Innovation. Ideas. Insight.

The Rebirth of the Cool – President Obama, Marketing and Popular Culture

In Insight on November 5, 2008 at 2:09 pm

The Changing Face of American Pop Culture

The Changing Face of American Pop Culture

Let me preface this post by stating, I am by no means an expert of African-American culture or the psyche of African-American youth. I’m just one person taking a very broad look at the landscape, making some educated guesses and throwing out some conjecture.

It is beyond argument that over the last 30 years African-Americans have had a massive effect on American pop culture. Take a look at this list:

Music: Michael Jackson, Run DMC, Public Enemy, P Diddy, Jay-Z, NWA

Sports: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tiger Woods

Entertainment: Spike Lee, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Tyra Banks, Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith

That’s just off the top of my head, I’m sure that list could have doubled. My point is that these people didn’t just excel in their given areas, nor were they exclusively popular with African-Americans. Rather, they fundamentally changed popular American culture. It may have started as part of African-American culture, but as a white suburban kid growing up in the 80s I can tell you that many of those listed above had a profound effect on me as I grew up.

Now we have an African-American president-elect who, at least to me, doesn’t exactly match the common perception of African-Americans in this country (rightly or wrongly) from the past three decades. So, as a brand strategist/marketing professional, I ask myself, “How will a President Obama’s personal style shape African-American culture, and subsequently American pop culture?”

How does popular music change with his election? Rap music, at its heart a form of protest, will surely branch off in new directions. It’s hard to imagine Ice T (NSFW), NWA (NSFW) or Grand Master Flash writing the songs they performed in a country with an African-American president. Yet, Obama is not completely divorced from this world:

That’s a pretty savvy use of a cultural shorthand, that judging by the response of the crowd, clearly shows that Barack Obama is no cultural elitist.

Obama’s love of basketball is well documented, and in him you see a return to the Michael Jordan/Magic Johnson era. A pre-Allen Iverson era. I want to be careful here not to make a judgement on the the personal character of late-90s to current NBA players, merely on their cultural choices (clothing, tattoos, etc.). I’m not judging that either, merely pointing out the difference in styles. It’s interesting that Obama’s rise parallels that of players like Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Greg Oden and a new generation of team-oriented players that are some of the leading lights of the NBA.

Ultimately, pop culture is a pendulum, a counter-balance that swings from the social messages of Run DMC to the party style of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, back to NWA and back again to Sean “Puffy” Combs. From John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Michael Jordan; from Allen Iverson and Dennis Rodman to Tiger Woods. 

My hunch is that brands like Benjamin Bixby and music groups like TV on the Radio will grow in popularity birth-of-coolas a post-racial trend continues. To be sure, these brands already existed, Barack Obama did not create them. He’s merely a high profile example that will legitimize and highlight those individuals and brands the mainstream has not yet fully embraced.

On another level, one of the Obama’s qualities most often praised was his calm, cool demeanor, especially when others around him seemed to be behaving erratically or thinking tactically instead of strategically. President-elect Obama is a cool guy. That’s not the only desirable quality a person or brand can have, but it is, especially in a politician a pretty compelling one. And Obama’s is a smart cool, not a Fonz from Happy Days cool.

As Obama appears on even more magazines and TV shows, his personal style will become clearer in the months ahead. It won’t be a complete departure from exising African-American culture, but it may put the spotlight on a facet that many Americans haven’t seen before.

  1. are you asking about the aesthetics of african american culture? or how his presidency will cultivate or heighten particular cultural dimensions (e.g. fatherhood, accountability)

    i think your hunch is right. i just wonder if its more about how his brand inspires change or hope and how those characteristics will relate and ultimately change certain sub-cultures which then affect the mainstream.

  2. A very interesting point that we in marketing should definitely keep an eye on for the years to come. Was this election the tipping point or is it just the beginning of a stronger and more influential African-American culture? It is definitely a historical step not only for us as a nation, but for democracy as a whole. Michael Jackson was famous with “Thriller”, he became a central figure with “We’re the World”. President Obama will need to make sure he distances now from “Billy Jean” and moves over to “Black or White”. That’s how we’ll get the CHANGE he promised all of us with his marketing campaign.

    Thanks for a very interesting point!

  3. Good look there. Two effects Obama might have on the American psyche:

    1)Many black folks, both friends and in the media, have said that they now have an odd sense of belonging/being American that had never before existed. Representational politics are not to be overlooked.

    2)I think white folks may start (subconsciously) realizing that non-whites are just as creative/smart/powerful etc…hopefully we’ll see a ripple effect in the business sector.

    And one thing to add is that in the past few years the authorship space of new media has fostered a much greater diversity of voices within black america, cause it is content being made by black people, not the machinations of Hollywood or Madison Avenue – and that space then creates new channels of content that reach the mainstream.

  4. The first people to use the word “cool” to describe a personal attitude or style were the Beats, in the late 40s and 50s, and they meant it differently to what its common meaning became in the 60s and later. The earlier meaning referred to emotions that were experienced internally so powerfully precisely because they were not expressed externally. A cool person was not unemotional – quite the opposite – but was refraining from expressing his or her emotions in order to experience these emotions more intensely.

    Later, the meaning of the word morphed into something like lacking in emotion, or unemotional, or non-expressive. I sense that Barack Obama is cool in the original sense, not in the later sense.

  5. Great take Peter. I agree, I think Obama keeps his emotions in check, rather than flying around trying to show everyone how tough he is by yelling. I think many people both at home and abroad will underestimate him.

    I wonder how his demeanor will reshape other people’s behaviour.

  6. I am certainly excited about what an Obama presidency will bring to our beleaguered nation. He is very articulate to be sure, and seemingly has the intellect and composure to be successful in the highest office of the most powerful nation on earth. However, I am a little skeptical about his level of experience, alleged ties to unsavory organizations and religious affiliations. I voted for him, primarily because of bitterness at the incompetence of the Bush administration. I remain disenfranchised with America so far in the 21st Century, and came across a political graphic that does a fairly good job in capturing this sentiment.

    http://www.cafepress.com/usa21stcentury

  7. […] she can fullfil this urge soon. Onto the movie, the first lady and president are incredibly likable and young. The translation from film to reality, didn’t apply in the same way in previous […]

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