technical degrees, talked about her serendipitous journey from teaching middle school to children’s advocacy to running a drug rehab center. No one’s story seemed to follow the script I would’ve written for them . . . and I’m trained to write those scripts. By the time the judge decided to call it a day at 4:45 p.m., we were through two-thirds of the group. He hadn’t even gotten to me yet, much to my disappointment.
We were sent home with strict instructions to keep the details of the case to ourselves and return by nine the next morning. By eleven, the judge had finished his questions and turned it over to the defense attorney. What more can she possibly want to know? I wondered. It turned out a lot.
If the judge dug into our backgrounds with a shovel, the defense attorney brought a backhoe. She went into more detail with each potential juror than I ever saw in my richest qualitative interview. Her questioning ate up the rest of the day, and she wasn’t done.
The next day, Friday, she wrapped up promptly and handed it over to the prosecutor. He had a completely different tone and style, but he was no less dogged. When he finished, I looked up to check the time: it was just before noon. We were excused for lunch; when we returned, the jury would be selected. The judge seemed confident that everything would be wrapped up before the weekend.
If you’re counting at home, that’s more than sixteen hours to select a jury, and four hours to hear the evidence, call witnesses, do all the “courtroom stuff,” deliberate, and decide. What was going on?
“Most people completely misunderstand the purpose of voir dire. It isn’t to select jurors, it’s to eliminate them,” Dr. Jeremy Rose explained. “The only way to know them is to get them to talk. Most judgements we make about people are just plain wrong.”
Rose picked over his plate at Crab Shack. It’s a trendy place in Minneapolis’s North Loop neighborhood, with metal tables and an open garage door to busy Washington Avenue. Pigeons scampered near each table, hoping for sloppy eaters. We disappointed them.
Rose should know something about jury selection. A professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, he’s also a senior litigation consultant with the National Jury Project. He has been involved with hundreds of cases since 1994, specializing in how jurors evaluate testimony from expert witnesses, opening and closing statements, and the effective use of verbal and nonverbal cues in persuasion. I met Rose as part of my graduate degree program. When I began thinking about how to better uncover prejudices in the way I looked at audiences, Rose was at the top of my list.
Voir dire is a fascinating natural laboratory for elicitation techniques. From a legal perspective, in the United States, voir dire is part the formal jury selection process—specifically the “questioning” part, whether oral, written, or both. The numbers of potential jurors selected will vary, the judge’s specific instructions will vary, and the amount of time the questioning may last will vary, but the core objective remains the same: find potential juror bias before you get to trial, not after.
“Finding favorable candidates is not the goal, since the other side can eliminate your most favorable jurors,” Rose said. “The only thing the attorneys can do in that situation is to strike unfavorable jurors, so their focus is on uncovering something in a potential juror’s past or mindset that would incline them to be biased against your case.”
But that all assumes jurors will talk. Unless they do, you don’t learn anything. The more they talk, the more you tend to learn. And to get them to talk, you need to ask good questions.
I kept replaying Rose’s perspective in my mind as I rode the elevator back to the courtroom. Sure, both attorneys were professional question askers, and there was a part of me that wanted to learn tips and tricks for digging deeper. But what I really wanted to know was how they made their decisions about jurors. In my career, despite terabytes of data and countless customer interviews, I was so routinely wrong in my assessments—bow hunters included—that I thought I needed to try something new.
I’m not alone. Even casual observers of marketing notice when we get it wrong. Think about it: How many advertisements speak to your true needs? How often is the price quoted just right—not so much that you won’t click Purchase, but not so little that you worry something is too good to be true? How often is a product tailored to your desires, without a single unwanted feature? How often can you find that magical product precisely where and when you want to buy it? We marketers get it right sometimes, but I can’t let us off the hook that easily. When we’re wrong, we cost our organizations money and degrade our audience’s trust in us. We need to get better.
Check that. I need to get better.
There must be something getting in the way of me truly listening, I thought. I wanted to know what it was. I replayed my voir dire experience—while the defense attorney had questions for each person, her obvious note-taking during the judge’s questioning allowed her to “jump off” and go deeper along several lines. The prosecuting attorney did much the same, having the advantage of both previous questioners to ask us surgically precise questions. They stayed hyperfocused on their objective: Who could be impartial? Who could they “sell to”? Who did they want to avoid? I paid close attention as the attorneys finished their questioning, trying my best to intuit which jurors would make the cut and which wouldn’t. The selections were in. How would I do?
The guy who seemed to have trouble with English? I was sure he was out. He was in.
The guy from the same country who had no trouble with the language and a technical job? I was sure he was in. He was out.
The lady with three degrees and over ten years of experience in the court . . . who knew the judge personally. She was out for sure. Nope. She was selected.
Had I randomly selected jurors, I should’ve guessed correctly for about two-thirds of the group. (Remember, the eighteen-member panel would be reduced to twelve.) My score would only have been good in baseball—I batted about 0.300.
I clearly sucked. It was humiliating.
As I walked back to my parking ramp, I wondered if I’d been looking at this all wrong. I was looking for selections. Rose would’ve been looking for exclusions. I started to think about when I had seen that in practice. In marketing, we’re so concerned with who to pick and so much less concerned with who to avoid . . . perhaps we’re looking at it exactly the wrong way?
Best Buy thought so.
This was at the early stage of the online shopping revolution, a time when Circuit City still existed and Amazon primarily sold books.
Then-CEO Brad Anderson was fed up. In a 2004 Wall Street Journal article, he expressed the frustration I’ve heard many retailers (and marketers of all stripes) admit only in private.
To paraphrase, Best Buy’s marketing and strategy department had divided its customers into distinct buying profiles. “Angels” were its best customers. They bought whatever was new at whatever price. “Buzzes” were similar. They bought bleeding-edge gadgets so they could show off to their friends. All good so far. It went downhill from there.
“Barrys” were upper-income family men who bought “action movies and cameras.” “Jills” were “clueless suburban women” who could be “hooked” if you convinced them a product would be “good for their family.” But perhaps the worst were the “Devils”—they bought products, applied for every rebate, returned full-price products, rebought them for now-discounted prices, and then sold those products on eBay. Anderson was fine selling to the first two, but he worked hard to keep the others out of the store.
Off-putting? Yes. But was Best Buy wrong? Isn’t this what the exclusionary process would advise us to do?
In the two years after the article was written in 2004, Best Buy stock nearly doubled. Traditional MBA classrooms abounded with stories of how shrewd Anderson’s move was. Students were encouraged to be clear about who they didn’t want in their stores . . . and to actively push them out. It seemed to fit right along with Rose’s advice.
But there was a problem. After a peak in 2006, Best Buy’s fortunes started to decline. By the time of the 2008 financial crisis, Best Buy stock had lost all its ground, and much more. Implementing its exclusionary segmentation strategy is several steps away from assigning causation to a stock price move. But I do believe some of that increase from 2004 to 2006 was due to other factors—for example, the decline and fall of Circuit City and poaching that customer base—rather than Best Buy’s exclusionary strategy.
I began to feel like I still was missing the point.
Best Buy engaged in a classic, albeit crude, version of marketing segmentation. It’s part and parcel with our trade. If you don’t know how to do it, you’re not in marketing. But back at the National Jury project, they have another word for that: stereotyping.
Trial consultant Karen Jo Koonan calls out what she bluntly terms “lazy thinking.” It’s easy in a homogeneous group (say, all police officers or all book clubbers) to imagine everyone in that group will think and act the same way. When lawyers do that, they tend to take cognitive shortcuts and make bad assumptions. We all do it, Koonan explains, but we need to recognize it.
Her advice: Don’t guess. Don’t assume. Ask.
It might seem like Koonan is speaking only to arrogant attorneys, but I’ve reviewed and written countless buyer behavior surveys where I crafted “accepted” responses. In one in particular, I asked “outstate” Minnesota residents (not quite farm, not quite city) where they liked to eat when they went out. I included options for neighborhood diners, chain restaurants, and fast food. I thought we had good data . . . until I heard about the trend of these people driving into the city to visit sushi restaurants and organic farmers markets. I hadn’t thought to ask about these options.
I wish this was simply a research methods issue, but it isn’t. The problem is that our biases, stereotypes, and lazy thinking find their way into product strategy, pricing, and merchandising decisions. While many of those decisions are hidden from casual consumers and observers, promotional marketing and advertising mistakes aren’t. And the results are cringeworthy.
In the long-overdue effort to eliminate needlessly sexualized advertising exploiting women for completely nonsexual products—think GoDaddy and Hardee’s—major advertisers have simply switched chromosomes. A 2016 Diet Coke spot features five young women (of a variety of races . . . respectfully, I guess) rolling a can of Diet Coke down a hill toward an expectant young man mowing a lawn. On their prompting, he opens the shaken can to a predictable drenching from the pent-up carbonation. As they laugh, he slowly strips his shirt to reveal rock-hard abs. The women ogle him as he wrings out his shirt, flexing his muscles in the process. He leaves the frame winking at the lead instigator as seductive music plays.
Switch the genders in that advertisement and I could make the case for sexual assault. The much-shared Old Spice advertising featuring Isaiah Mustafa and Terry Crews is subjectively and objectively better but largely strikes the same chord.
We see the same lazy thinking on display in so-called “dumb dad” ads—the old advertising trope of the clueless father barely able to spend ten minutes alone with his children without ensuing chaos. They’re almost as bad as “superhero mom” ads, which peddle expectations no woman could ever meet. AdAge highlighted the amusing story of Calgary-based Dissolve, a stock footage provider that created “This Is a Generic Millennial Ad,” to poke fun at precisely those stereotypes. (I have very little sympathy here, by the way—I’m a Gen Xer who thought I would never see the end of “slacker” ads.)
Audiences are amused. They click and share and like with abandon. Marketers are pleased. Our data tell us we’re doing a good job.
We shouldn’t be. We’re not.
Stereotypes are funny because they play to the simple narratives running through our heads. Unfortunately, they never punch through the surface, which is why we need to repeat them over and over to get the desired impact. And the more we repeat them, the less impact they have. It’s an ugly game of diminishing returns, one we’re losing.
Here’s my dilemma.
In the future, no company (not even Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon) will have enough data to create reliable individual profiles of each of us. It might come as a surprise, but we do a tremendous amount that never makes it into ones and zeros. Even if it were possible, many products and services can’t be individualized at a price most people could pay. Modern marketing must still group people into categories. The question then becomes, where is the line between “stereotyping” and “segmentation”?
I wish there was a black-and-white answer. As Rose and I talked about it over seafood, he reminded me that attorneys are, on average, exceedingly smart people, but even they can engage in lazy thinking during jury selection.
Something about what he said struck a nerve: lazy thinking. Perhaps that was the key to all this. Segments (and perhaps even stereotypes) aren’t inherently good or bad. What makes them good or bad is their usefulness. A segment helps us organize activities and efficiently reach a target audience. A stereotype tricks us into believing we’re effective when we’re not.
Marketing excels when it’s surprising. As a prime example of lazy thinking, stereotyping is expected. A stereotype is the opposite of a surprise. It should be obvious why this surface-level strategy doesn’t work well. The antidote is to cut deeper.
In 2013, Cheerios did just that with a thirty-second ad featuring an adorable curly-haired girl named Gracie, her black father, and her white mother. Swap out the races in the commercial with an all-white cast, and this was about as bucolic a thirty seconds as you’re going to get on network television. It would’ve been appropriate in the 1950s.
But that’s not what General Mills did.
The mixed-race family scene cut deeper than anyone expected. It created such a backlash that the company pulled the ad from YouTube, afraid that the comments section had become “family unfriendly.” But just as many people saw the ad as courageous, showing what family life really looked like in the United States today. They had something.
In fact, the company brought the family back for a Super Bowl advertisement not six months later. Many people thought this would be the chance for General Mills to start some sort of conversation about race. Nope—the ad simply used the breakfast scene to introduce a new baby (and puppy) into the family equation. It was another honest slice of life.
This piece of advertising is effective because it isn’t afraid to speak the truth in a way that rises above the fray. By doing so, it cuts through our defenses. But while it’s surprising and honest, how far do we take that technique?
General Mills’ approach seems more on point than campaigns directed solely at attacking stereotypes, where it’s clear the brand is attempting to curry favor by directly addressing a social problem. The Always “Like a Girl” campaign attempts to turn an insult into a rallying cry. It owns the insult and turns it on its head. But it doesn’t always work that well. In its “Revolution” campaign Pepsi fumbled badly by attempting to present free sodas as a solution to racially charged police brutality.
As marketers, we clearly struggle to find the line between segmentation and stereotyping. You can’t begin to fix something you aren’t aware of, and my experience in the jury box was eye opening. Voir dire might not be perfect (nothing is), but its lessons are useful.
To that end, the National Jury Project has two clear suggestions, which I’ll adapt here for the those of us in marketing:
- Be clear on your evaluation criteria in advance. When an attorney needs to evaluate a juror, she must decide which part of the prospective juror’s background, experience, or temperament will be critical to making the decision to keep or discard them. She doesn’t need to worry about that juror’s entire life story, only the decision in this case. I might argue that marketing professionals need to look a little further down the road, but the advice is the same: Be clear about what we want, and stay focused.
- Err toward open-ended, probing questions. In the rush to collect data and define representative samples, we risk not understanding the core driving factors underlying behaviors and opinions. Yes, with infinite and perfect behavioral data, you might be able to work some complex regression magic to intuit behavioral patterns. But in my experience, this is more fantasy than reality. Data are neither infinite nor perfect. Qualitative research is dramatically underused. We’re terrible at asking questions—real questions—and listening to the responses. We risk skimming along the surface and quickly making assumptions that fit our preconceptions. We stereotype because it’s easier, even when we think we’re not.
I was lucky to watch two experts at work during my voir dire experience, both with very different styles. They never took the first answer at face value. They asked at least one follow-up question, usually three or more. They asked for introspection, and they got it. Similarly, digging deeper in marketing produces work that’s surprising, memorable, and effective.
It sounds good, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it work in real life. I remembered all the projects I’d worked on over the past twenty years. How many of them were ineffective because I didn’t ask the next logical question? How often did I waste my employer or client’s money because of my own lazy thinking? How confident was I when I had no reason to be?
As I gained more experience, I knew I had a choice to make: I could either make peace with my own stereotypes and modest effectiveness, or I could work to improve.
I wasn’t among the twelve selected for jury duty that day. Nevertheless, I walked out of that courtroom with something valuable: a lot to think about.
. . .
Books and Reference Materials
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The American Presidents Series: The 32nd President, 1933-1945
By: Roy Jenkins
Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
By: H.W. Brands