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.
In marketing terms, a brand is not just a label, it’s the way that the customer is meant to perceive the product and interact with it. Take the can of Pepsi. It doesn’t matter what’s actually in the can, you don’t have access to the full list of ingredients anyway. And if you did, it would take extensive research to even make sense of them. It’s not even about how the actual soda tastes. That matters, but not very much. All that really matters is how the customer perceives the brand. It’s not about the content. It’s only about how people view the brand.
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.
There was no longer any point in discussing programs or issues. They had become details, like the fine print at the end of a television commercial that no one can read, and no one is meant to read. It’s there to fulfill an obligation, not to inform or play any meaningful role in the decision making process. All that mattered was the brand.
The approach was to make voters want to be part of the Obama “brand” and not want to be associated with the McCain/Palin brand. The Obama brand was positioned as cool and youthful, in the same way that soft drinks are. And the public was told over and over again that McCain was old and crazy, that Palin was stupid and crazy, and that both of them were uncool. Probably the most constant message repeated through the election and today, is that the Republican is for “old people”. In marketing terms this is worse than being called a Nazi. The constant pursuit of youth means that brands which appeal to old people are ruthlessly eliminated or limited to the export market. (That’s why you’ll find many classic American brands in South America or Asia where they have strong consumer loyalty, but in the United States they were replaced with more “youthful” brands associated with a new generation.)
2008 was certainly not the first time that liberals had worked to position themselves as the face of a new generation, and the Republicans as the voice of the past. The strategy dated back to Kennedy vs Nixon and saw use again with Clinton in 1992 and 1996, when Silent Generationers, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole contended with the country’s first Baby Boomer President. And then in 2008, the boomer Hillary Clinton was pushed aside for a Generation X candidate. The progressive left enjoys being thought of as revolutionary and youthful, even if their ideas and funding come from eighty year olds like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and George Soros. A youthful demographic is less likely to have the background and the life experience to know that their policies won’t work, and to be fueled by the same inchoate mix of outrage and blind optimism. And a willingness to act without understanding the consequences.
Marketing is similarly aimed at capturing a youth market in order to lock in a new generation of consumers by manipulating their feelings of attachment toward a brand. In 2008 it was done with a candidate, rather than a soft drink, but the principle was the shame. The new approach stripped away most of the formal aspects of the campaign, focusing instead on creating a brand that people would want to incorporate into their own self-image. What they were being asked to do, was not to decide who should run the country, but whose sign would look best in their yard, which candidate could they feel good about being associated with.
Smearing Hillary Clinton, McCain and Palin poisoned the well. They retained a die hard demographic, but made those voters who watched the news, instead of doing their own research, who were casual consumers of politics and didn’t really understand the practical differences between both parties too well, uncomfortable with the McCain\Palin ticket. Not for substantial reasons, but insubstantial ones.
The iconization of Obama on the other hand, the proliferation of appearances, merchandising and photo and video made many Americans feel as if they knew him, when in reality they knew next to nothing about him. This technique is commonly used by celebrities to create the veneer of familiarity, without the substance. Massive media exposure creates the sense that you know someone, even when in reality you don’t. That false intimacy is exploited as a one-way connection. Charismatic politicians do it all the time, but there was something unique here because Obama was a complete unknown. He had come out of nowhere and made the leap from State Senate to Senate to the White House in an absurdly short amount of time. His omnipresence made him familiar, which disguised how much of a chimera he really was. And is.
The iconization of the self is the key element of the social media age. Social media bestows the celebrity’s illusion of intimacy on everyone, allowing them to share without sharing and interact through a one way mirror. To focus attention on themselves while remaining apart isolated and apart from other people. The face in the camera that a hundred million people see but are unseen in turn. The message sent to a million people that seems as personal as if it were intended for only one. The illusion of an interaction that is not actually taking place.
This best describes Obama’s public image. A brand that is as familiar as it is unreal. Like Ronald McDonald or Mr Clean, we are familiar with him, yet unable to go beyond the smooth surface. He is everywhere and yet nowhere. He constantly wants our attention, but has nothing to tell us. There is a real physical Barack Hussein Obama walking about somewhere, but there needn’t be. He would be just as real, if he didn’t exist. If he were nothing more than a poster, a logo, a few books, some computer graphics and a slogan. He would be no less real, because he isn’t real. He’s a brand.
The man beneath that brand is another question. Like all pitchmen and actors, there is something of him in the image we see, but it is mostly a convincing simplification. And what is startling about his brand is just how little of it is really human. Toss away the merchandise and the art, and very little is left. Probably because what’s underneath was never meant for public consumption. The Obamas constant oversharing is as much a defense as an offense, an obsessive need to control their own narrative and tell their own story over and over again. Even when there’s no story and nothing to tell. The last time we saw it this bad was in the JFK administration, when the tours of the White House and the stream of photographs concealed an uglier reality lurking outside the frame of the camera. And that’s almost certainly the case here.
Those most eager to play a role are looking to leave themselves behind, to escape and run away from something. People like that make some of the best actors and the splashiest celebrities. But underneath their mask of charisma is a towering pile of human wreckage. They are so eager to be something they are not, that they are convincing. And because they need us to believe in the illusion so badly, they are omnipresent. Always hungry for attention and adoration, getting high on it and crashing down when the attention is withdrawn. Incapable of any real empathy, they mimic it brilliantly. So well that they seem more empathetic than actual working human beings. So perfectly compassionate that it’s almost inhuman. But it’s never other people they cry for, only themselves.
This is the kind of man perfectly ready to be turned into a brand, made into a symbol, an idol and an icon. But brands tell us more about how their creators see us, than how we see them. The brand is a ‘wire mother’, a collection of symbols that are meant to draw forth emotional reactions from us and create an attachment to inanimate objects. The brand manipulates our ideas of who we are and want to be in order to incorporate itself into our self-image, to be the parasite in our worldview. To identify the brand as aspirational and link it to our own aspirations.
The idea that an election would cease to be about issues and become entirely an exercise in selling a product, sight unseen, the proverbial pig in a poke covered over with the symbols of capitalism might have seemed unduly alarmist once, but 2008 was our pig in a poke election. A man who had virtually no experience in national government was elevated to the highest office in the land because a fortune was spent on making voters feel good about voting for him. Not based on the issues, but based entirely on externals.
Obama did not have an aspirational candidacy, he had an aspirational brand. A brand that people wanted to be a part of, because it made them feel good about themselves. And so we learned that there is indeed something worse than Bread and Circuses. An electorate that votes on that is at least somewhat capable of using self-interest to make judgments, but one that votes for the brand that feels good has abandoned even the vestiges of reason and self-interest. Such people are no longer exercising their power over government, instead they have become customers, buying a product that they have no say in how it gets made or what goes in there. Not because they need it, but because they have been programmed to feel good when buying it.