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New: Fear and Trembling; Madison Ave vs. Wall St./Main Street

Posted on Oct 21, 2008

Are we living in unprecedented times of unsettling uncertainty? How have you been sleeping? How are your nerves? How’s your portfolio? Talked to your broker lately? Are you too busy running for cover to worry about the future?

In times like we’ve been told these are, it’s far too easy to get caught up in the ‘lemming tide’, and allow emotions to rule the day.  And, truth be told, as a member of an industry that is on the front page of multiple publications on a daily basis, and on the tongues of every breathing adult, it would be easy to succumb. There are days when I shake my head after a look at my latest 401k statement, and think it might be time to start investing in a bunker somewhere in Idaho.

However, one small detail seems to get lost in all this: Fear is an emotion. It’s not a reflection of reality, it has no place in financial decision making, but is simply a conditioned response to input. In caveman days, fear was the appropriate response to the toothy feline crouched on your path. With a few minor exceptions, we have evolved. Or at least we like to think we have.

The advertising world knows better. They know there are 2 stimuli that prompt primordial responses in just about everyone: death & sex. Fear of one, and fear of not getting the other, drive most all of the advertising messages in the modern world. If you can get a segment of the populace to believe your product will either stall or promote one of these 2 results, you’ve got a winner.

Since the media, (There’s no point going into the liberal vs. conservative media debate, because they both use this principle to their best advantage) drives the bottom line with advertising revenue, whom do you think has been the beneficiary of the all the negative froth? They haven’t had such a field day with a single topic since the dotbombs. It’s a no-brainer; they get to call it ‘reporting’, but if they can drive readership up with negative press releases and catchy sound bites, their Neilsen numbers bounce, pushing a bump they can sell to advertisers. So long as you’re reading, watching, or listening, they don’t care; it’s all ad revenue to them.

Which brings us to the debate on liberal vs. conservative media- where I would argue there is no such thing. Media is an advertising vehicle, pure and simple. In this day and age, there are essentially no media outlets that aren’t at least partially funded by ad revenue- most of them are closer to 50-75%. Which means demographics, polls, studies, and the like. Just as politics responds to polls, media follows the trends to target audiences. Regardless of the publicized slant of a particular media outlet, they all want your ears and eyes, because that’s what they can sell. The more sensational the story, the more they sell, the better their numbers. It’s a vicious spiral. Dizzy yet?

As financial futures have replaced saber-tooth tigers on the scary scenario spectrum, it has become a simple matter to (cue the ‘Jaws’ theme) offer up real-life anecdotal evidence of impending doom. Never mind that on a percentage basis, most Americans are still well ahead of the knacker man.

Which means the greatest beneficiary of our current dilemma is the media. They’ve managed to turn a few rustled cattle into a stampede toward the cliff. After the herd launches off the precipice, they’ll be standing by for footage of the carnage, selling tickets to the spectacle and hawking mementos, while they pick through the bones looking for survivors to inteview, and lining up advertisers for the sequel.

Don’t get me wrong; I know there are financially threatened families, and I realize unemployment is drifting up (although still in the single digits). It’s no secret that the global lending climate has put access to ready credit on the threatened list. That doesn’t mean the world as we know it teeters on the brink of extinction (unless your name is Hugo Chavez). Credit is available, should you be in the mood, and have the bonafides to qualify. Don’t expect your lender to throw money at you with both fists; those days are truly over.

However, with a return to healthy economic fundamentals, we are back where we should be; back where we started, relying on sound financial practices, using the time-honored methods of securing no more credit than we can afford, using no more collateral than we can afford to lose. The pendulum has swung wide to correct, and will eventually return to center.

It will take time to sort our way through the new landscape, but time and again, our country has faced the ‘financial crisis of the decade’, and we’ve always found a way through. Every ‘event’ has been bigger than the last (can you say inflation?), and every time we’ve taken unprecedented measures to right the ship. Every ‘Event’ has been followed by a boom. This will be no different. So, learn the lessons, look for opportunities where you find them, and start writing the stories your grandchildren will beg to hear.


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