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