Thursday, April 5, 2012

Marketing and Politics

People say that "politics is like marketing" in that they have similar goals - convince people to buy something/vote for someone. And political campaigns have a lot of the "slickness" of marketing - flashy videos, high production-value ads, slick soundbites. But it seems that 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. For the last 30-40 years the right wing has gone a lot deeper into the marketing bag of tricks than the left wing.

This is partly because the left has always been mistrustful of "marketing" per se, considering it manipulative and somewhat louche. This is backed up by the left's underlying 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 the world actually works, not nowadays, and 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.

And as a result, 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 underdogs was successful.


  1. I have been thinking hard about this problem for a number of years, both in terms of overall politics, and in the narrower arena of how to persuade people through internet discussion (the latter is a very daunting challenge, but imagine the effect if we could actually achieve a breakthrough!)

    I'll put some more thoughts later, but two ideas that I have been pondering are:

    (1) People are generally persuaded by a combination of what they see as logical and emotional truth. Emotional truth is not (necessarily) in opposition to logical truth; just because something seems to be emotionally truthful does not mean that it is wrong. All literature and art is based on emotional truth. But we need to think/process and communicate in terms that are both logically and emotionally truthful.

    (2) Those who post in on-line discussions often come into conflict because they are operating under different sets of rules. Much of the anger comes into play when someone else is acting immorally in terms of your own rules (but not in terms of the ones that they believe are appropriate). Let me try something from the distant past (the 1970's) as a metaphor: some are Lawful (they believe that we are morally obliged to tell the truth as we understand it, to provide accurate sourcing, and to acknowledge our own errors as soon as it becomes clear to us). There are some of us who are Chaotic (those specific rules above are for sissies, and instead there is a certain art or fun of creative discourse, witty remarks, clever puns, and well-constructed put-downs). One way to shift an on-line discussion is to raise the question as to what norms to we agree to follow - people who are acting Chaotically (or like a lawyer - as an advocate, not obliged to actively report what they believe is truth rather than what advances their cause) often will balk at the question, making clear to the broader audience where their allegiance lies.

    Anyhow, nice idea for a site - I will think about this in more depth and participate further

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Greg. I think your point regarding emotional and logical truth is correct. One of the primary things Nils and I hope to do with this site is start to collect some concrete examples of ways that progressives can tap into emotional truth in a more sustained and effective way. I hope you'll stick around and participate!