The Mass Marketing of Politics: Democracy in an Age of Manufactured Images
Publication Year: 1999
The Mass Marketing of Politics demonstrates how The United States' contemporary political system is driven by marketing, not ideology, with an emphasis on image over substance, personality over issues, and thirty second sound bites over meaningful dialogue. This book details how tactics are being used to determine public opinion, win votes and shape public policy in the White House and Congress. The book points out the pitfalls of relying too heavily on marketing as a campaign and governance tool, and offers alternatives. The Mass Marketing of Politics is provocative and essential reading for anyone interested in North American politics, marketing, political communication, and media studies.
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
This book is dedicated to Judy Newman, my wife and best friend.
Judy, thank you for your loving support and for sharing in my excitement of politics.
This book is yours as much as it is mine.
Copyright © 1999 by Sage Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Newman, Bruce I.
The mass marketing of politics: Democracy in an age of manufactured images / by Bruce I. Newman.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-7619-0958-3 (cloth: alk. paper)
ISBN 0-7619-0959-1 (pbk.: alk. paper)
1. Electioneering—United States. 2. Marketing—United States.
3. Presidents—United States—Election. 4. Democracy—United States.
5. United States—politics and government—20th century. I. Title.
00 01 02 03 04 05 7 6 5 4 3
Acquisition Editor: Harry Briggs
Editorial Assistant: Mary Ann Vail
Production Editor: Astrid Virding
Editorial Assistant: Patricia Zeman
Typesetter: Lynn Miyata
Indexer: Cristina Haley
Why are so many voters turned off by today's political campaigns? Why do so few people take advantage of their precious right to vote? Why do so few citizens participate in politics? Is our democratic process at risk because of apathy and indifference?
These important questions are carefully analyzed in this thoughtful book by a respected scholar and marketing expert, Bruce I. Newman of DePaul University. Newman insightfully sums up his case as follows:
Our electoral system originally was set up to give candidates the opportunity to let voters know who they are and what they stand for during the course of a primary campaign. However, an interesting twist has taken place in politics today. Through the use of scientific polling, candidates now use marketing research to do just the opposite, that is, to find out who the voters are and what they want the candidates to stand for. Candidates can then feed back to the voters the ideas that they know will sell in the marketplace.(p. 16)
What is new about this development is the astonishing sophistication of contemporary commercial marketing techniques that are now being used by professional political consultants. Primary elections originally were created by reformers who wanted to get rid of the old-fashioned cigar-smoking political bosses in the back room. What happened is that we replaced the old bosses with new bosses, described by Newman as political consultants who are now the “coaches and managers who determine the outcome, with the media serving as umpires” (p. 18). So, although we might have gotten rid of the old smoke-filled room, the new smoke-free room is occupied by a new breed of bosses who know how to manipulate new marketing techniques to influence voters.[Page viii]
The power of the new consultants extends beyond campaign periods. Consultants remain after the election. Their advice eliminates the difference between campaigning and governing. When a candidate wins an election, he or she brings into office the same consultants who helped win the victory, and the same process continues on.
A major cause of the problem is our method of campaign finance. Former Senator Paul Simon believes that citizens are wrong when they think that Congress is an unresponsive institution. To the contrary, both Simon and Newman think that Congress is excessively responsive—to the polls and to campaign contributors. The problem, as they perceive it, is that this responsiveness (to the wrong people) is leading to the erosion of national leadership. I think that they are right. New and creative ideas about campaign finance are needed, including public service television time for candidates that is now provided in most other democracies. The British system works very well, and we could adopt it for our country.
This book is important because it casts new light on the future of campaigns, the future of elections, and the future of the democratic process. Today's cynicism about politics is dangerous for our political health and could be deadly for our children. We can govern ourselves wisely only if we have abundant, factual, relevant information about candidates’ talent and character rather than their consultants’ slick versions of what they think we want to see and hear. That is why The Mass Marketing of Politics deserves your thoughtful reading and reflection.
Counsel, Sidley & Austin Chicago (Former chairman, Federal Communications Commission)
The Mass Marketing of Politics makes it very clear why our democracy is on shaky ground: Leaders in Washington, D.C., are completely disconnected from the American people. The impeachment of the president of the United States turned into a political campaign, with a reliance on partisanship over the will of the American people. When the Monica Lewinsky case broke in January 1998, the American people had a sitting president whose job approval ratings hovered close to 60%, even on the eve of his impeachment by the House of Representatives. To the amazement of political analysts, Bill Clinton has successfully manufactured two different images of himself: one as the president and one as a private citizen.1 In fact, many people have questioned how the president has been able to keep the two images separate and distinct in the minds of so many people. The answer to that question lies in this book.
Mass marketing techniques that have made Coca-Cola a household name have been used by Clinton to communicate with the American people. The key difference is that the vast majority of Americans know Clinton only from the image they see of him on television. The White House knows this and has spent millions of dollars on polling and focus groups to monitor how people perceive the president's ideas. There are no limits to the use of polls in the modern presidency, including Clinton's use of this tool to monitor the mood of the nation before deciding that it was not in his best political interests to tell the American people the truth about his relationship with Lewinsky. The presidency has turned into a “permanent campaign,” making reliance on mass marketing techniques inevitable and potentially dangerous to the health of our democracy.
The ideas expressed in this book move back and forth between the world of corporations and their products and the world of politicians and their ideas. The reader will find comparisons of the image manufacturing of successful companies [Page x]such as Gatorade with the use of similar tactics by famous presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt. Just as Gatorade has relied on testimonials by basketball superstar Michael Jordan to convey a popular image of its product, Roosevelt tried to convey an image of resiliency by painting his steel braces black to camouflage them so that people could not tell that he was disabled. The book takes the reader behind the scenes in the White House to reveal how the Clinton marketing juggernaut has managed to reengineer the president's image in the face of one crisis after another.
The reader might be shocked to find out that there are not any restrictions on what a candidate can say in a political commercial. Whereas the Federal Trade Commission has jurisdiction over what McDonald's and other companies say in television commercials, they have no such power when it comes to political advertising. The response to this by politicians has been the excessive use of negative advertising, leaving the American electorate turned off by politics and distrustful of its leaders.
The same marketing mentality that drives political campaigns has spilled over into the running of government, with politicians and interest groups framing policy around multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns. The insurance industry won the health care debate with its “Harry and Louise” commercials, and the tobacco industry was equally successful in its national debate by bankrolling a $40 million advertising campaign. As the cost to drive public opinion and position ideas escalates in this country, more and more money will be needed to fuel the marketing campaigns that political parties and interest groups must run if they want to manufacture winning images. Without some type of political reforms, we as a country will find our democracy hopelessly spun into a web of influence that is out of the control of ordinary citizens.
My main motivation for writing this book is to help educate an American electorate that is very frustrated with the state of its political affairs and to offer an explanation behind the changes taking place. The state of our democracy is at a turning point, and I am convinced that informed citizens will be in a much better position to respond to the challenge our country faces. My hope is that the information conveyed in this book will help all of us to better understand what actions need to be taken to ensure that our democracy is strengthened in the future.
This book will be of particular interest to anyone who studies the American political system and wants to update his or her knowledge on advances taking place technologically and in the media. Politicians, consultants, pollsters, journalists, political party officials, and all the other people who are part of the political process in this country will find the book refreshingly candid about their influence on the system. Anyone who has given any thought to the possibility of an outsider—a virtual unknown—winning the U.S. presidency [Page xi]will want to read this book. Finally, a solution is put forward to the millions of Americans who would like to know how we can salvage a political system that seems bent on self-destruction.
Countless hours have been spent researching and writing this book over a 4-year period, but without the help of some key people, this book never would have been completed in a timely fashion. First, I thank my editor at Sage Publications, Harry Briggs, for being so receptive to the ideas I put forward to him about this book and for being supportive throughout the project. It continues to be a pleasure to work with him. I also thank all of the wonderful professionals at Sage who have been involved in the editing and production of my book, especially Mary Ann Vail, D. J. Peck, Astrid Virding, and Lisa Kamins Joy. Thank you for making Sage a company with which I continue to enjoy working.
In the very early stages of this book, Linda Bendixen, a former journalist and student of mine, was very helpful in her editing work. Another person who was very supportive in the early stages of this book was Rick Perloff, a professor of communication at Cleveland State University. His insights into the effects of persuasion on voters were extremely constructive. Another very helpful person early on was Lawrence Hamer, my colleague in the marketing department at DePaul University. He challenged some of the central ideas I put forward in the book and helped me to crystallize my thinking. Two other colleagues at DePaul, Nina Diamond and Doug Lamont, provided constructive comments on later drafts of the book. In particular, Nina was very instrumental in helping me to separate the role of marketing from that of advertising in politics and society. My research assistants, Brent Stewart, Melissa Rose and Elena O'Curry, helped with the tedious but important job of organizing the references used throughout the book. Also, I want to thank Robin Florzak of the media relations department at DePaul University for her insightful comments.
Finally, I thank some of my family members for their constant support and help during the long journey of writing this book. To Judy, my wife, thanks for all of the wonderful conversations we have had about the political issues I have raised in this book. Sometimes, I wonder whether I might have turned you, the artist, into a political junkie like me. To my dad, Samuel, thanks for always listening so patiently to me whenever I had ideas to share with you. To Todd, my son, thanks for never saying a word to me when I came to your baseball games with my manuscript in hand to edit as I sat and watched you play. To Erica, my daughter, who told me that she liked the fact that I am an author except when it took time away from going to the “blue park” with her to play tag, thanks for being so understanding. And to my nephew George, who just graduated from high school, thanks for your poignant insights into how the young people in this country think about politics.[Page xii]Note
1. Manufacturing images in the mass media is discussed in Phillips, J. (n.d.). The age of the infotoxin. Available on Internet: http://www.adbusters.org/main/index.html.
The date was November 3, 1992, and Bill Clinton was about to approach the stage at the governor's mansion to give his acceptance speech. The scene about to be described appears at the end of the documentary, The War Room, a movie that recounts the final days of the inside workings of the Clinton/Gore 1992 campaign organization. A jubilant George Stephanopolous is seen standing in the middle of a crowd of people, speaking to Clinton over a cellular telephone:1
Governor … it's a landslide … it's unbelievable…. I'm the happiest man in the world, and I just got to tell ya, I really appreciate it. It's the best thing I ever did. We really want you to say whatever you want to say tonight, but you just have to be careful about being too programmatic. You definitely should be a New Democrat, and we love Hillary's new patriotism thing…. Speak from your heart tonight, I mean, that's all that matters. Say what you want to say, I mean, this is your night. We'll see you in a little bit. Bye-bye.
The final shot in the movie is of Clinton speaking to the crowd, saying, “And finally, I want to thank the members of my brilliant, aggressive, unconventional, but always winning campaign staff.”
There is a lot of applause and laughter as well as shots of James Carville smiling ear to ear, and then Clinton says, “and they have earned this.”
The “war room,” and the mentality that it cultivated, lived on after Clinton entered the White House and has become the hi-tech factory where any information about the president is monitored and redisseminated to carefully craft and manufacture his image. Why do we live in an age where politicians have to manufacture their images? Because the vast majority of citizens in the United States never have the opportunity to meet their leaders and only get to know [Page xiv]them through the images they see on television, read about in newspapers and magazines, and hear about on radio.
In this modern age of 24-hour news cycles and 30-second sound bites, unforgettable visual images can be frozen in time with a glance of the head or a bead of sweat. Let us not forget the infamous presidential debate in 1992 when George Bush looked down at his watch in a momentary fit of uneasiness, or the beads of sweat that slowly grew on Richard Nixon's upper lip as he debated John F. Kennedy in 1960. When an unforgettable visual image is matched with words equally remarkable in their tone and content, the image may become a fixture in the political psyche of a nation, as many believe will happen to a determined-looking Clinton wagging his finger at the camera in the White House saying, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman [Monica Lewinsky].”
Yes, the world has witnessed a significant political change during the 20th century, with nearly every country now participating in the democratic process of choosing its leaders. Momentous technological changes also have taken place in commerce during this past century, beginning with the invention of the automobile. Americans watched in amazement at the ability of Henry Ford to mass market his Model T Ford, making it affordable to the ordinary man or woman. The Model T was the first of many more products that would be mass marketed to the American people during the 20th century such as gym shoes, television sets, radios, and cameras—identical products all mass produced along assembly lines and distributed to millions of consumers.
Mass production techniques certainly were nothing new to Ford, who must have borrowed these same methods from manufacturers such as Colt, which assembled and sold guns on a mass scale. During the 19th century, manufacturers such as Colt were mass producing guns that used interchangeable parts. What separates the mass production techniques of the 19th century from the mass marketing techniques of the 20th century is the importance that has been placed on image manufacturing.
Take the Nike corporation, for example. Here we have a company run by Philip Knight, who through his marketing genius has steered Nike to the top of his industry, due in large part to the infamous “swoosh” symbol on all Nike products. The swoosh is a simple but highly recognizable trademark that identifies the Nike corporation and, at the same time, communicates a message of quality, success, and other positive emotions. Why? Because the most successful athletes in nearly every sport can be seen by millions of adoring fans wearing it on some parts of their uniforms. And the Nike story does not end here.
Knight's empire was shaken at its very core when it came to the public's attention that Nike was using people in Indonesia to manufacture its products. The story that came out in the mass media revealed that Nike was using [Page xv]underaged, underpaid workers who were working in horrible conditions. So, what did Knight do? He increased the minimum wage, limited the number of working hours, and increased the age requirements. Through technological improvements in his factories, he eliminated the amount of toxins released in the air in his factories. Furthermore, Knight became a human rights advocate and, in the process, worked to improve his company's image in the minds of millions of consumers who buy its products.
Nike is now one of the companies leading the fight on human rights abuses in the workplace and certainly has received its share of criticism. But one can only hope that this is the story of a company responding to the needs of its customers and the public in a positive and constructive manner. If that is the case, then this is an example of image manufacturing being used to build a better society. If not, this is marketing at its worse, where a company takes advantage of people in one country to broaden its market base in other countries.
As we enter the new millennium, the same mass marketing techniques used by corporations are being used to craft and deliver images of political leaders to citizens in democratic countries all over the world. Through the aid of television, computers, database technologies, and multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, politicians are winning office and governing through the use of sophisticated marketing techniques that drive public opinion. The political system today is driven by marketing with an emphasis on image over substance, on personality over issues, on 30-second sound bites over meaningful dialogue, and on technological changes that have altered how information is communicated in the media. Political news has become entertainment in this country. News stations are run by corporations that have budgets and revenue goals to meet. It has become near impossible for politicians to get coverage of meaningful issues on the evening news. It seems that the viewing public would rather hear about the private sex lives of its leaders, or watch people get into fights on the Jerry Springer show, than listen to candidates debate the issues. Being the good marketers that they are, the major television networks have responded to the needs of their customers. Unfortunately, people's needs are shaped by the tremendous loss of respect for politicians in Washington, D.C., these days.
A disturbing portrait of the American electorate came out in the results of a study carried out by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonpartisan organization, which concluded that the majority of eligible voters have simply given up on the election process. One statistic this group cites is that only 16.9% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 1998 primaries, 48% lower than the previous record set in 1970. Curtis Gans, director of the study, states, “If there is something important to decide, citizens will come out and vote…. On the other hand, it is apparent that, in the majority of elections, citizens increasingly see little of importance to decide and are decreasingly [Page xvi]motivated either by partisan interest or civic duty.” Gans goes on to say, “The level of party participation has fallen so low that we are … threatening the cohesion of American politics and in danger of one or another party being captured by the fringes.” The study further concludes that the declines in voting are most pronounced among voters who are younger, less educated, and worse off economically.2
Today, we are witnessing candidates and politicians going to almost any length to win and hold onto office. The American people are becoming more and more disillusioned with a political system that is for sale at any price, thus cheapening their democracy. The danger to society is that the same consumers who are used to product marketing are not paying close enough attention to the politicians’ use of these tactics. Unlike the commercial marketplace, where the Federal Trade Commission can ban advertising that is deceptive, no such guidelines exist for political commercials. In a Supreme Court ruling in 1976, political communication was equated with free speech, thereby preventing the government from regulating a candidate's commercials. What does this mean? It means that a candidate can make any accusation about an opponent without being held accountable.
What is further alarming about today's political system is the role that money plays in the electoral process. For any candidate interested in competing in the presidential primaries, a total of $20 million must be raised a full year before the first primary takes place. This amounts to raising more than $50,000 a day for a full year. Political campaigns have turned into full-blown marketing campaigns. Campaign organizations are relying on the same technology that has enabled universities to raise staggering amounts of donations in very short periods of time. Using sophisticated computer databases that reveal its alumni's relative wealth and inclinations to give money, Northwestern University raised $457 million in only 1½ years.3
Multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns are not limited to politicians. Today, lobbying arms of industries are targeting politicians with their issue campaigns. The tobacco industry spent $40 million in its advertising campaign to kill the Senate's antismoking legislation. Some senators thought that the 8-week advertising blitz that positioned the legislation as a “tax and spend” bill helped play a role in killing the proposal. According to Alan Pilkington, president of DDB Needham Chicago (a large advertising firm), “People form their opinions based on television…. It has turned into a very useful surgical tool.”4
What has Congress done to put a stop to this alarming increase in money being spent to fuel the marketing campaigns? Nothing. Not surprisingly, the Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas on how to fix the system. Even though the American public wants some type of campaign reform, efforts by leaders in both parties have failed to materialize.[Page xvii]
In the Senate, the MeCain-Feingold campaign reform bill would have put a ban on so-called “soft money” contributions, namely those that are ostensibly for party-building activities but, in practice, often are used to pay for multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns that benefit targeted candidates in crucial races. The Democrats have charged that the soft money contributions have ignited a money chase that favors wealthy special interests over ordinary people. The Republicans, clearly more successful than the Democrats in raising this type of money, have claimed the opposite and argue that campaigns are underfunded. The Republicans point to the outdated reforms instituted during the 1970s that limit individual contributions to each candidate to $1,000. The Republicans want the limits raised and disclosure requirements stiffened to let people know where the candidates’ money is coming from. This last idea is a great one, but if history is any guide, this would take so much time to follow through on that the election would be over by the time the disclosure was made public.5
During Franklin D. Roosevelt's time, most Americans knew what it meant to be a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, and Roosevelt's National Recovery Act was used to help him implement his working ideology. But today, the labels “liberal” and “conservative” in politics no longer are defined by the political parties; instead, they are defined by the candidates themselves and the images that their consultants craft for them. Clinton said early in his presidency that his ideas were neither liberal nor conservative but rather both.6
Politics today is waged in the media, from military invasions, to impeachment hearings, to issue campaigns. At the heart of each of these campaigns is the use of image manufacturing. Separating fact from fiction is becoming inherently more difficult for average citizens as they try to decipher the meaning of messages targeted to them by political action committees, politicians, talk radio personalities, and others. If our political system continues to move in its current direction, we run a great risk of making it possible for the wrong person to take control of our country.
So, what does determining public opinion have to do with true leadership? How healthy is it for a candidate to enter office solely on the basis of images carefully crafted in the media? Does society benefit when a president's ideology and actions are driven by marketing? Can a democratic government succeed when making public policy decisions that are driven by marketing goals? Finally, how has Clinton kept his approval ratings so high in the face of all the allegations leveled at him? The answers to these questions are examined in this book. The book shows how marketing has changed the very fabric of our democracy, points out the potential pitfalls of relying too heavily on marketing, and offers some solutions for fixing our political system before it is too late.[Page xviii]Notes
1. War Room. Documentary film on the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. Producers, Frazer Pennebaker, R. J. Cutler, and Wendy Ettinger. Executive producers, Frazer Pennebaker and Wendy Ettinger (1993). VHS Published/Distributed by Vidmark Entertainment (1994).
2. Tackett, M. (1998, June 19). A record low turnout possible in November. Chicago Tribune, sec. 1, p. 6.
3. Jones, P. M. (1998, May 31). Competition fuels colleges’ megabucks fundraising. Chicago Tribune, sec. 1, p. 1.
4. Kirk, J. (1998, June 19). Tax-and-spend theme of ad blitz apparently hit home with senators. Chicago Tribune, sec. 1, p. 3.
5. CNN-Time. (1997, November 6). In focus: Campaign reform. Available on Internet: http://www.allpolitics.com.
6. Woodward, B. (1994). The agenda: Inside the Clinton White House. New York: Simon & Schuster.
At the time this book went into production in the summer of 1998, the country still was awaiting a public statement by President Bill Clinton on his alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky. As of December 1998, the November elections have just ended, Newt Gingrich has decided to step down from his post as speaker of the House of Representatives, and Clinton has become the second president in the history of the United States to be impeached.
In one of the more colorful campaigns in the November elections, former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota. During Ventura's campaign, one ad depicted two boys playing with an action figure that had a shaved head and bulging muscles ripping through the seams of a dark suit. One of the boys in the commercial was then seen banging the doll's fist on a desk and railing against “Evil Special Interest Man.” According to Ventura himself, the doll was the novel item of the campaign and people seemed to enjoy it, so if the doll was marketable, then that was all the better. The doll was expected to be out on the market soon after the election, selling for between $19 and $24, with the proceeds to be split between charity and future campaigns by the new governor.
The public relations battle between the White House and independent counsel Kenneth Starr continued to rage on from June to December 1998. It is clear that Clinton won in the court of public opinion but lost in the court of the House of Representatives. The 6-week period between the end of the November elections and the decision by the House to impeach the president on two articles of impeachment startled even the most seasoned observers of politics.
Instant interactive communication between actors on the political stage and the American people has put our political system into a whirlwind that makes it nearly impossible for anyone to take a minute to sit back and think about what [Page 146]is happening. It is almost as if our political system has gone onto “autopilot,” with decisions about elected officials happening at lightning speed, perhaps more out of emotion than out of reason.
The net result of the impeachment of the president is a reflection of the ugly state of affairs in which we find ourselves today. People clearly are divided over the president's actions, and it will be some time before the verdict is in on how well Starr manufactured both his own image and the president's image in his attempt to shape public opinion.
It is clear that government by public opinion is a very dangerous tool on which to rely. With the Democrats victorious in the November elections and the opinion polls indicating that a majority of the American people did not want to see the president impeached, Clinton thought that he was assured of a pass on impeachment. As a result, there was not any talk by the president or his people about a censure resolution. In the days immediately preceding the impeachment vote, the president would have given anything for a censure, but it was too late. In the end, the image of Clinton manufactured by the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee was far more effective than the remanufacturing process attempted by the president and his fellow Democrats.
At the heart of the final 6 months of 1998, and more pertinent to the thesis of this book, is the fact that politicians in the most recent political campaigns continued to be mass marketed, and the country still faced the unsettling problem of having to rely on manufactured images as the basis for making up their minds.
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