Right next door to world headquarters of The Deal LLC looms the impressive wedding cake of the New York Stock Exchange, opened 1903. These days that columned façade serves as a kind of proscenium arch for large corporate banners; The Deal itself hung a very striking banner on the occasion of our Deal Economy conference at the NYSE in December. Mostly, the banners that hang from the façade appear because of initial public offerings going on inside; HCA hung its IPO banner up there recently. But, in fact, marketers seem to believe the NYSE façade is one very classy billboard, and they use it for any number of other purposes that have nothing to do with IPOs or, frankly, the exchange at all; it's a great place to hang a very large American flag, for instance, and to announce that Pepsi Max is the soft drink of the Super Bowl. The building itself, like the bell-ringing ceremonies inside, or indeed the activity on the hallowed floor itself, has been abstracted away from its original purpose and into the metaphysical empyrean of Higher Marketing: as much image as reality.
All of which brings us to Lucky Charms.
Today, General Mills, a food company founded in 1846 in Minnesota, hung a very handsome banner in commemoration of St. Patrick's Day. The connection of this large, global, multinational food conglomerate to a day celebrating Ireland's national saint appears to be a sugary breakfast cereal that features a green-clad leprechaun on the box: the aforementioned Lucky Charms. Let us attempt to unpack, if we can before the festivities begin -- and they do not involve Lucky Charms -- the underlying messages lurking here.
There are so many! General Mills is clearly attempting to forge a complex set of identities. It goes something like this: St. Patrick is to Ireland what Ireland is to Irish-Americans what Irish-Americans are to partying what partying is to Lucky Charms is to General Mills is to the NYSE, etc. Each of these identities contains its own embedded meaning, some of which is authentic, some of which is, well, received wisdom, popular belief and pure marketing malarkey. St. Patrick was real, though, like many saints, his life is a misty amalgam of myth and truth. That's hardly a revelation. What's fun is to ponder the connections between these identities. Somehow, a Catholic saint (apparently a Brit to boot), who had something to do with snakes and conversion to the True Faith in a godless and very damp land, gets identified with a leprechaun from Ireland's pagan pre-Christian past, who is a multimedia spokesman for a cereal, made in America and peddled to children to the profit of a global food conglomerate that sells stock, which rises and falls based on those profits (and dividends), to investors through its listing on the NYSE, which, in turn, is actually a part of a larger company (NYSE Euronext) that is involved in merger talks with a German derivatives exchange, Deutsche Börse. What would St. Patrick say? Gimme some Lucky Charms.
"Lucky the Leprechaun," by the way, got to ring the NYSE bell.
Of course the "authentic" St. Patrick's Day, which lies at the heart of all this, has its own complex history in America, where so many Irish settled and prospered. The holiday is, in its own way, a memory device, a symbol, like the leprechaun on the box. This massive emigration to America is a long and complex saga -- comic, tragic, heroic, insane -- that has (need I say this?) nothing to do with cereal, despite its commendable calcium content. The celebration has long grown past the memories and allegiances of Irish-Americans, or indeed authentic Irish persons themselves: We are all Irish today on St. Patrick's Day. We wear a little green, chug a little beer, stagger about the streets talking in loud voices. "Being Irish" has become a state of mind, a spirit that has little to do with real estate woes and failing banks and a lot to do with parades, parties and pride. Like a securitized instrument, vast abstractions that serve many purposes have been erected upon the underlying reality of Ireland and a priest named Patrick. It's a derivative!