Imagine if customers of, say, Crest toothpaste or Geico insurance were as ignorant and impassioned as your average diehard Democratic or Republican voter? They'd buy toothpaste because it embodied the founding principles of dental hygiene, or take out insurance policies so that other policyholders could pay more. When otherwise critically thoughful consumers act like citizens, their preferences are less like learned decisions and more like kneejerk spasms. Their opinions are mostly independent of facts.
Worse, politicians and their parties not only tolerate this stupidity but encourage it, propagating any number of half-truths, scrambled innuendo, and sometimes outright lies in order to win votes. No commercial brand could get away with empty promises like that (or at least can't any longer), yet politicians continue to cast their claims as whatever nuttiness they think voters want to hear. They're happy to play Pied Piper to increasingly detached, ignorant followers.
When the media describe politics in the language of branding, they insult marketers the world over.
The jobs issue has brought it home for me. Out of the myriad of real and pressing difficulties our country faces, the chronic problem of unemployment of about 10% of our population (and underemployment of far more) is perhaps our most dire, in that we can't hope to fix our other problems if we don't have the cash or capacity to do so. Job loss is a syndrome of a far greater shift in our Way of Life, and no amount of government spending, taxes, or trust in the marketplace will bring them back.
Yet politicians aren't talking about it. They talk around it, and over it, and sometimes they ignore it altogether, so instead our national debate is about deficits, healthcare, union bargaining rights, returning to the Constitution, and just about anything else that has next to nothing to do with our biggest, hairiest problem. Both political parties are happy to perpetuate this noisy distraction -- if one more dickweed prefaces a party soundbite with, "the American people know best, and they want…," I think I'll puke -- because a majority of voters are entertained by it.
If Coca-Cola or GM were so disingenuous with their branding, they'd be punished mercilessly by customers and critics alike.
So what are we to do? The U.S. is tumbling into the kabuki drama of another Presidential election cycle, and we're sure to get lots of nonsense about taxes and government projects just as we hear inanity about free market efficiencies and other Libertarian wet dreams.
We need a common ground, not of ideas but of reality and facts, at least for starters.
Many corporate marketers have something called a dashoard on which various important numbers are displayed, sometimes called Key Performance Indicators, or "KPIs." The idea is that the goal of any marketing activity should tie back to influencing one or more of the measures that the company has identified as most important to its success. Using a set of numbers that have meaning across the business -- so things like sales, profits, customer retention -- also filters out all of the qualitative and inferential claims brands are prone to make. You can say something's so until you're blue in the face, but if the numbers it generates don't move the VU meters on one or more KPIs, you're all but talking to yourself.
We have a surfeit of meaningless numbers, from the DJIA to GDP, so replacing them with ones that matter shouldn't be all that hard. Job creation is an obvious one, along with average duration of employment, and salary strength in the face of inflation and cost-of-living increases. Healthcare costs/individual or family would be good, too.
A political party could decide to publish a list, and then allow us to use it as a litmus test for their politicians' pitches. Make them commit to how they'll impact the numbers and then hold them accountable, and use it as a basis for drawing distinctions with the politics of the opposing party. A media outlet (or outlets) could do it too.
OK, maybe it would be pretty hard to right this ship, but the alternative is to keep yelling at one another as it sinks.
(Image credit: our reasoned debate)