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Monday, January 28, 2008

Obama's Fatal Endorsements

One of the most often misquoted phrases in American culture originates with H. L. Mencken, who once observed that "nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." What many think Mencken said was that "nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."

To look at how the presidential election of 2008 is shaping up, the misquote is a far more accurate observation.

I may be just a branding guy, but a big part of branding -- even political brands -- is the strategic element that drives the executions of the campaigns. And while everyone in the media is crowing about Barack Obama, you may want to take a more intelligent look at what's really going on...and why the victory cries are just a tad premature:

A significant part of brand value is derived from endorsements. In other words, you can tout yourself all you want, but when it comes to credibility, there's nothing quite like third party endorsements. When actual users of your product stand up and cheer for your brand, you've literally achieved branding nirvana. After all, that's the whole point of branding: to turn users into evangelists; customers into a sales force.

It works as well for votes as it does for soap, believe me.

Of course, the one thing that everyone seems to forget is that the endorsements aren't nearly as important as the people doing the endorsing. Sure, it's really great when the unwashed masses can make the connection between the guy using your brand and your brand itself. The right brand in the right place can really move the needle. But what about those times when the right brand ends up in the wrong places?

What happens when the wrong guys rally around your brand? I can tell you this much: it's not pretty.

You wouldn't want O.J. Simpson endorsing your kitchen knives. Or Michael Jackson on your package of baby wipes. Years ago, Anita Bryant -- former Miss America and personal representative of Jesus Christ -- nearly brought down the Florida Orange growers with her vicious anti-gay remarks. And someone, somewhere, thought she was just what the growers needed to sell more juice. Clearly, it was someone who felt homosexuals lacked heterosexuals' daily need for vitamin C.

You get the idea. The wrong guy's endorsements can kill a brand just as quickly as the right guy's can launch it. Which brings us to the latest endorsements of Barack Obama.

A short time ago, the press was all abuzz with the story of how Senator John Kerry -- that's right, the ex-presidential candidate tagged as the sorriest loser of 2004 -- gave his ringing endorsement to Obama. Wow. A former losing candidate, likely to be foot-noted by historians as the flip-flopping dunce who bungled a 15 point lead in the polls just months before the national election, losing to an even-less qualified candidate.

Yeah, THAT'S the guy whose endorsement is going to stampede voters into the booths. Sure.

Today, we hear that yet another perennial blowhard is backing Obama in his bid for national leadership: Senator Ted Kennedy. Someone, anyone, please tell me what value a bloated, outdated, never-was like Ted Kennedy can bring to Barack Obama? It's been over 40 years since the golden days of Camelot. And to quote the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen, "Senator, I knew John Kennedy...and you're no John Kennedy."

What, if any value, does Ted Kennedy bring to Barack Obama? A worn out faded dream of potential, never-realized optimism? A visual image of failed alcoholism and privilege afforded by inherited wealth? I don't think so.

If you really want to know the value of an endorsement, try looking at it the other way around: Two over-the-hill, aging and irrelevant politicians rubbing up against the media's newest sensation. Just as some older men buy red Corvettes and young trophy wives, Kennedy and Kerry make fools of themselves by donning Obama T-shirts, hawking the baseball caps and hoping, praying that network television will grant them one last hurrah as the old Glory Boys they once hoped they could be.

Not really the kind of ringing endorsement the media would have you believe it to be.

Sad, really. For everyone except, perhaps, the Clintons.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The McCain/Lieberman ticket

I'm a branding guy. I see everything in life as a branding problem, driven by strategic reasoning -- and more often than not -- the human factors that data-driven pollsters and pundits choose to ignore. A while back, for example, CNBC asked why domestic WalMart stores were under-performing when the economy was doing so well.

Expert after expert brought in their charts, numbers and data -- all with no real explanation. When the moderator turned to me (the video clip is at my website), I simply offered up the human side of the story:

"To shop at WalMart is to be reminded that you're poor. And people don't like that. So the minute their economic picture improves, they shop elsewhere. One reason is because they can, but the more important reason is because it certifies their own progress. They are no longer forced to shop at a place that reinforces their sense of failure."

The moderator sat stunned for a few seconds, until my analyst friend Richard Hastings piped up, "You know, I think Rob may be right."

A while back in this blog, I used the same type of analysis to make the case for a 2008 Al Gore presidential bid. This time out, I want to propose why the only Republican ticket with serious possibility of winning could be John McCain and Joe Leiberman.

It doesn't take much for any plugged-in person to deduce that the race for the presidency is a wide open brawl. Yes, there are leaders and poll grabbers, but as the race drags on, there are very few consistent indicators. Of those, the most consistent political marker is "change". Change is the engine that has propelled Obama into contention. It's worked for him, as noted by the day after the Iowa caucuses, where everyone from Hillary Clinton to -- of all people -- Mitt Romney latched on to the phrase in their "on to New Hampshire" rhetoric.

Change sounds really good. But all it takes is a short trip down memory lane to recall how the very same strategy vaulted -- and then destroyed -- the presidential candidacy of one Senator Gary Hart back in 1988. Back then, Hart was touring the country, picking up support with his "we need New Ideas" pitch. Like Obama, however, nobody ever got to hear any specifics on Hart's New Ideas. It took one nationally televised debate for Walter Mondale to pull the rug out from under Hart's campaign by asking, "Gary, like they say in those TV commercials, 'Where's the beef?'"

Hart was stranded like a deer in the headlights. A short while later, he was caught with Donna Rice, a sexy blonde who wasn't his wife, on a friend's boat. History promptly buried Hart, along with his presidential ambitions.

I bring up that story because there's only one declared presidential candidate who preaches change and has a long history of challenging the administration -- even when that administration was dominated by his own party. And that's John McCain. In other words, while Obama, Clinton and the rest are whining about change, McCain -- rightly or wrongly -- is the only guy who actually has put his money where his mouth is.

That makes McCain more than a hype-master for change. That makes him an agent of change, which is exactly the brand message the public is looking for.

If McCain is known for being a maverick, there's only one guy who's more renown for "reaching across the aisle" of the Senate during his long career, and that's Joe Lieberman, the senator from Connecticut. Lieberman is the guy known best as a conservative Democrat, who ran and won his last term as -- and this is important -- an independent candidate. In late 2007, Joe Lieberman came out publicly to endorse John McCain, a Republican, for president. Which means the country potentially has what it's been asking for:

A potential President/Vice-President ticket composed with two experienced people who have track records of change.

McCain has always been the Republicans' choice for those who were never crazy about George Bush. Lieberman had enough appeal to win the Vice Presidential candidacy with Al Gore in 2004. Both guys are known for their ability to think independently and work cooperatively, despite party affiliations. And both have track records to prove everything they say that they've done or tried to do.

The country has never, at least in my recollection, ever elected a "split ticket" presidency, and if that ain't what real change is, pal, I don't know how else to sell it to you.

Is the public ready for that kind of change? Well, from everything I can tell, they're not ready for a woman leader and, judging by New Hampshire, they might tell pollsters they're ready for a black president, but in the privacy of the voting booth, they don't seem to vote that way.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Praying for Oscar's Death

As I clack out this article, the Writers Guild of America stands resolute in their strike against the motion picture and entertainment establishment, pacing the picket lines in their fight to achieve a greater financial stake in future payments for their efforts.

It's a good strike, having already cancelled more than a few events, crippling the 2008 Golden Globes Awards show and threatening the viability of this year's Academy Awards show.

Good for them. I hope they win. In fact, I hope they stay on strike forever.

I, for one, have had enough of our national obsession with celebrity and all the mental mind candy that rots the brains of Americans on a daily basis. Is it really important to devote air time to the physical and emotional collapse of Britney Spears? Do we really need to pre-empt regular programming to watch state troopers escort Paris Hilton to jail? And does George Clooney's selection -- yet again -- as Sexiest Man Alive really merit the front pages of our national magazines?

How many more dramatically-scored, thunderously-narrated television ads trumpeting the latest "tour de force" of some ridiculously bad re-make do we have to endure before the country wakes up and smells the coffee?

In the Age of the Soundbyte, truly important issues that affect the future of our world are sandwiched between airhead entertainment programs, stuffed into five-second statements that put the war in Iraq on equal footing with the latest box office earnings of whatever movie premiered this week. I mean, outside of a few hundred self-involved people in Hollywood, who really cares how much a movie grosses in its first week? I doubt that factory workers on the line in Akron, Ohio, spend their lunch break debating the marketing futures of movie studios. They're too busy devoting their time to real issues. Like putting food on the table, paying their medical bills and wondering if their sons and daughters are coming home safely from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe it's just the sadist in me, but I get a chuckle knowing that Hollywood celebrities are paralyzed without a staff of writers stuffing lines into their otherwise empty heads. To paraphrase Billy Wilder's script from Sunset Boulevard, "Movie audiences don't know about screenwriters. They think the actors just make the lines up as they go." Well, now they sure don't. Now they'll get to see just how dopey these talking heads are.

Or maybe they won't.

After all, they elected one as governor of California.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Presidential Idiocracy

There are those who say art imitates life. And there are those who insist that life imitates art. Over the years, I've found that the truth lies somewhere in between: What may start out as art actually can integrate into reality. People see things in art that they only previously imagined. But seeing them in art, particularly in pictures that move and talk, adds a dimension that bridges fiction into the possibility of becoming non-fiction. This is, according to industry pundits, the force behind "product placement" in the movies.

Whether it's James Bond drinking Smirnoff vodka or E.T. scarfing down Reese's Pieces, there's no question that most people fall into the "monkey see, monkey do" syndrome. If a product is perceived properly, it's amazing how it will affect people perceive it. Stranger still is the phenomenon where people will alter their behavior once they've watched how other people behave onscreen.

Such is the case with a film entitled Idiocracy. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a rental or, at the very least, an illegal download. The first three minutes alone (below) tells you everything you need to know, but if it's raining and there are no more errands to run, it's worth the extra 90 minutes to chuckle over the future de-evolution of mankind:



Essentially, the film concerns itself with a man of average intelligence who is frozen in an experiment that goes terrifically wrong. Instead of hibernating only one year, he wakes up after five hundred years, to discover a world dumbed down to its lowest possible depths -- and vaulting him to prominence as the smartest man in the land.

The strange thing about Idiocracy is that while billed as a comedy, its implications are staggeringly horrifying. The smart people, having limited their numbers to control population, have been bred out of existence, largely outnumbered by trailer trash bumpkins who multiply like rabbits, completely unconcerned about their environments or their futures.

When you watch the movie, you find yourself both disturbed and amused, recognizing that, in fact, art does imitate life -- and sometimes that reflection is sobering. Of course, the film takes its notion to the extreme, but the extreme, in this case, isn't so far off. A world in which nobody questions anything, accepts everything they're told, and is motivated only by its most primal, prurient needs. It's a hell, damned to eternal mediocrity.

In fact, very similar to the world in which we live today.

Think about it. Just about every TV show, music track and product pitch revolves around some kind of sexual message. Our drugs, clothes and health are designed, manufactured and marketed in a fashion that appeals only to man's most basic urges. Nothing is immune from the Dumbing Down or America. Including our presidential elections.

Mike Huckabee plunks his bass guitar. Bill Clinton blows his saxophone. Hillary Clinton stumbles through Soprano parodies. Barack Obama hosts Saturdary Night Live and bump butts with -- of all people -- Ellen DeGeneres, the mentally unbalanced comic whose idea of national tragedy is her inept breach of contract over an adopted dog.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn't promote his candidacy for the presidency of the United States by mistaking the electoral process with a talent show. In the 1980's, Ronald Reagan didn't dismantle the threat of communism by chatting up Jon Stewart. These were the last leaders of a thinking generation, whose candidates were more concerned about policy than popularity. And yet, here we are, faced with presidential hopefuls who hope to lead the most powerful nation in history by pandering to the lowest levels they can.

While America's brand value hasn't plummeted this low since the dark days of Jimmy Carter, this year's crop of presidential candidates doesn't bode for better times. Instead of a strong hand delivering us from governmental confusion, we sit and endure a bunch of third rate showmen bent on getting a great big hand from an audience.

The movie is called Idiocracy. Look for it in the non-fiction section.