Friday, March 30, 2012

Politics As Marketing - Positioning

People say that "politics is like marketing" in that they have similar goals - convince people to buy something or vote for someone. And political campaigns have a lot of the "slickness" of marketing - flashy videos, high production-value ads, slick soundbites. But for the last 30-40 years the right wing has really taken the marketing side of politics seriously, while the left wing has at best only taken on those slick trappings.

This is partly because the left has always been mistrustful of "marketing" per se, considering it manipulative and somewhat dirty. This is backed up by the left's underlying (false) confidence that rationality and reason will prevail in political discourse - the fundamental Enlightenment position that our Founding Fathers had as well. Reason and rationality will win in the end. An informed and responsible citizenry will consider the realities and facts of a situation, and use reason and logic to determine the best solution or best candidate to address the situation.

But this is not how political decisions are actually made, not for a large plurality of the citizens. In the days of the Founders when all the participants in the political process were well-educated, highly intelligent, very ambitious white men, this might have been the case (but even so, look at the vituperation in the Federalist Papers). In today's world, this approach is clearly not working. In an age when nearly half of the electorate has been convinced that climate change is not happening or is merely a way for "climate scientists" to get more funding for their research, and more than 30% don't believe in evolution, you clearly need to start using different approaches to talking to people about political situations.

And this is what the right wing has done. Starting about 40 years ago, they began to create a conservative "position" that they could use as the basis for much of their rhetoric. Positioning is the art of creating such a "position" in the mind of a consumer that quickly defines and identifies you, and which carries along with it implicitly all the rest of your identity. For example, Coke has been famous over the years for its positions - "It's the Real Thing." And 7-Up for years had a great position - "The Uncola." Good positions are defensible, and actually put the competition on the defensive. 7-Up's position was unassailable by Coke, because Coke could never not be cola. (Of course, since people would rather drink cola than lemon soda, Coke still prevailed.)

So, as a thought experiment, try to remember the Democrat's position, in the marketing sense. I'll wait ... How about any progressive movement? How's that going? Any luck with that?

Now, try to same experiment for the right wing. Does "No new taxes" leap to mind immediately? Or "Taxes are bad." Or "Smaller government." For 40 years the right wing has been promoting those positions, and they have clearly succeeded.

Now, there's a critical fact to notice here - do the Republicans actually always lower taxes or make government smaller? Of course they don't. But one of the key points about your position is that it doesn't necessarily have to align perfectly with your actions. Was Coke really "The Real Thing" - I don't think that even has any meaning! But it worked to position Coke for years.

As a result of doing this work, the right wing has essentially set the agenda - taxes bad, government bad - in spite of not only the rational self-interest of the electorate, but the actual fact that the electorate generally supports specific government programs, and that right wing politicians are at least as responsible for government growing as Democrats are.

How do you respond to such a well-entrenched and well-defined position? This will be the subject of future posts, but for now suffice it to say that simply trying to latch onto the competitor's position is NOT the way to win. That's what Pepsi tried for years, and it's what the Democrats have tried for years. And neither of these marketing underdogs was successful.

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