When I was a grad student at Purdue, I supplemented my income by working for a marketing firm that conducted interviews with randomly selected potential customers about commercial products.
In one study, we showed individuals a list of words and asked them which ones best described their favorite beer. Then we asked them to look at the same list and tell us which words least described their favorite beer. This would indicate which words to use in ads, and which ones had possible negative connotations.
Then we asked them “What were you doing when you first drank what is now your favorite beer?” This would enable an advertiser to position its beer in settings in which any beer is likely to taste good.
Two years later, Fortune magazine described “How Schlitz put “gusto” into its beer,” and how its slogan “Real gusto in a great light beer”resulted in a huge increase in sales. Of course, the words had absolutely nothing to do with a specific beer, but only with consumers’ perceptions of beer.
Today’s political campaigns are run exactly the same way. Political pros know that the way to get votes is for a politician to use the right words, symbols, pictures, clichés, and sound bites—and to do everything he can to convince 90% of the voters that he has the same values they do.
After all, as they say, “all politics is local.” This is the same 90% of voters who don’t want to take the time to actually study a politician’s voting record or to put aside long-standing biases in the face of changing realities.
Unfortunately, political pros also know that if a politician honestly chooses to address serious, complex economic issues, it would take too much time to defend his positions. He usually doesn’t have enough time to do it, and if he ever did, most voters would lose interest before the argument was completed.
Note the pathetic 1 or 2-minute limits moderators put on debaters in the national TV debates. It makes for great entertainment TV—lots of arguments and clever clichés. It gets great viewer ratings for the media outlet, but it’s not educational.
Most politicians have concluded that a serious analysis of an important issue will open themselves up to vicious, but effective, sound-bite attacks by America’s well funded demagogues, and these can be in one minute TV ads.
Result: most political campaigns are simply marketing efforts and tell voters very little about a politician’s true values or what his actual long-term objectives are. It sounds cynical, but the fact is, if a politician doesn’t get elected, no matter what his motives, he can’t affect national policy.
EVERY politician is going to claim that he will create jobs, uphold American values, support small businesses, protect our nation’s security, etc. But voters will never know what he will actually do if they don’t look beyond the symbols and sound bites.