What Is Different: Tobacco vs. Cell-Phone Ads

An advertising factoid underscores what makes the 15-year consumer boom different.
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This column was originally published on RealMoney on July 13 at 10:12 a.m. EDT.

Most analysts have spent the last few years trying to explain the almost uninterrupted growth of the U.S. economy over the last 15 years (and the last four years of it in particular) by pointing toward a profligate

Federal Reserve

policy. Greenspan has certainly presided over a Fed that has kept rates at far lower levels than his immediate predecessors, but I think it's dead wrong to cite the Fed as the primary driver of this boom.

It's a technological revolution that's driving this expansion, and the Internet and the communications revolution may really be changing the dynamics of the heretofore accepted economic cycles.

Bears will surely start trying to chastise me for proclaiming that "it's

different

this time," but let's call a spade a spade. This long economic boom in the U.S. economy is remarkable and the reason all these analysts have spent so much time and energy trying to explain (critique) the dynamics that have driven the boom is precisely because it's been different this time.

Tero Kuittinen cited one of the most remarkable aspects of this economic cycle the other day when he noted that it's been 15 years since the last serious

Anglo-Saxon consumer recession

. This is the longest, sustained economic uptrend that has ever happened. But rather than trying to fit the reality of this sustained consumer boom into a preset agenda of accepted economic theory, I think we should consider the impact that technology has made on the consumer, and how the consumer is being targeted.

What is it that's really been different? Well I almost fell out of my chair the other night while having drinks with a bigwig at a major music/men's lifestyle magazine. I asked him what sectors were his biggest advertisers today vs. 20 years ago.

"Oh, that's easy," he said. "Telecom and consumer electronics today. And20 years ago it was tobacco, by far."

Think about that. Twenty years ago, young adult consumers were subjected to endless barrages of advertisements and propaganda to adopt a killer addiction. Today's young adults are being bombarded with advertisements and propaganda trying to propel them to adopt new technologies.

After he said this, I looked around the smokeless bar we were sitting in. A woman sitting next to us was typing into her Blackberry. Her friend was keying in an SMS into her cell phone, and my phone was vibrating in my pocket. (It was a telecom contact. I called him back on my way home and wediscussed how

Tellabs'

(TLAB)

quarter is shaping up.)

Tobacco and cell phones are good examples of the revolution that has driven this economy for the last 15 years. Consumers aren't increasing spending on tobacco -- a product that kills people slowly, driving up health care costs and creating all kinds of vicious cycles in the economy -- anymore, reversing a trend that's been in place for centuries.

Instead, they're allocating more dollars toward cell phones -- a product that enables us to stay in better touch, lets us work from a bar and creates all kinds of virtuous cycles in the economy.

Certainly, the virtuous cycles that have helped drive this record-setting economic boom could come undone. Maybe the next generation of PC or cell phone won't drive enough demand for upgrades. Or maybe a real estate collapse will be so harsh as to undermine the demand for the next gen devices. But nobody can rightly deny the impact that technology and the networking of our world has had on the economy. And nobody can tell me that it is going to stop suddenly tomorrow just because the Fed's not being as generous with their rates as they have been.

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At time of publication, the firm in which Willard is a partner was net long Tellabs, although positions can change at any time and without notice.

Cody Willard is a partner in a buy-side firm and a contributor to TheStreet.com's RealMoney.

He also produces a premium product for TheStreet.com called

The Telecom Connection and is the founder of Teleconomics.com. The firm in which Willard is a partner may, from time to time, have long or short positions in, or buy or sell the securities, or derivatives thereof, of companies mentioned in his columns. At time of publication, the firm in which Willard is a partner had no positions in any of the securities mentioned in this column, although positions can change at any time and without notice. None of the information in this column constitutes, or is intended to constitute, a recommendation by Willard of any particular security or trading strategy or a determination by Willard that any security or trading strategy is suitable for any specific person. Willard appreciates your feedback --

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