As we look forward to the first National Automatic Merchandising Association OneShow, we can't help thinking back over more than four decades of industry expositions. Trade shows in general have suffered from the real contraction of the economy, and also from the illusion that their face-to-face, kick-the-tires immediacy is obsolete, having been superseded by online communication. This fallacy also is having a negative effect on print publishing.
We note, of course, that not participating in trade shows frees up a lot of weekends and saves money, too. And print is so last-century. We don't see how anyone who has used the Internet for 10 minutes actually can think that it is the present solution to all the world's sales promotion and customer relations needs, but there seems to be an intense, if diffuse, belief that it will be, some day soon, and meanwhile, the best thing to do is nothing.
We have, of course, said all this before. Meanwhile the NAMA convention is before us, offering a once-a-year opportunity to see what's new (including new things you didn't know existed, and so could not search for on the Internet), and to swap ideas – often with people you don't know, and so couldn't correspond with on a social networking site.
It is also a time to ask questions; not the "frequently asked questions" that nobody ever asks, but questions about things that actually interest you, directed at people who actually know the answers.
And to ask ourselves questions, too. It has become evident that we have entered a new cycle of intrusive government. This bout is different from the 1960s onslaught that gave rise to so many trade associations, for defense, and caused so many existing associations to relocate to Washington, DC, from whence could come laws and rules that could put everybody out of business. It also is different from the 1970s frenzy of price controls and fuel rationing. But it may be no less dangerous.
It's time to ask whether a coordinated industry - or citizen - response is possible to a climate of opinion in which government calls on the academy to justify extraordinary efforts to interfere with individual choice. The challenge is that, if you accept their premises, you may find it difficult to disagree with their conclusions.
Thus, if you accept that the proper job of government is to identify problems and devise solutions, you can hardly avoid granting it large powers that would have been inconceivable to political theorists adhering to the older view that government's job was to enforce the laws fairly, maintain order and encourage commerce and industry. The triumphs of science in the 19th century certainly enabled everyone to recognize that conditions formerly regarded as inexplicable afflictions, like epidemics, were in fact problems that could be solved, and that governments were the best agents for implementing them. We think it is possible to grant that and, at the same time, insist that it is not the business of government to impose "lifestyle changes" on the citizenry, based only on large statistical correlations and what appears to be a quasi-religious impulse to regard inoffensive enjoyment as indulgence and gluttony. We think it is difficult to defend the proposition that people who have been entrusted with the power to elect their governors cannot be trusted to decide what they want for lunch.
We also think it's time to ask two related questions: are "special interests" only found in the private sector, and is there not a profound difference between lobbyists who want the government to give them money and lobbyists who want the government only to allow them fair play on a level playing field?
We remember a seminar at a NAMA convention about a quarter of a century ago, when restrictions on smoking was a hot topic. An audience member stood up and said, angrily, that he was 75 years old, he'd been smoking since he was a teenager, he'd never been sick a day in his life and he thought the whole smoking-and-health discussion was being controlled by powers that simply wanted to extract large sums of money from the public. He asked why the association, and the tobacco industry, were playing ball with these powers? Was it not high time to denounce the whole thing as a monstrous fraud and usurpation?
He was told, of course, that this really was not politically feasible, nor desirable from a public relations standpoint. And it wasn't; but, in retrospect, perhaps it would have been a better course. Reasoned argument always is best, but one cannot argue with Authority that masks its agenda.
During the early days of the American Revolution, the patriot Dr. Joseph Warren (he died at Bunker Hill) wrote a song, to the well-known tune of The British Grenadiers. It began,
Torn from a world of tyrants,
Beneath this western sky,
We'll form a new dominion,
A land of liberty.
The world will own we're masters here,
Then hasten on the day:
Oppose, oppose, oppose, oppose,
For free America!
We think this is worth thinking about as the industry convenes at OneShow.