It has been a year of re-examined values for Americans. It started with the recession, which was hard to ignore because things valued were no longer practical or affordable. Two recession-related surprises set the tone for the future, though. First, people are finally embracing green. In tough times, ostentation is out and social responsibility is in, and there are also savings to be made as fuel prices skyrocket. Second was the abrupt lesson that the US can no longer solve its economic issues alone in a global, interdependent world, a rude awakening for a loner administration.
Then came the election. Elections mean mandatory soul-searching. At no other time is more money poured into measuring every slice of American citizenry. It forced Americans to re-examine their feelings on a lot of issues.
How did they really feel about race and would they put someone who didn't look like them in the White House? While pundits expected many would be unable to pull the lever for Obama at the moment of truth, the outpouring of hope and joy at his victory spoke of a widespread desire for tolerance.
How did they feel about gender? Could they put a woman in charge, or a heartbeat away? And what do we admire about mothers, "family values" or actually shielding a vulnerable child from the public eye? In a year filled with Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, it was Michelle Obama putting her children first that won public approval.
How did they feel about mortality and passing the baton to the next generation? Obama, technically a late Boomer, feels more like a new generation of multicultural globalists. Older voters skewed toward McCain, not quite willing to let go. But with Bill Clinton and "W" as the Boomer legacy, the public was ready for a different style - the bottoms-up, community-organising side of Obama. And the Obama team's use of Web 2.0 and its interactive tools initiated a new era of outreach and understanding of "millennials".
What about idealism versus ideology? Americans voted for hope, but not necessarily idealism or ideology. They voted many Republicans out of both the executive and legislative, but more than a few survived.
How about urban versus rural? While more people live in urban areas, small-town values keep popping up. Who knew that the ability to kill a moose could be a selling point, while working as a community organiser was portrayed as a negative? Americans seem to now believe that old-fashioned values are no longer sufficient to solve the problems of a complex, uncertain world.
This year has shown that tectonic shifts are taking place that are redefining what it is to be an American, and how marketers can appeal to them.
- Janet Pines is the New York-based chief insight officer at Draftfcb.