In the heat of a congressional campaign early in his career, Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have once ordered a hapless strategist to publish an accusation that an opponent enjoyed particularly affectionate relations with a farm animal. The strategist, apoplectic, pleaded with Johnson to reconsider, since they both knew the accusation wasn’t true. “I know it’s not true,” spat Johnson. “I just want to make the son of a bitch deny it.”
Politicos love this possibly apocryphal tale for its brazen genius, and they revere its lesson about how you can turn an enemy into an asset if you don’t let integrity distract you too much. Consider a couple of nasty recent provincial elections and some especially fraught municipal ones gathering steam for this fall, and we can conclude it’s a lesson generations of political strategists have taken to heart. Political marketing is as pathologically mean as it’s ever been. And its current state should serve as a pointed reminder of all that’s good about the kind of marketing that fills our shopping carts every week.
It’s a sad thing when there is more true democracy happening in the cereal aisles than in the country’s voting booths. It may be fashionable these days to demonize corporate marketing—but imagine a world in which our political leaders had to earn our votes daily and answer for their performance every quarter. In which a politician’s damaged reputation could end up cancelling his pension, and ignoring his constituency could simply put him out of business. Suddenly, by contrast, branded marketing starts to look like noble work. Most elected representatives can only dream of having a mandate as clear and emphatic as the one enjoyed by a box of Cheerios.
Instead, political marketing visits us every few years like the Ghost of Branding Yet to Come, warning us of just how bad it could get. Under the guidance of proudly amoral strategists, political marketing exploits the weaknesses of both the press and the electorate, from our limited appetite for nuance to our short memories to our preference for window dressing over substance. Capitalizing on our worst selves, it wins the day by making us wish it were over.
All this behaviour is enabled by the fact that electioneering is the only practice of marketing that, by social consensus, is not expected to bear the consequences of its actions beyond election day. Like that cartoon with the coyote and the sheepdog clocking in and out for eight hours of rote enmity, everything is forgotten when the whistle goes, leaving nothing behind but our tattered credulity.
What those consequences might be is unfortunately still being debated. Although there is a growing body of academic study that says cynical politics produces a disengaged electorate, the scholarship remains inconclusive. And there are those famous cases, those Swift Boat moments, when the sheer weight of the distraction actually does bring a candidate down. But victory for a candidate is not necessarily a victory for democracy. Politicians just have to win—they don’t really need to worry about how many people bothered to vote. And we live in a country where more of us line up for morning coffee at Tim Hortons than generally show up at polling stations. That sounds like disengagement to me, and it’s a luxury a real marketer could never afford. As a former CEO of Procter & Gamble once put it to me, “You can’t take [market] share to the bank.”
As much as I wish politics worked a little more like the marketplace does, I also pray branded marketing never sinks to the level of electioneering. I can’t imagine Burger King ever accusing McDonald’s of fraternizing with livestock (or that they would sell more hamburgers if they did). Perpetual accountability is the soul of branded marketing, and we need to stay a little afraid of disappointing those people in the checkout line. Silly seasons like this one offer business a refresher course in the value of its social license—and everyone else some comfort that there is at least one thing in the world worse than a capitalist.