retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Caution: This column is not about politics. It is about doing business in the new world of social media, consumer reviews, and online shopping. However, it is the world of politics that provides the example...

We are here to declare the official winner of the second presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney: The Avery Dennison Co.

That's right. The the Pasadena-based office products company may not be on anyone's ballot, and in fact was never mentioned by name. But Avery Dennison hit public relations pay dirt when, in the October 16 debate, Romney mentioned that, when seeking qualified candidates for various positions as governor of Massachusetts, he asked for and received “binders full of women."

That line set off a blitz of Facebook posts, tweets, YouTube spoofs, late-night talk show quips and memes about women and binders. As might be expected, Democrats jumped all over the line with Facebook pages and websites poking fun at the GOP candidate's phraseology.

But from a business standpoint, Avery Dennison, and by extension, were the unintended beneficiaries of Romney’s phrasing . In fact, “binders full of women” pops up when the term "binders" is entered on Amazon’s site.

Consider the satirical consumer comments on Amazon of the top-selling Avery Durable View Binder with 2 Inch EZ-Turn Ring, White, 1 Binder, for $8.69, which had generated more than 1,110 reviews and no shortage of online reaction yesterday. Here’s but a sampling from Most Helpful Reviews:

• “One Missing Bit of Information You Might Want To Know: For any of you who might be considering, like me, purchasing this binder based on the reviews, let me just point out one glaring omission: While this is a lovely, multi-purpose binder, IT DOES NOT COME WITH WOMEN.” (Note for context: 7,683 of 7,870 people found the review helpful.)

• “Changing my tune: I was originally going to rate this only 1 star. You see, I'm a big girl and I can only squeeze about 53% of myself into this binder. But then I decided that I'm not going to worry about the other 47%.”

• “I'm a Binder Mom: I'm proud to say that I'm in this binder. I've spent 20 years working my way up from Wal-Mart mom to soccer mom, and finally, I've hit the glass ceiling. I'm a binder mom! I highly recommend this binder I'm in, but be aware that if you purchase it, you must be flexible and let me put a ham in the oven by 5. Otherwise, my kids might resort to gun violence.”

• “I received the wrong binders: My advice is to be very careful when ordering, because what I received were binders full of men.”

According to Bloomberg News, Avery Dennison was along for the ride and said it would stand by its October 18th Facebook comment: “It’s terrific to see so much passion this election season. And we’re always excited to hear folks talking about binders.” (And it should be noted that Dean Scarborough, the CEO of Avery Dennison, is listed in Federal Election Commission reports as having personally donated money to the Romney campaign ... though he also has donated money in the past to the Senate campaign of Democrat Barbara Boxer.)

Now, let's stipulate that about 45 percent of the population will find these comments funnier than another 45 percent, and that roughly 10 percent of the population - many of them living in Ohio - are undecided, or at least uncommitted.

The point that needs to be made - and in my view, cannot be made enough - is that a slip of the tongue, a clumsy turn of phrase, or even a verbal gaffe (which the columnist Michael Kinsley once defined as being when a politician actually tells the truth) can take on a life of its own. In this case, there suddenly were hundreds of customer reviews of binders on Amazon, and thousands of people reading and evaluating those reviews.

In this case, it seems unlikely that the original phrase or the responses will serve to change anyone's mind about who they will vote for in two weeks. But it is not hard to imagine that a political candidate or a CEO could make a far more damaging remark that could do severe damage to his reputation or cause. (Remember when the CEO of BP said, during the height of the Gulf oil spill, that he wanted his life back?)

It also seems to me that beyond the implications for sales - no matter what you are selling - it is important for business people to be aware when these sorts of outpourings take place, because they suggest an attitude on the part of at least some consumers that may need to be factored into future strategies and tactics.

Social media and consumer reviews can be a land mine for marketers. But they also can be a gold mine of information about what consumers are thinking and feeling, and how they are going to vote, whether at the ballot box or with their wallets.

Don't forget what moderator Bob Schieffer said at the end of Monday night's debate. Quoting his mother, he said to the television audience, "Vote. It makes you feel big and strong."

That's what consumers are. Big and strong. And based on the information they get, and they way they react to it, they show how big and strong they are. Everyday.

Comments? Send me an email at .
KC's View:
A brief postscript here...

It is being reported this morning that when President Barack Obama had a phone conversation with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, seeking to get the paper's endorsement, his campaign insisted on the highly unusual condition that the details of the discussion had to remain off the record. (When Romney met with the board in person, by way of comparison, not only was the conversation on the record, but the paper posted the audio on its website.)

The Obama conditions suggest a fundamental misreading of the need for transparency in today's world. If you ask for such a conversation to be off the record, at the very least you can expect that it will be reported that you made such a request ... and it won't look good.

As Kate correctly says in her column, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can result in lots of online discussion, some of which will actually cast light on the subject at hand. But it also is harder than ever to play your cards close to your vest, because what in the past might have been seen as discretion and caution is now seen as trying to hide something.