An advertising planner takes a road trip to find out if the American Dream is dead or alive

Planner Heidi Hackemer and her pickup truck. Soon to be far from New York City.

I suppose one could argue that given the current economy, the diminished value of most homes, miserably low interest rates and an unreliable stock market, the American Dream is on life support at best.

Add to that the high price of college education, the lack of jobs awaiting recent graduates, and the nagging sense that health care will probably eat up all of our retirement savings forcing those same grads to nix any expectation that an inheritance might help them dig out of their debt, and the old version of the dream — home ownership, two cars in the garage, a better economic situation than the previous generation, lives on only in TV shows and movies from the 1950s. And, perhaps, in Silicon Valley.

Then again, that could be too pessimistic a perspective. After all, hope dies last.

Maybe there’s no longer a collective American Dream. But perhaps there are thousands of individual ones to replace it. Maybe they’re simpler. Less materialistic. Perhaps they’re about downsizing, having more control, working for oneself, consuming less, giving more. It would certainly be useful to know.

A planner goes on the road

Which is why I am so excited for (and jealous of ) my friend Heidi Hackemer, planner extraordinaire (until today at Droga5  and previously at BBH NY) who is about to embark on a mostly solo cross country trip in her pick-up truck to find out. She plans on meeting and interviewing folks she’d never run into in a Manhattan restaurant or art gallery in quest of an answer.

She has a route — west from Florida to California then north to Alaska;  a plan — she’ll stop in diners at lunch, sit at the counter and open a road atlas, “works every time” she informs me; and a slew of social media connections willing to help from afar with tips and suggestions for where to go and who to seek out.

After that it’s just Heidi, a digital video camera, her iPhone, her charm and her curiosity.

As Heidi says, “I hope to understand this country in ways that living in my NYC bubble makes difficult.”

We should probably all do a little bit of what Heidi’s doing:  get out of our bubble; seek reactions from people different from us; observe someone else’s world from her perspective.

Heeding advice from Jerry Della Femina

It was probably 20 plus years ago when Jerry Della Femina, quoted in a WSJ legends ad, warned us about becoming isolated.

“Young creative people start out hungry. They’re off the street; they know how to think, And their work is great. Then they get successful. They make more money, spend time in restaurants they never dreamed of, fly back and forth between New York and Los Angeles.  Pretty soon, the real world isn’t people. It’s just a bunch of lights off the right side of the plane. You have to stay in touch if you’re going to write advertising that works.”

He concludes with this suggestion:

“Ride a subway. Stand up on a bus. Buy a hot dog on the corner. Stay in touch.”

Twitter and Facebook and Instagram may all work pretty well, but Heidi’s approach, following in the footsteps of Alexis De Toqueville or Studs Terkel, past chroniclers who made similar journeys, seems a far better way to heed Jerry’s advice.

I’ll be following Heidi’s journey closely. Sadly, it will be via her blog and Twitter feed, rather than from the road. Perhaps you should do the same.

And now, an added bonus for reading this far:

Excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, written in 1840

In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that exists in the world; it seemed to me that a sort of cloud habitually covered their features; they appeared to me grave and almost sad even in their pleasures.

The principal reason for this is that the first do not think of the evils they endure, whereas the others dream constantly of the goods they do not have.

It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it.

The inhabitant of the United States attaches himself to the goods of this world as if he were assured of not dying, and he rushes so precipitately to grasp those that pass within his reach that one would say he fears at each instant he will cease to live before he has enjoyed them. He grasps them all but without clutching them, and he soon allows them to escape from his hands so as to run after new enjoyments.


Edward, check out this book by a friend of mine James Reeves, The Road to Somewhere,  Also, the work he and his partner Candy Chang are doing in New Orleans.  Their company, Civic Center.  Know you will like it.