Political Brands by Torres-Spelliscy (Post 1 of 4)

The following is the first of four guest posts by Prof. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, writing about her new book, Political Brands.

Professor Hasen offered me the opportunity to excerpt my new book Political Brands on ELB. My publisher Edward Elgar Publishing gave me permission to excerpt the books introductory chapter “Branding Itself.” These excerpts have been edited for continuity.

The language of marketing has infected political discourse. Recall when President George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card once said, “You don’t introduce new products in August,” explaining why the administration didn’t try to “sell” the second Gulf War to the American public.  Or as pollster Celinda Lake explained, “whether you’re Pepsi or Obama you have to run a campaign to get your brand out.”

Political branding comes from the government and from political actors. Branding from the government is propaganda when it feeds the public a particular view that is deeply misleading. Though interestingly, even the word “propaganda” started with different connotations when it was coined by the Vatican in 1622. The original idea from Pope Gregory XV was to propagate the Christian faith through “propaganda.”  Only after the First World War, did the word “propaganda” turn into the ugly manipulative mess that it is today. 

Political campaigns are one place where political branding attempts to define candidates, policies, even the state of the nation. Incumbents will try to brand the economy as outstanding and brand themselves as the cause of the nation’s success. A key to success for many challengers vying for high office is the ability to convince disenchanted voters that the candidate can save them. This might explain the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised a nation of “forgotten men” going through its worst financial Depression a “New Deal”—one of the all-time great political brands in history. 

In candidate campaigns, which often rely on broadcast ads to reach large and dispersed electorates, the first casualty is often the truth. Depressingly, facts frequently have nothing to do with who is electable. As Joe McGinniss summed up, “Politics, in a sense, has always been a con game.”

Often what political ads play on is not the argument that we should support a particular new candidate, but rather that we (the viewer) already support the candidate because the candidate is on our team.  As cognitive scientists showed “once a group is marked as competitive, Schadenfreude [taking pleasure in the misfortune of others] and Glückschmerz [sorrow felt at the good fortune of others] follow: no learning is required.” 

Branding played a crucial role in the 2016 election. As Trump’s ex-personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified:

Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great. He had no desire or intention to lead this nation – only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. Mr. Trump would often say, this campaign was going to be the “greatest infomercial in political history.” … The campaign – for him – was always a marketing opportunity.

Branding has surely taken center stage with the Trump Presidency. As a master brander, he knows that repetition of catchphrases or an image is the way to hammer a point home. He’s not the only one who can deploy this technique. The day after Trump was inaugurated, a Women’s March in Washington, D.C. to protest him attracted more attendees than his inauguration. One way the two crowds could be distinguished at a distance was that many in the Trump crowd wore red “Make America Great Again” hats and many in the Women’s March crowd wore distinctive knitted pink hats.  Thus, even the resistance is branded.

Branding techniques do not have to be used for an iniquitous telos. Branding techniques were used by Sesame Street to teach generations of children to read. And there is some discussion of positive uses of branding in this book, like those deployed by survivors of the Parkland Massacre. But most of the book is focused on when branding is used to manipulate and abuse the public, often for base political ends.

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