“What’s the difference between a president and a can of Pepsi? When it comes to winning elections, the answer is very little. The 2008 election was not about issues, it was about image. Not just the image of the candidate, but the image of his brand,” Daniel Greenfield writes:
From a marketing standpoint, it’s not what the product is, but how people perceive it in relation to themselves. This is an entirely image based approach, but a common one now. What that means is, is this a brand I want to be associated with. Do I want to be seen drinking this can of Pepsi? Is this a brand that makes me feel good about myself? Does it enhance my self-image?
The branding of American politics worked the same way. Obama was not sold as a set of positions and a track record, but as a brand. A brand that people were encouraged to feel enthusiastic about or at least comfortable with, using the same techniques that were used to sell soft drinks. Cheerful posters, meaninglessly simple slogans, celebrities, theme songs, merchandise, social media, viral videos, fonts, color schemes, logos and everything else that goes into pushing a billion dollar product from the shelves to the kitchen.
That transition took Hillary Clinton by surprise and hurt her most of all. Hillary had been working the party and the traditional campaign circuit, only to be sidelined by a media centered frenzy that centered around brands, not people. By the old political rules she should have won, but the new rules were in and they weren’t political anymore.
Few voters could really nail down the policy differences between Obama and McCain, a mistake that was in part McCain’s own fault and played into the image over substance approach of the Obama campaign. And those who couldn’t, mostly voted for the candidate they felt most comfortable being associated with. The election came down to a cultural split with the cultural weapons of mass distraction in the hands of an omnipresent media and social media empire.
But as ad man (and Mad Men series advisor) Jerry Della Femina wrote over 40 years ago in his classic book on advertising, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-Line Dispatches from the Advertising War:
There is a great deal of advertising that’s better than the product. When that happens, all that the good advertising will do is put you out of business faster. There have been cases where the product had to come up to the advertising but when the product fails to do that, the advertiser will eventually run into a lot of trouble.
And trouble is just what the Obama brand currently finds itself in. Or as Steve Green writes, “The only thing that’s real, the only thing that counts, is that thing David Axelrod knows: President Empty Chair is in serious electoral doo-doo. Come to think of it, everybody knows it. Which is exactly why you need to forget everything else and focus on this: Empty Chair is running scared, and the MSM is covering for him in every way they know how.”