The Selling of the President 2012 (and 2008)

While I don’t often write about marketing subjects in these posts (it’s how I make my living in what passes for real life), I feel compelled to comment on the recent Presidential election from an ad guy’s perspective. Please keep in mind that I’m not weighing in on partisan issues, but examining basic reasons why recent GOP candidates have managed to shoot themselves in the foot.

Since Joe McGinniss’s groundbreaking inside account of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, “The Selling of the President,” candidates of all persuasions have been packaged and sold like brands, with citizens making their buying decisions through their votes. Each election cycle brings more and more sophisticated techniques, but political handlers and advisors keep sabatoging them with the same old mistakes.

John McCain came to the 2008 race as a known quantity with 40 years of brand equity in his column: War hero, moderate Republican, pragmatist, a man who could reach across the aisle and bring both sides together. But instead of playing to his strengths, he tossed it   all aside to portray himself as an ultra-right wing Conservative (with that capital “C”), something that his “people” clearly advised but   a stance that just as clearly made him uncomfortable. That’s what happens when you try to be something you’re not; the lack of authenticity always finds a way to bubble to the surface. When McCain went rogue and picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, he assured himself of the electoral clobbering to come.

Fast forward to 2012 and Mitt Romney, who learned exactly nothing from the McCain debacle. Romney also came to the big dance with plenty of brand equity: Moderate Republican governor of a historically liberal state, successful businessman, designer of a health insurance program that served as the blueprint for Obamacare. But thanks to the far right folks who hijacked his party, he threw it all away to win the nomination, only to try to move to the center in one incredibly audacious but misguided swoop. Again, he threw away decades of branding and then expressed shock and dismay when political consumers didn’t buy into the charade. It just looked desperate. And if there’s anything the American public doesn’t cotton to, it’s desperation.

So what have future candidates learned from this whole sorry process? Not a blessed thing in all likelihood. But here’s what they should learn:

Authenticity counts. Believability matters. Consistency is king. So is clarity.

Stand up to your advisors.

Don’t want it too much.

Otherwise, they should start working on their concession speeches now.