Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Proctor and Gamble has, "for the first time in 38 years... launched a new dish soap in the U.S. at a bargain price." The implication here is that the company is now marketing to an American middle class under severe distress.
It's a very interesting article. And columnist Richard Cohen, likely after watching Mad Men clean up at Sunday's Emmy awards, weaves it into a textbook example of the American Decline column genre:
Aside from his multiple infidelities, prodigious drinking and having the personality of a mud wall, what finally caused Betty Draper to separate from Don Draper, her husband and the protagonist of the wildly popular series "Mad Men," was a clutch of Heineken beer. As Don Draper knew she would, Betty purchased the beer for their home because he had her infuriatingly pigeonholed as the typical upwardly mobile housewife of the early 1960s. The American Dream, it turns out, is about 5% alcohol.
The Heineken affront was the last straw, a bizarre crisis even for the "Mad Men" series. In a trenchant essay in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn explains the show's appeal by saying it "represents fantasies, or memories, of significant potency." For me, the memory - now, alas, a fantasy - is the assumption that Americans would get richer and richer and that, if you were an adman or a client, it made sense to market products to the affluent. Heineken, imported and thus hardly prole in origin, oddly represents an America that used to be and we may never see again.
I direct you to a recent Wall Street Journal article about Procter & Gamble. This iconic American company - Ivory, Tide, Bounty, Gillette - has introduced a dish soap at a bargain price. It's called Gain, and it represents P&G's attempt to attract less affluent customers, not out of the goodness of its corporate heart but because the middle class is shrinking.
Ah, you want me to say it will soon be morning again in America. Maybe not. We are crippled by a political system and culture that resists excellence and falls back on bromides. Our problems are national, and yet a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination says he wants Washington to shrink in importance. Ditto say his fellow candidates. And at the top of this heap is a President who hasn't a clue as to how to be President.
"Mad Men" - with yet another Emmy the other night - is not about the nostalgic past and such lost pleasures as smoking. It's about the unattainable future. Betty Draper is old now. She shops at Costco, buys the cheap beer and passes up Ivory for - what's this? - Gain. A Mad Man would put it this way: Her Gain is our loss.
Cohen's overwrought prose aside, the numbers cited in the original Journal article are alarming. As the article reports, "the middle fifth of American households grew by 2.4% a year between 2001 and 2007 and plunged by 26.2% in the following two years." The income of a median family is now lower than in 1998.
Charles Kenny may be right that the Middle Class isn't any more economically productive than other sectors of society, but on the consumption side, it's hard to dispute that Americans today are increasingly tailoring their expectations to a different kind of Middle Class life.
And as Main Street goes, so goes Madison Avenue. If the Betty Draper of today is shopping at Costco, her huband is trying to figure out a way to make fuel economy sound sexy.