With rapid-fire messages coming at us from all sides during the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections, it’s more true than ever that how we receive campaign messages affects the sway those messages have with voters.
The classic example of how much the medium influences the message in a multi-media world came as far back as Sept. 26, 1960, when JFK squared off against Nixon for the first of their round of presidential campaign debates. The debate was aired on radio and television simultaneously. Those who only heard it thought Nixon won, but those who got the full audio-visual experience saw an unhealthy-looking Nixon, constantly mopping his brow, lose to a tanned, vigorous Kennedy – and they were right. To TV viewers, Kennedy’s brand looked like the future; Nixon’s the past. This jibed with Marshall McLuhan’s famous later aphorism: “the medium is the message,” first published in 1964.
Turn off the TV
Political branding in the 21st century has become far more sophisticated than 60 years ago, especially where it pays heed to the form in which political campaign messages are delivered. The apparently un-curated stream of Tweets from President Trump represent a rogue element in Republican political branding; one a great many Republicans, even, don’t like. However, many credit Trump’s Twitter approach with helping him win the 2016 presidential election. With the trend towards TV and movie content being streamed rather than consumed via broadcast or cable, the traditional way of delivering campaign messages is on the ropes – who wants to watch endless attack ads with their favorite show when they can skip the advertising altogether?
Further, as more people get their political fodder from social media, it raises questions of why outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram get a pass on rigorously identifying sources and vested interests, when TV and radio stations have to go through them with a fine-tooth comb. Facebook managed for years to argue it should be exempt from Federal Election Commission political advertising disclosure rules, leaving the door open for Russian election tampering. Political debate, many argue, has become thoroughly tainted by the ease with which misinformation can be spread – a fundamental brand failure in itself. And it’s not just in the U.S., either.
Politics with Pizza, Pizza with Politics
Meanwhile, brands themselves have become political anvils on which this divided nation is hammering out its disagreements, as more and more gain political affiliation because of the statements of an owner or CEO – like Papa John’s -- or take a political stance, sometimes one that bears no relation to the products on offer, as in the case of LL Bean. Some say it’s a sign of the times, and that everything, not least branding, is political. Certainly, a slogan on a tee-shirt or coat can send a message that grabs headlines, however briefly.
That brings us back to political branding and the range of forms in which we encounter it. Technological changes have prompted ever more sophisticated campaigns to take an increasingly holistic and inventive approach to building their brands. Carlsberg built a whole pub’s contents out of chocolate; Netflix produced branded marijuana to promote its show, Disjointed.
By contrast, political parties fall far short in terms of imaginatively pushing their brands, maybe because most politicians still struggle with the most rudimentary aspects of the internet, as embarrassingly demonstrated during recent Congressional hearings. This was echoed in the throwback attitude of the Senate Judiciary Committee, demonstrated by chair Senator Grassley’s remarks on the its lack of women members. Although Democrats might be pushing ahead with a savvier approach – skateboarding videos that go viral or pop-art poster campaigns – the overall party brand remains weaker than the Republicans’. The battle of the brands, when it comes to U.S. politics, makes oddly limited use of the range of media available.
Logos Have Become Visual Memes
Politicians are not completely in the Dark Ages about what speaks to “the kids” these days, though. The most visible indicator of more sophisticated political branding is the move from political logo to ideological meme. Up until quite recently, nearly all political logos looked fairly similar -- red, white, blue, Stars and Stripes and other predictable elements dominated. But Barack Obama’s landmark 2008 campaign bucked this conformist trend, leveraging a memorable logo, crisp typeface, and striking visual language, encapsulated by the now historic “Hope” meme designed by counterculture street artist Shepard Fairey.
The 2016 election cycle offered a countervailingly powerful meme in the form of white letters on a red background that read: “Make America Great Again!” (borrowed from a Reagan campaign worked on by political branding genius Roger Stone). Further harnessing the power of branding is the way in which Trump continues to “counter-brand” his opponents. Contrast this with Trump’s attempts to compellingly brand policy positions – “truly great healthcare,” anybody? Still, in the age of .gifs and Pinterest, the field is wide open.
Branding Builds the Future, Like it or Not
As the races come to their inevitably contentious conclusions, voters will reveal which branding strategies ultimately resonate the most with them. Regardless of how the contests end, each of these unique branding approaches contains actionable insight that any organization can apply to its own branding efforts. Smart use of social media, the enhancement of slogans and logos into memes, and curated tailoring of message tone for specific audiences has arguably proven vastly more important than the candidates’ actual stands’ on particular issues. No matter who you end up voting for in the 2018 elections, the culture has already cast its ballot on the importance of branding.