Watching the tail lights of the campaign buses finally pulling out of New Hampshire following today’s sort-of-first-in-the-nation primary got me thinking about the candidates’ marketing machines. Politics and marketing have been joined at the hip ever since the first pre-Geico caveman lobbied to become head of the tribe, no doubt promising something he had no plans to deliver.
As a New Hampshire resident and registered independent, I’ve been receiving a months-long stream of propaganda from the candidates on both sides of the divide. Talk about multichannel marketing: The local citizenry has been overrun with TV ads, outdoor signs, telemarketing, direct mail, email, live events, and even door-to-door campaigners. Much of it was poorly executed, especially the prerecorded voice mails, the overproduced brochures, and the Christmas card from the Clintons. None of it, with the exception of a truly passionate Obama supporter who rang my doorbell on Saturday and actually asked if I had any questions, contained a whiff of authenticity or made any attempt to understand my concerns, as a parent, as a small business owner, as someone with a $10,000 medical deductible and a knee that needs surgery (they assume they know, but rarely ask). Though I will say that the candidates’ websites have come a long way in engaging supporters (beyond just asking for money) through various Web 2.0 tools.
Despite the new channels, the PR machine hasn’t really changed much over the past 150 years or so. There’s a great if little-known show on HBO called “Assume the Position 201” in which Robert Wuhl puts a comedic spin on American history in a classroom setting. The latest episode includes a riff on all the bad presidents this country has endured, perhaps none worse than Franklin Pierce (from New Hampshire, ironically). Wuhl contends that the main reason Pierce was elected in 1852 was the biography that he convinced his buddy, Nathanial Hawthorne, to pen for him. The lift Pierce received from his association with the noted writer carried him to victory. Unfortunately for Pierce (and the rest of the country), his divisive policies and poor decision-making laid the groundwork for the Civil War and made him the only sitting president (before or since) to not be nominated for re-election by his own party.
Edward Bernays, dubbed the “father of public relations,” also played a role in presidential politics. In what is considered the first presidential photo op, Bernays organized a White House breakfast in 1929 for Calvin Coolidge with a group of vaudeville actors in an effort to improve the taciturn president’s image. One headline the next day read, “President Nearly Laughs.”
On to Michigan!