Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Political Marketing & Branding (part I)

Through Their Disastrous Marketing & Branding,
Republicans Have Led Some Americans To Believe that
Cletus, the Slack Jawed Yokel is the Embodiment of
Conservative Values & Visions, Thoughts & Traditions.

The consumer choices of most people are driven to a large degree by the powers of marketing and branding. Even intelligent and informed consumers are swayed by extraneous images that advertisers skillfully utilize. At the most base level these advertisements encourage consumers to connect their product to a certain emotional response. And on a deeper level they seek to engage the consumer's sense of self identity with their product. Think back to the images of cowboys and rugged men than figured prominently in the old Marlboro ads. What does that have to do with the product or even the consumer? Presumably less than 1% of smokers were cowboys. Clearly, the marketers wanted consumers to relate their brand to masculinity and self reliance, not emphysema and lung cancer. And other cigarette brands utilized entirely different imagery that sought to envoke a different sense of self, even though their products were virtually identical. The tar and toxins in Parliament cigarettes are no more sophisicated that those found in other brands, yet Parliament utilized images of sophisticated, urbane men and women.

During political discussions with some friends and family members, I came to realize that these same dynamics increasingly figure prominently in our political decisions. They were truly aghast when I revealed to that I had opted for a libertarian or even a republican candidate. What most surprised me was that these otherwise educated and open minded individuals based their critique not on the policies pt philosophies of the candidates, but largely on vacuous cultural generalizations, which I have come to believe are a product of the marketing efforts of both political parties.

When I presented a close friend of mine with a long litany of clear critiques of specific policies of the Obama Administration, the gist of his response was "how can you vote with those gun totting, bible thumping rednecks and racist red state republicans" against "caring, educated, urbane blue state democrats." Half jokingly he asked me if I now "drink Coors, chew tobacco and watched Nascar with Billy Bob." I would have gladly accepted a rebuttal that defended Obama's policies, but instead I was treated to trite generalizations, to which I responded:

1. It's problematic to make broad generalizations against conservatives, because conservatism is a remarkably broad tent that includes everything from secular, free-market civil libertarians such as Ron Paul, to harsh and xenophobic economic and social protectionists like Pat Buchanan. Furthermore, very few if any of the horrid policies of leaders like George W Bush reflected fundamental conservative beliefs.

2. It's just as unacceptable to spew hateful generalizations against Americans who reside in rural and southern communities as it is to do so against Jews and African-Americans.

3. You cannot judge the merit of a political philosophy or policy by the wisdom or foolishness of its followers. History is filled with examples of otherwise enlightened individuals supporting terrible parties and politicians. The Noble Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda's was an outspoken supporter of Stalinism and the philosopher Martin Heidegger was openly sympathetic of nazism. And conversely, in spite of his brutality and banality, the ex-leader of Chile, Augusto Pinochet promoted economic reform that contributed to Chile's development as the most economically stable and prosperous nation in Latin America.

With great effort, I pushed my friend to focus on the merit of competing political philosophies and policies. His response was "unlike conservative republicans, liberal democrats aren't war mongering tools of big business...and don't waste time and money chasing harmless cannabis users..." Even the most basic knowledge of past and present politics shows that these are also tired, generic generalizations.

For good or for bad, progressives like President Wilson and FDR supported America's entry into World War I & World War II, liberal democrats like President Johnson escalated the War in Vietnam, President Clinton launched the questionable bombing of Serbia and the vast majority of Democrats were in favor of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. So, clearly no party has a monopoly on war mongering. And sadly, the majority of democrats and republicans are beholden to big businesses. In fact corporations, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have strategically contributed millions of dollars to to candidates of both parties. And it's abundantly clear that the Obama Administration, like the Bush administration before it, drew many of its members from Wall Street, the Federal Reserve and the Bilderberg Group. And needless to say, very few members of either party have openly challenged the war on drugs.

After much thought, it became apparent to me that the biggest difference between both parties lay not in their policies, but in the rhetoric and images that they market to the public. This was highlighted during the presidential race when it was revealed that a member of the Obama Campaign asked the Canadian Government to disregard speeches in which he railed against free-trade and Nafta, because it was just for public consumption. So, we see that both parties fundamentally hold the same trade policies, but most republicans speak of the merits of free trade, whereas many democrats fall back on protectionist rhetoric.

Bush may have paid lip service to ideas of limited government and free markets, but like most of his democratic counterparts, he supported the expansion of fiscally irresponsible entitlements like the Prescription Drug Plan. And in spite of progressive fears, the "conservative" Bush administration did not persecute gays, outlaw abortion, attack immigrations, put automatic rifles in the hands of 5 year olds or tear down the wall between church and state. And conversely, in spite of his lofty rhetoric, the Obama Administration has done little to challenge the status quo regarding the aforementioned issues. And like George W Bush before him, Obama has been an unrelenting supporter of the corporate welfare and cronyism that progressives abhor.

The source of this divergence between rhetoric and reality lay in the marketing and branding efforts of both parties. The "tobacco that both party sells" is remarkably similar, but the phrases, images and sense of identity that both parties utilize in their marketing is quite different. Obama, the Democratic party's Marlboro Man is a handsome, charismatic figure that was marketed as the embodiment of change, progress and populism. And by voting for him, the "political consumer" affirmed their sense of self, their image as being urbane, progressive and compassionate. In contrast, the Republican parties lackluster marketing campaign relied on a gray and withered Marlboro Man. The incoherent campaign apparently sought to affirm the consumer's sense of patriotism, duty and tradition. And not only did both parties play on the hopes of consumers, but they sought to cultivate and capitalize on their fears. Whereas key republican marketers cultivated the fear that we are moving away from traditional values, towards secular socialism, democratic marketers capitalize on fears that the country is moving towards "unfettered free-markets and the imposition of theocracy."

My associates then interjected "oh yeah, democrats like Obama are worldly and intelligent and Bush was a Texan yahoo." My response was "Bush is a Harvard and Yale educated east coast blue blood and I suspect that the good old boy image that he projected is more marketing than reality. But, even if he were a yahoo, that would have remarkably little on impact on government policy." When formulating his trade and economic policy, he did not sit down with a banjo playing inbred named "Uncle Kleetus." As flawed as his policies may have been, he appointed ivy league educated experts to formulate and execute them. And the "brilliant Obama" did not author the exhaustive and complex provisions of his programs and policies; he too relied on a team of experts. To a tremendous degree, the policies of both parties simply reflect the conglomeration of interests that lobby and support them. The fact that Obama effortlessly transitioned into and expanded Bush's bailout measures leads me to believe that there is far greater convergence between the advisers of so called conservative and liberal administrations that most people realize.

So, why is to blame for the negative emotional reaction that the term "conservative" elicits from so many educated, urbane Americans? I would have to say that a large part of the blame lies in the deeply flawed marketing efforts of Republicans. I would venture to say that in modern American politics, the selection of a candidate is more reflective of a parties marketing strategy than their political vision. Why? Because, the powerful factions within a party could have selected any one of many politicians to promote the same policies. The Republicans could have easily chosen a more urbane politician like Giuliani. Or, they could have emphasized Bush's identity as a Harvard & Yale educated man with old New England roots, rather than a Texas Cowboy. The cultivation of the Bush Brand reflects the efforts of the choice of the party to sell the image of a "down to earth, G-d fearing patriot that is just like you and me..." Naturally, this turned off my friend and many other Americans, causing them to associate conservative policies with "anti-intellectual yokels like Bush."

A republican candidate will automatically capture their demographic core, so I would strongly urge the party to re-brand itself and select more articulate candidates to reach out to voters like my friend who are understandably turned off by anti-intellectual marketing. Such candidates could emphasize the rich tradition of conservative intellectuals from Jefferson to Hayek, from Mises to Milton. Such candidates could clearly and intelligently expound on the merits of limited, constitutional government and social and economic freedom of individuals, families and communities. And in order to maintain a shred of credibility, the party would have to put these visions and values into practice, because as we saw with George W Bush, preaching the merits of limited government while dangerously expanding the national debt, is the surest way to discredit conservative thought.

A exploration of political marketing would not be complete without a discussion on religion. Republicans must cease using piety and religion as marketing tools. To do so not only alienates many Americans, it cheapens and corrupts religion. They should emphatically state that while Judeo-Christian traditions are a vital part of American life, beyond guaranteeing the right to the free expressions of faith (and faithlessness), religion and government should not mix. In our great republic, faith should be the realm of the individuals, families and communities that form of the foundation of our vibrant civil society. Diverse communities will never see eye to eye on cultural and religious issues like gay marriage, abortion, drug use and a host of other issues. So, enlightened conservative candidates must emphasize that (with very few exceptions) it is a violation of the constitution and rights of self determination for any one side to use the federal government to enforce their cultural and religious values across the entire nation.

Only with a drastic change in their marketing strategies can Republicans hope to win the hearts and minds of the many voters who are alienated by the fiscally and economically destructive policies of liberals. And until Republicans change their marketing strategies I ask them to disavow themselves from the term "conservative," so that Americans won't wrongly equate conservative values and visions, thoughts and traditions to backwards, anti-intellectual yokels.

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