The virtual vacuum
I opened one of those weekly news magazines that comes on glossy, oversized paper, and the book fell open to the center where the staples hold the thing together. There, on two broad pages, I saw an ad_at least that’s what I think it was.
What appeared was two nearly blank pages, with a red business card logo occupying maybe one-eighth of one page. This minimalist expression, reminiscent of the Dada movement, obviously was intended to convey a deep meaning to my ignorant id. And it worked.
I immediately transcended the stark pages and the artistic splash of logo, arriving at a higher plane of consciousness wherein I experienced the ultimate realization_some ad guy made a bundle of commissions on this crap. Beautiful!
It used to be that ads in the industry publications tried to sell products and services. The hawking normally included the company name, what it sold, and how to get it. “Yagis ‘R Us” would show a picture of the antenna and give a few specs in the copy. The ad would even give the reader a phone number and an address to get further details.
Fast-forward to the present world of graphic designers. This new breed of ad guys has slowly emerged as the greatest force in communications. Starting out as the mundane “art department,” whose sole job was to come up with a pretty picture to augment the hard information in the copy, graphic designers have ascended into the halls of power.
The coup was accomplished by backroom treaty, whereby warring departments came together to mold a single vision that can be summed up in the expression “Virtual Sales.” But what are virtual sales, and where can you get one, especially on double coupon day? They’re everywhere, and they cost you nothing.
Virtual sales Most large companies got big through standardization, not innovation. They came up with a product that became a standard in the industry (VHS vs. Beta), and then began cranking out squillions of the standard widgets, with the cranking sometimes going on for decades.
The trouble with standardization is that it’s boring. The company that makes a No. 6 nail is going to have trouble making the thing look zippy to shareholders and investors. Besides, the market only needs so many No. 6 nails. It’s a good business, but it doesn’t excite the “corporate guys” whose bonuses are tied to a flat, but healthy stock price.
Time for a change. But since the product hasn’t really improved, what change is possible? That’s when the image guys start taking over. The old No. 6 is now depicted in graphic displays that show it rocketing across the universe, impaling the stars and holding together the universal glue that has been shaky since the Big Bang.
The new image is hailed in the boardroom as the New Millennium No. 6, the art department gets a neat addition to the staff’s collective portfolio, the graphic designers show No. 6 rotating in outer space on the company Web site, the ad agency starts placing the new image everywhere that will produce a commission, the sales department is energized by the newly designed brochures, and the Wall Street Journal hypes the predicted result of the revitalized sales effort with graphs showing the economic relationship between the No. 6 and the predicted construction of backyard potting sheds per annum.
Despite the fact that the market hasn’t increased a whit for the No. 6, stock analysts take notice, and the price of the company’s stock begins to move upward. Bingo! The virtual sale is closed. Without one drop of fresh earnings to the bottom line, the stock price increases, and the corporate guys have gained a greater appreciation on their options, warrants and public image. Everyone’s a winner.
Of course, there’s a guy named Wally running a construction company in Topeka, KS, who saw the ad and still can’t figure out what the heck a No. 6 nail has to do with balancing the universe. And since the ad doesn’t have any copy or telephone number, he just buys a competitor’s No. 8 nail_that’s handier. But then, Wally doesn’t see the big picture. Shoot, Wally’s the guy who didn’t even buy those new mobile data satellite receivers for his fleet of backloaders.
The ad isn’t designed to sell the product, and it doesn’t. It’s designed to sell stock. So the only guy left holding the bag is the VP of sales at the nail company who, due to his inability to increase sales to pay for the brilliant new ad campaign, is offered early retirement with stock options.
The other ad agency The same dynamic that is showing up in advertisements is also happening at the FCC. Oh, sure, the agency could just do its job making sure that everyone adheres to those boring rules that have been around for more than 60 years. But that’s just old standardization, and it doesn’t excite anyone.
So now we have auctions and electronic filings and global policymaking and remote monitoring stations and market entry issues and more_PCS, IVDS, GSM, CDMA, LMDS, LMS, MMDS, LAN, WAN, TIN, USF and a host of alphabetized initiatives that dazzle and delight. If the FCC produced an ad, it would look like an eye chart.
This is the all-new, ever-exciting, Information Age, which is to be ruled by people who have the greatest ability to access the trillions of facts that float in cyberspace, digitized for your convenience and offered via the FCC’s impetus.
The problem for us dolts, who don’t have the proper receive equipment to access the FCC’s big picture, is that all of this stuff is Virtual Regulation. With all of its zippy image revamping, the agency hasn’t moved a step closer toward better enforcement of its rules. So much of the agency’s budget is going into the newest, biggest, glitziest stuff, it simply doesn’t have the money left over to do its core job. It’s like the police department sending so many cops to march in a parade, that there aren’t enough left over to respond to robbery calls.
But then it’s the parade that’s going to grab headlines, get votes for the mayor and fill the community with pride. Nabbing a mugger doesn’t even get a line in the local rag. Sorry about that if you’re the victim. You and Wally just don’t get the big picture.
Earth calling Kennard Chairman Kennard and the new commissioners could go a long way toward reversing the trend toward Virtual Regulation. It would take some guts, but then most things worth doing require some fortitude.
First, admit that there are only so many people in the United States, with so much money to spend on all of this stuff that is being hyped, and given a choice, most Americans will buy food first.
Second, admit that your job does not include industrial policymaking. If you wanted a job at the Department of Commerce, you should have filled out your application differently.
Third, admit that your job does include an enforcement function. All of those wonderful rules aren’t worth much if the agency doesn’t have the collective will to enforce them.
Fourth, admit that the agency doesn’t have the resources to be everyone’s research and development department, either for new services or for federal revenue generation.
Finally, recheck your legal status as an independent federal agency. That’s independent of the White House, Congress and lobbyists. That’s another way of saying, Do what’s right, because it’s right, and not because it will look really sharp in print.
Guys like Wally in Topeka and I are virtually counting on you. Get the picture?
Schwaninger, MRT’s regulatory consultant, is a partner in the law firm of Brown & Schwaninger, Washington, DC. He is a member of the Radio Club of America.