Friday, December 21, 2007

Counter-Branding at its Most Blatant

Counter-branding a key political tactic

Although the 2006 mid-term elections in the United States have long passed, they continue to teach us lessons about politics in general. A particular lesson can be derived from the advertisement featured above.

The lesson at hand deals with branding -- the creating and marketing of an identity to the electorate.

The spot in question, seemingly released as a pro-Democrat spot leading up to the 2006 election, can be treated as one of the more solid examples of an act as essential to any political party or entity as branding -- that of counter-branding.

As much as branding is the act of constructing a simple and coherent identity concept for onesdelf, counter-branding is the act of creating one that will then be applied to a competitor. In this sense, not only are the brands individuals and movements create for themsleves competitive with the brands opponents create for themselves, but also competitive with the attempts of the opposition to brand them in their stead.

In this case, the authors of the attempt to brand is obvious (Democrats), as is the identity of those they intend to brand (Republicans).

In the ad, the creators essentially cherry pick a few phrases out of what they claim is a dictionary definition of conservatism: "resistant to change", "unimaginatively conventional", "a bourgeois mentality". The ad then boils those three phrases down to three presented keywords: "materialistic", "resistant" and "unimaginative".

It then concludes: "are you sure you're a conservative?"

Of course, that isn't really the question the ad means to ask. The question the ad implies is: "these are the values of conservatism. Are you sure you want to be a conservative?"

Now, the fact that different dictionaries define conservatism differently would seem to complicate this effort. But in the end, that doesn't really matter much -- not even when the individuals behind the ad make a sly attempt to rely on the authority of a dictionary.

What really matters is whether or not the message takes hold, and helps in the construction of a voting coalition large enough to defeat the opposition.

In the weeks following November 7, 2006, this eventually turned out to be the case.

The United States could be considered to be one of the most fertile testing grounds for political branding techniques, possibly because American citizens (arguably) have lived their lives uniquely awash in branding techniques, and in the advertising by which that branding is done.

At least this serves as a convenient (if perhaps fickle) explanation for the colouring (perhaps even branding) of Democrat-voting states in Pepsi cola blue, while colouring Republican-voting states in Coca-Cola red. Especially when one considers the values being implied.

Pepsi cola has for years told American consumers that it's "the choice of a new generation". Likewise, Democrats have always tried to portray themselves as "the voice of a new generation". The Republicans, on the other hand, have simply portrayed themselves as "classic" America: traditional and Rockwellian.

Much like Pepsi and Coke have flooded the marketing world with countless spokespersons, the Democrats and Republicans have also promoted their own icons: the youthful Robert F Kennedy and Howard Dean for the Democrats, the older but more "white-bread" Ronald Reagan and Ike Eisenhauer for the Republicans.

When either party wants to impose an image of their own creation on their opponents, they've often proven to be quite predictable: youthful, energetic Democrats attempt to brand Republicans (ironically, the historically younger of the two parties) as outdated, unimaginative and slow. The sturdy, trusty Republicans attempt to brand Democrats as weak, untrustworthy, and a little radical.

When either of these parties bests the other, there certainly are other factors involved. But the predominance of these messages in the days both preceding and following a balloting day points to their formidability on the political scene.

This form of political judo should not be taken lightly.

Of course, there's a certain extent to which branding and counter-branding works. North of the 49th parallel, we've seen both successful examples of counter-branding:

And disastrous attempts:

Warren Kinsella would be the first to remind us that attack ads, in particular, often work. This is due to the pervasive power of counter-branding as a technique.

But it can also backfire. As such, overzealous conter-branding (as was the case with the astounding bone-headed "soldiers in our cities" ad) can be as much a danger to those who attempt it as to those who would be on the business end of it.

It's for this reason that it's unsurprising that political campaigns have very much become branding wars. Just as some of the memorable branding wars of the 1990s had us wondering "what's the diff?" between Coke and Pepsi, the political battles of the 2000s have invited people of all stripes to don a blindfold and drop their ballot for the political product of their choice.

Regardless of who wins the political branding war, it's democracy that will inevitably lose, as image becomes more important than ideas.

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