Working for President Bill Clinton in 1996, I identified the under-the-radar group that became known as the Soccer Moms. (I like to think I did something for the youth soccer movement, although I really didn't mean to. The phrase was just meant to get at busy suburban women devoted to their jobs and their kids, who had real concerns about real presidential policies.) Until that campaign, it was generally thought that politics was dominated by men, who decided how their households would vote. But the truth was, in 1996, most male voters had already made up their minds by the campaign. The people left to influence were the new group of independent Moms, devoted to both work and their kids, who had not yet firmly decided which party would be good for their families. They, not their husbands, were the critical swing voters. To win them over, President Clinton initiated a campaign to give them a helping hand in raising their kids – drug-testing in schools, measures against teen-smoking, limits on violence in the media, and school uniforms. These Moms did not want more government in their lives, but they were quite happy to have a little more government in their kids' lives to keep them on the straight and narrow.
In retrospect, a profound political change was spawned by this bit of trend-spotting. Previously, almost all Democrats had targeted downscale, noncollege workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector. But union membership and manufacturing jobs were shrinking, more people were going to college, and almost the entire electorate in the U.S. was calling itself middle-class. If Democrats missed the key trends, they would miss the boat.
Now candidates enthusiastically target Soccer Moms – although someone may want to let them know that trends move fast, and Soccer Moms, too, have moved on. Now, a decade later, their kids are getting ready for college, many of them have been through a divorce, and their own financial security has become as big an issue for them as raising their children was ten years ago.
And with all of the attention being paid to those Moms, Dads – suburban-based, family-focused, office-park-working Dads – are all but neglected in politics, advertising and the media. In the twenty-first century, Dads spend more time with their children than ever in history. Has Madison Avenue adjusted? Are Dads ever the target of back-to-school campaigns?
There could be as big a shift ahead in marketing as 1996 saw in Democratic politics.
The art of trend-spotting, through polls, is to find groups that are pursuing common activities and desires, and that have either started to come together or can be brought together by the right appeal that crystallizes their needs. Soccer Moms had been there for a decade or more – but they became a political class only when they were recognized as a remarkably powerful voting bloc in America.
Today, changing lifestyles, the Internet, the balkanization of communications, and the global economy are all coming together to create a new sense of individualism that is powerfully transforming our society. The world may be getting flatter, in terms of globalization, but it is occupied by 6 billion little bumps who do not have to follow the herd to be heard. No matter how offbeat their choices, they can now find 100,000 people or more who share their taste for deep-fried yak on a stick.