Although the last presidential election to occur during a recession was only 12 years ago—or what feels like 12 lifetimes ago—Joe Biden being on the ballot isn't the only similarity between then and now. There are fascinating comparisons, particularly when considering the technological and media innovations and innovators from 2008 and how their outsize influence has impacted the politics and culture of 2020.
Streaming comes onstream
Heading into 2008, Netflix was primarily known as a DVD mailing service whose main competitor was the Blockbuster video chain. In January 2008, Netflix offered its unlimited streaming video service to subscribers. Hulu launched its website in March of that year, and two months later Roku debuted its first TV streaming device in partnership with Netflix. In September 2008, the forerunner of Amazon Prime Video was renamed Amazon Video on Demand. The streaming wars had begun.
Even before 2020 began, streaming was all the rage: Disney+ and Apple TV+ both launched in November 2019, and HBO Max and NBCUniversal's Peacock were set to debut this year. But once the pandemic hit, with so many consumers stuck at home and other options for leisure and entertainment temporarily shut down, streaming video became more dominant: About 3.5 million people cut the cord with their TV provider in the first half of the year, according to Bloomberg Intelligence, while eMarketer predicted that more than half of all U.S. households will do so by 2024.
Not all streaming services have been able to cash in. The highest-profile failure was Quibi, which crashed and burned in six months after raising $1.75 billion for its launch.
The COVID-19 pandemic also accelerated retail’s shift to e-commerce as homebound consumers turned to online shopping for both convenience and necessity. Amazon was the biggest beneficiary. But select omnichannel retailers—including Walmart, Target Corp. and Best Buy Co.—also went on the offensive during the pandemic, expanding their online capabilities and working to get brick-and-mortar stores reopened. Many high-profile retailers couldn't pivot, however. U.S. retail bankruptcies in 2020 included Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus and JC Penney.
Car buying has also slowed during the pandemic, but it didn’t stop. With many dealerships closed, more selling moved online: General Motors promoted its “Shop. Click. Drive.” program, though consumers still must buy the vehicle through a dealership rather than directly from the manufacturer. AutoNation, the biggest U.S. dealership group based on new-vehicle sales, has expanded its digital capabilities this year to cater to online shoppers.
During the Great Recession, the bankruptcy of General Motors and the government bailout to save the company and the U.S. auto industry in general got most of the headlines. But in early 2008, Tesla, a company founded by PayPal Co-Founder Elon Musk in 2003, delivered its first electric car. The government’s massive 2008 and 2009 economic recovery packages included rebates of up to $7,500 on electric cars, making it a bit easier for Tesla’s affluent customers to get behind the wheel of a $109,000 Roadster. Tesla also borrowed $465 million in 2010 from the Department of Energy to help build a factory. Flash forward to July 2020, when Tesla eclipsed Toyota Motor Corp. to become the world’s most valuable automaker based on stock value.
The new gatekeepers behind walled gardens
"Print media dominates the bankruptcy list," Ad Age’s 100 Leading Media Companies reported in 2009, "six newspaper companies, two magazine publishers and two yellow-pages publishers.”
Although some major media outlets have rallied during the hyperactive news cycle of the past four years, print has continued to struggle. In the first half of 2020, according to research from Kantar, ad spending for magazines decreased from $6.1 billion in 2019 to $4.6 billion this year (-24.6%) and for newspapers from $3.7 billion in 2019 to $2.4 billion (-36.3%).
In 2008, Facebook (founded in 2004) still trailed MySpace as the leading social network. But in March of that year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a consequential hire: Sheryl Sandberg, a Google veteran, as chief operating officer. By the end of the recession, Facebook was No. 1. As of June 2020, the company reported a record 3.1 billion users across its Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp services.