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Book Review: Bright-Sided How Positive Thinking is Undermining America

This is a post by guest columnist, Alison Kenney.

Barbara Ehrenreich continues to challenge the status quo in her newest book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.  In it she questions the very American trait of putting faith in the power of positive thinking.  I’ve been a fan of Ehrenreich’s contrary viewpoint and ideological commitment since reading her bestseller Nickel & Dimed and wanted to see what she had to say in this book.  The PR person in me was curious too – I mean what’s wrong with putting a positive spin on things?

It turns out, a lot is wrong with that approach.

In the first chapter, Ehrenreich uses her experience with breast cancer to advocate for questioning received wisdom and digging deeper for answers.  She writes about her feelings of anger at being diagnosed with cancer, and simultaneously feeling that it is unacceptable to express that anger.  She writes about the “pink ribbon” effect and the widely-repeated notion that breast cancer patients have received a gift, i.e. the cancer gives them a chance to see clearly and fully appreciate their lives, and also the belief among patients that a positive attitude will help them combat their disease, something that can’t be proven scientifically.

Ehrenreich also makes the argument that blind optimism prevents us from making the best decisions.  If we focus on the positive, we may do so at the peril of ignoring potential threats and dangers and thereby taking precautions to avoid them.  As she points out, “a chief of state does not want to hear a general in the field say that he hopes to win tomorrow’s battle or that he’s visualizing victory; he or she wants one whose plans include the possibility that things may go very badly, and fall-back positions in case they do.”

Ehrenreich’s book is interesting and nuanced; while a positive attitude can be a “good thing,” it shouldn’t trump all other perspectives.  The lessons for PR professionals are:

Don’t be self-absorbed –The pursuit of happiness (or PR success) can lead to tunnel vision where we ignore real news and only focus on our self and our personal goals.  By acknowledging competitors, preparing for hard questions and using that knowledge to strengthen your position, PR professionals can uncover new opportunities and prepare for market advantage.

Challenge authority — Ehrenreich recommends, “recruiting the observations of other” but cautions readers to avoid “groupthink,” i.e. the adoption and perpetuation of a false belief by a closed group of people despite mounting evidence against the false belief.  Ehrenreich’s examples of groupthink gone wrong include the increased use of motivational speakers by corporations in order to pump up workforces demoralized by layoffs and convince both those let go and those remaining that their attitude, and not the relentless pursuit of corporate profit, was responsible for their plight.  Ehrenreich also explores how certain Christian “prosperity” churches have gotten into the act, convincing their parishioners that God wants them to be rich and will help them get that way if they just show a little faith by giving money to the church. Her comments on how many of the devout poor were convinced the predatory mortgages they were being offered a few years back were a gift from God were particularly poignant.  According to Ehrenreich the focus on individual power over destiny works against genuine social change in which people band together to make a real difference.  While it can be tough for marketers to go against the grain, PR can be a very effective way to promote well-considered alternatives to popular trends.

Don’t be afraid to “go negative” –PR campaigns that point out negative aspects of your competitors can be risky – there’s a chance the effort will backfire and earn your competition a sympathy vote, but if your message is one that touches a real concern your audience holds, “going negative” can earn you respect as a voice of reason.  For instance, this video from green cleaning product maker Method highlights the negative effects of using chemical cleaners, such as those from rivals like SC Johnson’s Scrubbing Bubbles product.  It’s also pretty funny.

The practice of public relations is an exercise in promoting ideas – positive or not.  Ehrenreich’s book adds a lesson in balance – learning to realistically assess both positive and negative outcomes to our choices — to the mix.

Alison Kenney an independent PR practitioner with more than 15 years of PR consulting experience. She is based on Boston’s North Shore and has worked with organizations in the technology, professional services and consumer industries. She writes a bi-monthly PR column on You can find her at Learn more about Alison Kenney.


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