The Marketing of Politics

In today’s modern election cycle, marketing is king. We no longer elect presidents. We reward smart marketing campaigns that generate emotional connections and make us “feel good” about casting our vote for the candidate of our choice. If you cannot communicate well, connect with your audience, look good on camera and charm the diapers off babies, you’re unlikely to succeed in 21st century politics. How else can you explain the zealotry surrounding the 2008 campaign of a junior senator with little domestic or international experience and one few had ever even heard of? President Obama ran an extraordinary and compelling marketing campaign in ’08 that motivated one of the largest turnouts in many years.

UnknownKen Burns, the famed documentarian with The Civil War and The Roosevelts to his credit, explained it this way in a September 2014 interview with Slate Magazine: “We are in a media culture where we are buried in information but we know nothing. Because of that superficiality, we expect heroes to be perfect, but they’re not. They are a strange combination of strengths and weaknesses.” Referencing the Roosevelts, Burns says: “Franklin and Theodore couldn’t get out of the Iowa caucuses [today]. Franklin is too infirm. CNN and Fox would be vying for the worst images of him unlocking the braces, the sweat pouring off his brow, the obvious pain and that kind of pity that it would engender would be political poison. And Theodore is just too hot for the new medium of television. There would be 10 ‘Howard Dean’ moments a day.”

More’s the pity. Too often we elect candidates at the local, state and national level more for their marketing prowess than their political and leadership capabilities. Why? Because in today’s extraordinarily fast-paced society, few of us have the time to truly understand the issues; read various points of view and come to a well-informed decision on which candidate best reflects our values and aspirations for our community and our nation.

Today, political pundits routinely use the term low-information voter to denigrate the uniformed. But with a 24/7 news cycle, we should be extraordinarily well informed, shouldn’t we? Not really. Most media – and particularly TV — over simplify complex subjects and give the greatest amount of air time to conflict, drama and controversy versus information, balance and political theory. Drama and conflict sells, so we get our political data “dumbed down” and fed to us like pablum.

Liberals claim most low-information voters are right wing Republicans. Conservatives think low-information voters consistently pull the lever for Democratic candidates. The term low information voter was first coined in 1991 by pollster and political scientist Samuel Popkin, who claimed that voters used low-information signaling – or cues in lieu of substantial information – to determine who to vote for. Too often, low-information voters vote for a candidate they find personally appealing. And what makes a candidate appealing? Smart marketing.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 9.39.55 AMFour candidates have announced their 2016 presidential bid and two have particularly caught my attention – Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio. Clinton and Rubio both announced within 24 hours of each other on April 12 and 13. Each announcement was carefully staged for maximum impact. Both generated tremendous media coverage and political critiques. Hillary made her announcement online with a video showcasing her as the “champion of middle America.” Marco Rubio gave a rousing speech during prime time inviting us to join him in a “New American Century.”Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 7.58.23 AM

What was my take-away? Both did an admirable job and I’m confident that each candidate’s messages appealed to their respective supporters. But let’s get down to brass tacks. Marco Rubio has the best logo – by far. Throughout his speech, I kept looking at it and was impressed with its modern typeface, rounded edges and the US image about the “I” in Rubio. It’s fresh, modern, edgy. Hillary’s logo, in contrast, is cold, hard edged and is eerily reminiscent of a Hospital directional sign.

So if logos make the candidate, my money is on Rubio. Only time – and 18 more months of political marketing – will tell.