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Marian Salzman Headshot

Mad as Hell--and Only Getting Madder

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This is the first in a series of 12 posts expounding on the 2011 forecasts in the annual trends report from Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR and an internationally respected trendspotter.

Despite the relatively peaceable environment abroad--there's a successful coalition, for now, in the U.K., and Australians still appear confident despite debt problems--the U.S. in 2011 is going to flash even red-hotter than the map of the country at midterm elections. Temperatures at home are pushing up the mercury, and not because of global warming or climate change. It's a trend that extends from politics to domestic life: Expect men at home to be angry at their wives, working women to express ire over being their household's sole wage-earner, and everybody to be furious about taxes, privacy, individual freedoms and more. Ordinary Americans will have their feedback loops set on tantrum.

We maybe haven't seen so much anger since 1976 when Peter Finch, playing anchorman Howard Beale in Network, came in from the rain to exhort his audience to express themselves. ("I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!'")

Headlines show banks once again making billions (and well-connected bankers aren't doing so poorly, either), while the middle class have lost savings, homes, health care, jobs, prospects. The millennials can't find jobs. The poor have less faith than ever about staying in school (1.2 million Americans drop out). Washington talks about solutions, but for many Americans, government itself plays out as the problem.

Listen in on Rand Paul's acceptance speech in Kentucky, the new purple-grass state. His chorus of "Deliberate upon this" had the ring of a schoolyard heavy premeditating a rumble at the noon bell. During the race, even MSNBC liberal pundit Chris Matthews flashed plenty mad at Paul's opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, whose attempt to smear Paul with an anonymous source in the "Aqua Buddha" ad toppled as hard in the heartland as the statue of Saddam Hussein once did in Baghdad.

On Twitter, AT&T users get really upset at how frequently iPhones drop their calls. AT&T's SoMe strategy--mapping angry tweeters' locations to try to restore service and confidence--is, depending on your point of view, either another noxious example of "eavesdropping" or a positive response to a negative. The Gap felt the blowback of contagious wrath on SoMe after it tried redesigning its logo. Even though business press critics called the company "spineless" for backing down, the detractors asking for the old Gap back--in droves on social and digital media--won. Don't doubt it: Consumers are mistake-intolerant for brands and causes. As for what used to be called "customer satisfaction," Frances Allen, EVP and CMO of Denny's, offers that "insight" and "innovation" are among the few things you can do when they're losing it.

You can also plan ahead. Before the urge to attack strikes, brands must know what "insightful" means, from extracultural preferences to all-American nostalgia, and anticipate the defensive game plan. You don't want to wind up with fingers pointing every which way, as Samsung did when its Lebanese ad agency FP7 Doha took a creative prize for a spot the client had never seen. The trouble started when the public saw it--a robed Jesus snapping a picture of a group of nuns--and went berserk.

Anger, it turns out, just isn't that easy to unstrand even by the most evolved among us. The Dalai Lama tweets that the energy of anger feels like progress but is "almost always unreliable," as emotions go. It's Buddhist theology that it's possible to have compassion without attachment and anger without hatred. But don't try telling that to Rep. John Yarmuth, a Dem whose win of a House seat in Kentucky he called "bittersweet" because of the flavor of the harsh language heaped on Nancy Pelosi and President Obama all year.

What is sure is that anger is the color of the zeitgeist now, and anyone who isn't tapping it risks appearing out of touch.

When MSNBC network star Keith Olbermann got suspended without pay earlier this month for making three Democratic political contributions, including against Rand Paul, one gloating headline read: "Time to Feast on a Delicious Second Helping of Schadenfreude." After Election Day, pundits on the right weighed in about Olbermann and MSNBC's commentators, while other sites noted that the staff of some defeated Democrats had talked to grief counselors after the election--a soft touch seemingly tailor-made for the very angry to dis.

Indeed, this emotion--anger--which has been analyzed by everybody from Sigmund Freud to 12-step gurus as sublimation of fear, anxiety or grief, doesn't feel the need today to get deeply in touch with its masks. Like Bill Clinton trying to parse what "is" is, anger is the new "it." And being angry makes for dynamics. Seth Godin has noted that angry people grab attention because they are interesting, and interesting people will get more air time for their angry message, helping them in turn set agendas and get elected.

In the new movie Skyline, futuristic warmongers descending on Los Angeles first appear as so many dropping points of light. They're robotic cyberwarriors, metal hulks that first dazzle, then destroy. How 'bout this new phrase: light-rippin' mad!

Back in Prohibition (the era for the new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire"), shrinks thought angry people should dispel their emotion at the piano, by banging out "The Devil's Sonata." Not having any was boardwalk boss Enoch Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who skipped go (and did not go directly to jail) by setting his childhood house (and bad memories) literally on fire. With the casualties of voter anger feeling the chill winds of Alaska, and the Tea Party steeping those enmities as one serious kind of "flippin' fun," look for a kinder, gentler era to become itself an object of public ire. I expect, in the personal sphere, we'll see more and bigger cases of domestic violence and the faceless menace that is cyberstalking.

Meanwhile, expect the political arena to roil ever hotter. Barack Obama's cool, calming rhetoric hit the spot for many Americans in panic-stricken 2008. In retrospect, his no-drama persona appealed just long enough to get him elected, but now it's very two years ago.

Tomorrow: "Talk to the Hands"