Romney's Ad


There's been a lot of chin-stroking this week over Mitt Romney's first TV ad of the cycle. I, the self-appointed World Mitterology Expert, naturally believe that the episode ties directly into things I've been saying for a very long time about Romney, politics, advertising, and news media, so I will now pontificate.

The gist is: Romney represents a great leap forward in the corporatization of politics, and the political world is not ready to deal with it.

The new ad, on the whole, is the type of thing we can expect to see a lot of, especially if Romney gets the nomination: a dark, fuzzy montage of Obama-failing sound and images, followed by a brief, sunshiny Romney pitch. What's gotten the attention is a clip it contains of Obama saying "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." That was taken from a 2008 campaign appearance, in which Obama is quoting John McCain, who really did say that about himself, more or less. 

That obviously deceitful quote is ostensibly intended to show how the tables have turned since Obama mocked McCain to win in '08. That fig leaf of an excuse allows the Romney team to mislead an awful lot of viewers into thinking that Obama recently conceded that his economic record sucks.

This technique is pretty standard practice in corporate advertising, which long ago convinced us that the term "false advertising" means something other than the plain meaning of those words. Nobody questions the TV ad with the doctored image of a 747 landing on a Nissan pickup truck. Nobody points out that the guy in another commercial doesn't really have heartburn; that the guy next to him on the airplane isn't really a doctor; and that he doesn't really feel better later -- a play-acting vignette indistinguishable from the classic travelling-huckster miracle-cure snake-oil routine of old. Nobody thinks twice about lines like "best rest you've ever gotten...," or phony scenes of families enjoying the hell out of their cereal and models throwing themselves on the guy doused in Axe cologne, that clearly have no basis in fact. Why? Why, in fact, do we not consider all use of fictional devices in advertising to be, by definition, "false"? Because, um, well, 'cuz, uh... well, because those are fictions, we say, that nobody actually believes, so they're OK. But of course this is the fig leaf that allows Axe and Nissan and the rest to get the benefit they know perfectly well they get out of it.

I could go on and on and on and on on this topic, which extends far beyond corporate advertising to marketing, brand management, public relations, investor relations, and etc. But one more example, perhaps more directly comparable to the Romney ad: Activia.

Back in the mid-2000s, the parent company of Dannon saw a potential multi-billion-dollar market for yogurt with clinically-proven digestive health benefits. They had no such product, but that's no reason to miss out on an opportunity. They launched Activia with a massive advertising and marketing campaign claiming that the product had clinically-proven digestive health benefits. It has been described as one of the most successful product launches of the decade, quickly topping $300 million in annual sales and rising from there. After about four years of complaints and legal actions, the company agreed to stop directly lying in its materials and pay out some money. Of course, during those four years the message had set in, so now Jamie Lee Curtis can just sort of nod and hint, without the actual lie, and most people think she's still saying the same thing.

People look at me funny when I say this, but people in and around politics are remarkably, and rather naively, honest. Yes, they spin and hyperbolize and stretch context and so on, but they really don't very often just flat-out lie in obvious ways like in the Activia example. (I'm excluding sideshow entertainers like Ann Coulter and such.) Which is why so many political insiders and commenters have been so worked up about this Romney ad. It's also, to a great extent, why all of Romney's competitors in the 2008 GOP primary ended up hating him so much -- because they really do believe that there is honor among political campaigns, and the Romney campaign kept doing things that are perfectly normal in cutthroat corporate competition, but really take people aback in the political world.

I'm quite sure that to Romney, all of this is A) baffling, and B) exploitable weakness. Just as, to Activia's parent corporation, the unwillingness of Yoplait's parent to lie about its bacteria-injected yogurt was a baffling, exploitable weakness.

With or without Romney, the political world has been and will move more and more in the direction of the corporate world's advances in media and message manipulation. I have suggested, on previous occasions, that the political world, and the political news media in particular, are not keeping up. We're seeing a small taste of that now, in the flummoxed reaction to this latest little Romney lie.

We certainly feel like there's something wrong here -- that Romney shouldn't just be able to manipulate America into making him President the way Activia manipulated them into buying their yogurt or Axe manipulates people into buying their cologne, or the millions of far less obvious manipulations that go on all the time in the corporate world all the time, without anybody in the press or elsewhere blinking an eye -- indeed, it is exactly what Romney did for a living for 25 years or so. It's an awful lot to think that I, or some New York Times reporter, or some talking head pundit, can effectively stand athwart of it now.

I'll finish with one more corporate example; one I've used many times. For many years, Staples Corp. had a reputation for terrible customer service -- but it didn't matter, because when it comes to pens and Post-Its and whatnot all people cared about was inventory and price. Then in the 1990s, people started to think of office products as software and scanners and things that had to be compatible with other things, and suddenly people started to care about customer service.

Staples needed to address that, so they launched a big national advertising campaign featuring little fictional vignettes in which Staples's plentiful and highly knowledgable floor staff leapt to the rescue of befuddled customers. It worked (and ultimately turned into the "Easy button" marketing campaign that continues to this day).

At no time, of course, did Staples do anything to actually improve customer service. That would be unbelievably expensive and would have destroyed profit margins -- and would have taken forever to actually turn around public opinion. From a business perspective, actually improving customer service would have been an absolutely calamitous approach to improving the reputation for customer service.

So I ask you: how could anybody have stood athwart of Staples's successful, and completely bogus, rebranding of its image? Any ideas? And if so, can that be applied to Romney's bogus attempts to brand Obama as an America apologist, for example? Or his bogus attempts to brand himself as having a smart foreign policy platform? And so on? 

I'm all ears.
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