Monday, September 7, 2009

On standards, alliances, Froot Loops, and princes

My day job has resulted in some interaction with various standards bodies, along with an education in the way that standards bodies can work. For example, someone with experience with one particular standards body informed me that this particular body often simply ratified things that a single company was doing and called it a "standard." As a result, we began seeing requests for proposal that required compliance with this particular standard - a standard that only one company could, by definition, meet.

But standards are used in other ways. You can get an impressive-sounding standard that, in the eyes of others, is not a true standard at all. Witness the horrified reaction that the New York Times records to the "Smart Choices" healthy food standard:

Eileen T. Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board and the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said the program’s criteria were based on government dietary guidelines and widely accepted nutritional standards.

She said the program was also influenced by research into consumer behavior. That research showed that, while shoppers wanted more information, they did not want to hear negative messages or feel their choices were being dictated to them.

“The checkmark means the food item is a ‘better for you’ product, as opposed to having an x on it saying ‘Don’t eat this,’ ” Dr. Kennedy said. “Consumers are smart enough to deduce that if it doesn’t have the checkmark, by implication it’s not a ‘better for you’ product. They want to have a choice. They don’t want to be told ‘You must do this.’”

But critics are concerned because products such as Froot Loops are receiving the "Smart Choices" designation.

“These are horrible choices,” said Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health.

He said the criteria used by the Smart Choices Program were seriously flawed, allowing less healthy products, like sweet cereals and heavily salted packaged meals, to win its seal of approval. “It’s a blatant failure of this system and it makes it, I’m afraid, not credible,” Mr. Willett said.

But there's certainly a lesson to be learned from this episode, and perhaps the lesson is Machiavellian, but it should at least be considered. If you set up your own standard, trumpet the importance of the standard, get others to buy into the standard, and then announce that you provide a product that conforms to the standard, you'll be ahead of the game.

Do you want an example that is more bizarre than Froot Loops? Take the Jackson Family Honors. Remember them? Fifteen years ago, NBC televised a show entitled the "Jackson Family Honors." As it turns out, there were only two award recipients - Eliabeth Taylor and Berry Gordy. I don't know if either mentions the Jackson Family Honor on their resumes...but (at least at the time) the Jacksons certainly did. Back in 1994, the New York Times noted that the awards ceremony was almost derailed because of the child abuse allegations against Michael. But, significantly, the Jacksons got NBC to buy into the awards concept because NBC had money on the line.

[T]he NBC project, arranged at astronomical cost, became a network executive's nightmare when Michael Jackson became ensnared in what he termed on the broadcast "my trials and tribulations." Charges of child molestation are not compatible with prime-time television. Just ask the ad agencies.

Still, here was one of the most phenomenal entertainers of the age, and NBC cleverly used the furor surrounding him to drum up publicity. Would he show up in Las Vegas, where the show was taped last weekend? Would he perform? Would he say anything? With local NBC newscasts beating the promotional drums, viewers would have to wait until the last half-hour of the broadcast to get the answers.

But NBC, and the Jacksons themselves - well, all of the Jacksons except La Toya - weren't the only ones who bought into the concept of the Jackson Family Honors.

Dionne Warwick, recently criticized by some groups for her charity benefit practices, pointedly prefaced her singing of "That's What Friends Are For" with a reminder that the recording "raised $2 million for AIDS." And even Mr. Gordy, now relying mostly on past ghosts, put an overly positive spin on the present, not helped much by the appearance of his latest would-be stars, Another Bad Creation.

The Jacksons realized a return on their investment. While those associated with the project - NBC, Warwick, Gordy - benefited, certain Jacksons benefited also. Joe:

[T]he rest of the program maneuvered steadily at counterattacking rumors, articles, books and television movies about other problems in the Jackson family, most notably allegations of long-ago child abuse by its ambitious patriarch. Michael's sister La Toya, the most outspoken and certainly the flakiest of the brood, was simply made invisible, not even mentioned.

The family father sat benignly with his pleasant wife in the audience, his smile fading only during the humble yet self-serving acceptance speech of Mr. Gordy, the man who became the true father figure in Michael Jackson's life.

And, of course, Michael:

Mr. Gordy to Michael: "I believed in you when you were 9, and I believe in you now." Ms. Taylor to Michael: "You're the brightest star in the universe, and don't let them dim your light."

I mentioned Machiavelli earlier, so perhaps it's instructive to see what Machiavelli said about alliances:

[W]hen a prince declares himself gallantly in favour of one side, if the party with whom he allies himself conquers, although the victor may be powerful and may have him at his mercy, yet he is indebted to him, and there is established a bond of amity; and men are never so shameless as to become a monument of ingratitude by oppressing you. Victories after all are never so complete that the victor must not show some regard, especially to justice. But if he with whom you ally yourself loses, you may be sheltered by him, and whilst he is able he may aid you, and you become companions in a fortune that may rise again.

Kellogg's had some problems about perceptions of their cereals. Perhaps Tufts University and/or Eileen Kennedy had some problems with recognition. Joe Jackson, Michael Jackson, Berry Gordy, Dionne Warwick, et al had some problems with sucess and other issues. But these people united with other needy people, formed alliances, and devised standards to advance their goals. And perhaps their choices were not smart or honorable, but they did advance the individuals' aims.
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