Can you sell a politician like a product?

JOE MCGINNISS, who died early this year, wrote his classic book The Selling of the President (1968) on the Richard Nixon presidential campaign of 1967. The book laid the foundation for the now routine use of Madison Avenue advertising techniques in packaging and selling politicians. In that book, the author tracks the re-launching of a previously defeated candidate for President two elections earlier in 1959 as a revitalized brand, the “New Nixon.” This tradition of selling politicians like regular soft drinks with taglines and promo periods has become part of electoral exercises.

The use of marketing strategies formerly associated with selling soap (it is the soap companies that use heavy advertising after all) has been more openly embraced by politicians and their handlers since its acknowledged effectiveness in the 1967 presidential campaign between Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. These advertising techniques are now employed not just by politicians but by advocacies like building homes for the poor, donating an hour’s wages to children, or turning off electricity for Earth Hour. Good advertising works for products, causes, as well as candidates.

To dismiss the techniques of advertising in the cause of promoting ideas, as if worthy ends are thereby sullied by such commercial means, is to ignore the increasing importance of marketing communications which have been used effectively in selling cars, clothes and…yes, soap.

What are the techniques of advertising which we now take for granted in political marketing?

Surveys that candidates in varying degrees accept, seemingly in direct proportion to the ranking they get, are a traditional marketing tool. Polling techniques are employed to get feedback from users, or even non-users (why don’t you use soap regularly?) on the perceived qualities of a product. While politicians and their handlers sometimes put undue emphasis on the rankings per se, the more astute analysts look at the qualitative data that explain the approval ratings, even if this entails running additional surveys for deeper insights.

It is in the perception dynamics where the value of a survey can be justified. The product can be tweaked to ramp up positive traits and gloss over the negatives. If a candidate is too dark, maybe even darker fans can surround him. Slimy? Get the other one to be slimier.

Another lesson from marketing soap involves defining the target market. Which consumers (or voters) is the product focusing on? Seldom does a well-run campaign try to address all the voters, even if they say they do. Chances of success are improved and resources effectively conserved by narrowing the target audience. Is it to be the youth, or even more narrowly college students and those starting their careers? Is it to be gender-based or advocacy-specific?

The broad option of going for the votes of the poor is not only expensive, as these are the ones that expect patronage, but also too broad. While economic studies show that 70% or more are below the poverty line, these are not all necessarily poor, as a hefty chunk of these are supported by the ten million overseas workers who remit about over $20 billion to the country each year.

Packaging is another marketing tool. How is the product to be wrapped up? This seeming bit of triviality follows from the survey and the target market. Is this toothpaste best packaged in a sachet and sold in small volumes? For the candidate, this is not a simple matter of attire like a blue shirt with rolled-up sleeves. It embraces the forums to attend, the way the candidate is presented on stage (accompanied by dancers or local leaders) or which TV appearances to make in announcing a personal choice in his life (“He really likes linoleum floorings”).

Can an economist be packaged credibly as a tricycle driver? Can soap be sold as toothpaste? Maybe it works for some, but the qualities of hand soap may not be ideal for cleaning cavities or strengthening gums. What is the candidate’s unique appeal? Non-existent? Ok, next!

The selling of a candidate can be counter-intuitive. Roger Ailes, a practitioner in the art of perception and also a Nixon adviser, notes, “If a reporter is bullying you, the viewers at home may root for you. The more inflammatory the journalist (or bully), the cooler you should be.” Thus being right, or righteous, can be a negative trait on TV and communicated as unfair whipping. It is not necessary to answer all the accusations of a pushy and cantankerous critic, only the points the target wants to make. Being absent to answer anything gives too much advantage to the inquisitor.

It is not right to disdainfully dismiss communications techniques that work well for selling soap. A candidate is a product too…and he does not always promise to be a cleaning agent. Sometimes, he does not even stay on the shelf long enough to be noticed, much less used.

A.R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.

Source : Business World Online

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