Sunday, May 16, 2010

Political Brands

Consider how brands work. The central question that every consumer faces is, “How do I know I’m not getting ripped off?” How do you know that this bag of flour isn’t adulterated or that these new shoes won’t fall apart the minute you get home? Unless you’ve managed to follow the entire production process from start to finish, you don’t. You trust the flour isn’t full of sawdust because Robin Hood says so. You have faith the sneakers will withstand a running season or two because Nike has put its swoosh on them. Brands are one of the earliest and most effective forms of consumer protection, where trust in the brand (and the company behind it) substitutes for first-hand knowledge or expertise.

Political brands work the same way. In an election, the question every voter needs an answer to is, “How do I know what I’m buying into with my vote? How do I know I’m not getting snookered?” This is where political brands, better known as parties, come in. The role of the party is more or less to take the dense convolutions of modern governance and reduce them to a relatively simple brand proposition. Are you generally in favor of a strong central government that will build national social programs? Then vote Democrat (or, in Canada, Liberal). Would you prefer a more decentralized federation and limited state interference in your life and in the economy? Then the Republicans or Conservatives are the party for you.

The paradox of all branding is that the more complicated things get, the simpler the messaging has to be, which is why politics has become so intensely focused on the party leader’s character and image. It’s pretty remarkable that in an election in which American voters were being asked to decide who would control a budget of somewhere north of $3 trillion, they were essentially offered a choice between two brands: Barack Obama’s “Change” and John McCain’s “Honor.” But what is more surprising still is how well the system actually works. Most people don’t have the time or, frankly, the ability to properly digest budgets, policy documents, or drafts of new bills, and the distillation of the stupendous complexities of the modern state to a handful of simple but distinct brands is not just useful, but necessary. As in the consumer economy so in modern politics — both would grind to a halt without brands as a lubricant.

What of the worry that politics ends up being marketed like Big Macs, pitched to the lowest common denominator? The proper reply is to this is, So what? People always put the emphasis in that phrase on the word lowest, when it should be placed on the word common. The government wields a monopoly over the use of violence, among other things, and any party that wants to claim the right to use violence had darn well better make sure it has the lowest common denominator on its side or it is in big trouble. To adapt a line from the genius of twentieth-century advertising, David Ogilvy: the lowest common denominator is not a fool, she is your neighbor. In a democracy, every politician is in the business of selling electoral Big Macs, and anyone who thinks that’s not his job is either a born loser or a tyrant manqué.

We need to give voters a little more credit. People are no more bamboozled by a John McCain action figure into voting for John McCain than they are tricked into buying a PC because Jerry Seinfeld is in the ad. That just isn’t the way branding or human behavior works. Indeed, whether it’s Nike’s swoosh, or the ubiquitous Hope poster of Obama designed by Shep Fairey, or Stephen Harper’s blue sweater vest, no one ever admits to being a dupe of the marketing. The worry is always that other people — in particular, the people who support the other side — are being manipulated. And so throughout the Bush years, the left in America complained about the way Karl Rove and Dick Cheney were sowing fear and panic over terrorism and keeping the religious right all a-boil over fears about abortion and Mexican immigrants. Once Obama became president and the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, the right immediately started complaining that the electorate had been duped by his pretty speechifying and his wispy promises about Hope and Change.

This is a slippery slope, and it is dangerous for anyone, no matter what their partisan allegiances, to have so much contempt for voters. Democracy is based on the premise that reasonable people can disagree over issues of fundamental importance from abortion and gay rights to the proper balance between freedom and security. When the mere fact that someone supports the other side becomes evidence that they have been brainwashed, then the truth is you no longer believe in democracy.

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