One more US Branding debacle.

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Whether we like it or not, the good old US of A is a brand. Our mark is the Stars & Stripes. Yep, that's right. The United States of America, like France, like Switzerland, like Canada is a brand.

If you were to show an American flag to most people around the world in 1950 (except maybe Japan and Communist countries), you would probably get a very different reaction than you would now.

The US was basically the political equivalent of Superman or Captain America back then. The US had defeated the original axis of evil. The US, through NATO was protecting Western Europe from Soviet invasion. The US was dumping mucho dinero internationally to try and help rebuild Europe and other parts of the world that had been shattered during WWII. The US made the coolest cars. Had the coolest cigarettes, the strongest economy, the best commercial airliners, the most glamorous musicians and movie stars. The US was the bright shining light of 20th century civilization. It was the land of milk and honey.

Kinduv. But you get the drift.

Jump to 2007. Go around the world and show people an American flag and see what happens. The reaction won't be the same as it was just two generations ago.

Now, the brandbuilder blog is not a political vehicle. I keep political topics and viewpoints out of the discussions we have here. So don't assume that I am either pro-Bush or anti-Bush. My political views are irrelevant to this discussion. The point I am trying to make is that in sixty-some years, the image of the United States of America has not improved. Quite the contrary.

If you don't agree with this statement, you live in La-La land. (And by that, maybe I mean Los Angeles. And by Los Angeles, maybe I mean the Los Angeles Sheriff's office. More on that in a sec.)

I think it's safe to say that the US has lost some traction when it comes to being a bright shining example for the world. Aside from the current administration's lack of popularity, and the ill-fated war in Iraq, the US's image isn't being helped by the rampant alledged corruption surrounding companies like Enron, Halliburton, Tyco, etc. Golden parachutes, mass firings, and bankruptcies don't help anyone feel all that great about the US either. The gap between the super-wealthy and the poor keeps growing.

Our obsession with wealth and materialism is reaching Roman proportions: While the super-rich become more and more irresponsibly extravagant, hundreds of thousands of middle-class Americans are slipping into poverty, thanks to the skyrocketing costs of healthcare, energy products, and interest rates.

None of this is healthy.

When people talk about the fall of the Roman Empire, one of the terms they invariably use is decadence. Perhaps a more relevant term may be inequity. Decadence, in and of itself, doesn't destroy empires. Inequity does. When a) the have-nots outnumber the haves, b) the haves start acting like complete jackasses, and c) the haves start to appear to be above the law, bad things start to happen.

This is what starts revolutions in most countries.

The last thing the US needs is another Enron. Another Katrina. Another Rodney King case. Another golden parachute.

And another Paris Hilton get-out-of-jail-free card.

The word of the day, remember, is inequity.

What happened today in Los Angeles - and by that, I mean Paris Hilton's release from jail, may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but this is precisely the sort of thing that a nation with an image problem doesn't need.

I can guarantee that if I were pulled over by a traffic cop and failed a DUI test, my car would be towed and impounded, and I would be immediately booked. My second offense would not result in a warning or probation. My third would see my driving privileges permanently revoked, and I would be serving hard time. In a real jail. With real criminals.

And that would be fair.

Now... I don't think that I would enjoy prison very much, so I make a point not to drink and drive. But more than my aversion for the prospect of forced prison sex with dudes named Ralph or Red Bone, the reason I don't drive drunk is because I value human life. Not just my own, but other lives as well. The last thing I want to do is sideswipe a schoolbus, or get in a head-on collision with a family of six. I don't want to hurt or kill anyone with my car and my bad judgment.

Let me say this again:

I don't want to kill somebody's mom.

I don't want to kill or paralyze someone's little girl.

I don't even want to send Scruffy the family cat to the pet hospital.

So I don't drink and drive.

Paris Hilton doesn't seem to be on the same wavelength.

Which is why we have DUI laws - to make sure that people too dumb and selfish to understand that partying behind the wheel can destroy lives have an incentive not to kill innocent people.

Unfortunately, our strange fascination with self-destructive celebrities and the super wealthy seems to be affecting the good judgment of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department, which should have been a lot more diligent about doing their job when it comes to the chronically DUI Paris Hilton: After way too many DUI traffic stops than necessary to finally force her to face jail time, those jackasses allowed her to leave her jail cell today and go home.

Don't even get me started on the house arrest thing, and the ankle bracelet. She's Paris Hilton. There's no such thing as House Arrest for someone like her. She lives in a mansion!!!!!! Come on!!!!

Now, don't get me wrong: I don't care what Paris Hilton does with herself. I really couldn't give a flip. She can attend all the parties she wants, drink and snort coke as much as she wants, make as many accidental sex tapes as she wants, date rock stars and billionaire sons of trillionaires, and spend her endless fortune as she sees fit. Her decadence is completely irrelevant. To each his own. I sure as hell won't judge her for wanting to have fun and live the life that she has chosen for herself.

But when Paris gets behind the wheel of her car after having one too many drinks, she becomes a criminal, and law enforcement agencies who cross paths with her have a responsibility to fulfill.

It was bad enough that it took as many traffic stops to finally have Paris face jail time. Already, the stench of inequity was in the air. But today, her release from jail after less than a week behind bars was like a giant kick to the huevos of the American Justice System.

It is very difficult to keep a society healthy when justice stops being blind. When the super-rich or the well-connected don't have to answer to the same laws as the rest of the populace.

Believe it or not, the entire world is watching this moronic fiasco. This next step down a dangerous road towards self-destruction. They are watching the United States turn into a second-rate nation whose institutions now seem irreparably corrupt. (When an organization as powerful as the LAPD or the Los Angeles Sheriff's office starts to cater to the whims of a washed-out billionaire party-girl who wanted to get out of jail, you know you've pretty-much hit rock bottom.)

What happened here? Did poor little Paris cry for her mommy? Did her shrink insist that she might have a anorexic relapse because of the stress? Was she losing too much weight eating prison food? Did her family's lawyers threaten to sue?

I'm glad that we've officially entered an era of "if you're rich enough, you don't actually have to go to jail anymore." At least we know where we all stand.

Paris Hilton's case, however insignificant to important world events like wars and elections and famines and pandemics as it may be, is sadly symptomatic of the larger problems facing the United States in the coming years. As insignificant and ridiculous as it is, it is nonetheless a turning point in this country's history - and in the way that the United States is seen by the other 6 billion people around the world.

Thanks for turning "The Land of Opportunity" into "The Land of Corruption." That was sweet. Well done, everybody. We used to think that the corruption was mostly at very high corporate levels like... the Enrons of the world. Now we know it has made its way to the LA County Jail as well.

Good job. Really. I raise my glass to you, whomever you are.

In a very real way, Paris Hilton is a (pop) cultural icon specifically because she embodies so many elements of American culture today, both good and bad. She is rich. She is glamorous. She does whatever she pleases. And at the same time, she is a trainwreck of self-indulgence, ego, and immaturity.

Our fascination with Paris may very well be as narcissistic as she is. That's kind of scary, when you think of it this way: Paris Hilton isn't just selling fashion and burgers and magazines. She is also selling the downfall of the American brand to everyone with access to a TV or a newspaper or an internet terminal.

Paris Hilton is the poster girl for what is probably the end for Brand USA. She is Inequity's Typhoid Mary. She is what's left of Lady Liberty once you strip her of the dusty robes once threaded with the abandoned dreams of the Founding Fathers. She has replaced Superman and Captain America as the vessel for the new American identity. And that is scary as hell.

As a friend emailed me today:
"Paris Hilton is the charicature of American success -- unbelievably rich, amazingly ignorant, moderately attractive after several surgeries, slutty, and self-destructive."

I get goosebumps just reading that. Brand USA needs some serious help. What the hell happened?!

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