Election Day impasse rattlesan already-nervous economy

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Even though the polls showed that the public stayed cool over the presidential election impasse, it's now clear that the standoff created serious economic damage, maybe even triggering a recession.

How else to explain the startlingly rapid deterioration of business conditions around the country? Things were going well (except for the dot-coms), and then they got bad really fast.

The stock market, it's said, hates uncertainty, and so it had plenty to hate when we went without a president-elect for a month after the election. Investors and markets were already jittery. When we couldn't elect a new president, they both went into a full-fledged panic.

Not only did they stop buying stocks, they stopped buying almost everything. And once they stopped buying, there were all sorts of reasons why they should remain cautious, even after Gore threw in the towel.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. People see the economy hitting a wall and they think the prudent thing to do is to put on the brakes themselves. That's why Christmas sales probably will turn out to be pretty lousy, and January's numbers will be dismal, too. But then Greenspan will cut interest rates, and all that yearend pension and 401(k) money will have to be put to work, pushing the stock market higher, and pretty soon people will forget about their concerns and start spending again.

Remember, on the very first working day of the new century, the stock market had a rough time because investors bailed out of a pricey and overbought market. It took the rest of the year to wring the froth out of the high flyers-and to convince people that the market still works in rational ways.

It's nice to know, isn't it, that the old laws still prevail. Companies that don't make money don't do well in the stock market, and, closer to home, stupid advertising doesn't work and you can't build a brand quickly, no matter how much money you put behind it.

There seems to be an outbreak of common sense let loose in the land. The new head of Sears, Roebuck & Co., for instance, told The Wall Street Journal he believes Sears' slogan "A good life at a great price" focuses too much on price alone. "That's been our problem," he said, "We've advertised the lines of business and the promotions better than we've advertised the destination. But why should I go to Sears vs. Target?" Target, as we know, has done a superb job of making its destination the trendy place to buy cheap stuff.

We're also learning, again, the limitations of a brand. As an automotive consultant told The New York Times, in regard to General Mo-tors' decision to discontinue Oldsmobile: "The GM approach to brands says you can make a brand anything you want it to be; all you have to do is change the product. In reality, the customer sets bounds on what a brand can be."

And these parameters are not necessarily determined by advertising. Oldsmobile advertised that it no longer was your father's Oldsmobile, but younger people knew it still was. Older people-the car's main market-were in effect being disenfranchised. They couldn't even get those cushy bench seats, for Pete's sake.

eToys has a different problem. Its advertising is great, probably the best of any dot-com company: poignant yet very clear about what it does. Unfortunately, consumers have long memories, and eToys was guilty of late deliveries for Christmas in 1999. As the nursery rhyme says, all the king's horses couldn't put eToys together again.

Maybe the extended election period has a silver lining to it. It no doubt left us all exhausted and edgy, and as The New York Times Magazine put it, "Whatever happens between now and Inauguration Day, that giant snoring you hear is the first susurrance [for those of us less erudite than Times writers, "susurrance" means whispering] of an electorate eager to take five."

That bodes well for advertising. The dot-coms were impatient to get things done fast. They've taught us that nothing worthwhile happens at breakneck speed. Brand marketing is a long, simmering process.

"The people have spoken, and they are pooped," the Times said. In the stock market and consumer products, people are too tired to chase anything new-they want blue chip stocks and they want old reliable brands.

Is it any wonder that bowling is having a resurgence and the Bush brand is back in vogue?

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