The Consumer: What's Old Is New Again

The idea that you can merchandise, candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process." Those words were uttered in 1956 by the unsuccessful Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. He was beaten in a landslide by Eisenhower, who was happy to have housewives and union members pitch for him in packaged-goods style TV commercials.

So I guess it's a given that media will have a significant effect on the presidential race in 2008 - just as it has in all presidential races in the last 50 years. But how media will affect the race is less clear - particularly when you consider it from a consumer perspective.

It's tempting for liberals like me to pin our hopes on the new media environment. Liberally minded people are by nature fairly progressive and it's no surprise that we embrace progressive media and the potential it has to set political wrongs right.

Which makes it an exciting time for us left-leaners. Surely, the increasing influence of blogs like the Huffington Post and sites like MoveOn.org will wake people up to the issues that really matter. Surely the branded content of Al Gore's "inconvenient truth" will open up the cultural consciousness of the country to embrace a new view of progress. Surely the YouTube debates will provide voters with a new level of intimacy and access to their candidates. Surely the Howard Dean approach to online fundraising will put real financial muscle into the hands of the everyman.

I wish I was more sure.

Unfortunately, though, I worry that the underlying dynamics that make new media so great in so many ways will actually hinder rather than help the candidates that set too much store by it.

Firstly, the thing the Internet does best is provide unfettered access to bare facts. It creates what Jack Welch called the "Naked Truth." And on the surface, one would think that access to facts and truth would be a good thing in politics. However, the aforementioned Adlai Stevenson had something to say about that when someone suggested he was a shoe-in to "get the vote of every thinking man" in the United States. He's said to have replied, "Thank you, but I need a majority to win."

The fact is that voters aren't much interested in facts when it comes to choosing the candidate they support. My friend, cognitive anthropologist Bob Deutsch, illustrates this point with a quote from a middle-American woman commenting on her support for Reagan by saying, "I liked the way he handled that conflict ... I can't remember which one." The facts weren't important to her, matters of policy weren't important to her. What was important to her was his carriage, his authority and his poise. Facts be damned.

Secondly, as the selling price of social networking sites is demonstrating, the power of the Internet comes through its ability to create communities of interest. However, as my partner Guy Barnett pointed out in a recent post on The Brooklyn Brothers blog, "More and more, the Web, like a good Playtex bra, divides and separates ... The Internet extends our reach but reinforces our prejudices ... no one changes their mind any more." Which, of course, isn't going to help those professional political campaigners whose value is judged solely on the basis of how many minds they change.

Which brings to mind Karl Rove. That masterful political manipulator relied not on new media for his last two successes but on one of the oldest - a skillfully executed direct mail campaign. (I think we can fairly confidently state that George W's contention that "Sure, I use the Google" pretty much means that he isn't a fan of new media. Perhaps he thinks "the Google" is a dance.)
So, new media or old? As with most things, it shouldn't come down to a question of which to do, but rather how to do both.

Which makes me think that maybe Hillary has got it right. She announced her candidacy online. She has an active Web site. She performed well in the YouTube debates. But she still did a whistle-stop tour of the talk shows to begin to let her lighter side show.

And maybe, amid all of the new media hoopla that's inevitably going to surround the election, it's just that kind of traditional media - you know, the kind that more effectively "merchandise[s] candidates for high office like breakfast cereal"- that's going to make the difference.

Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (paul@thebrooklynbrothers.com)

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