Brand Obama–now with more awards!

September 17, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has again won a major advertising award.  A month before winning the presidency, he won Advertising Age’s annual “Marketer of the Year” for 2008. Now, his campaign manager, David Plouffe, has won Brandweek’s “Marketer of the Year” for 2009. What better commentary on the state of contemporary American society could there be?  Our president is a master marketer, or more precisely, employs a team of master marketers.  In a society that is dedicated to worshiping at the altar of consumerism, perhaps it’s unsurprising that this is the case, but it still is shocking to me.  Once I began researching for this article, I really was surprised at the extent to which “Brand Obama” has penetrated our national consciousness.

2008 Obama Campaign Logo- via Wikipedia (commons)

2008 Obama Campaign Logo- via Wikipedia (commons)

His logo and posters have become iconic.  His slogan, “Yes we can” is everywhere– it’s also a marketer’s dream.  It’s devoid of any clarity or substance, and yet it makes you feel good, possibly empowered.  “Just do it”, anyone?  Actually, his campaign beat out the Nike campaign (and even Apple!) for top honors.  You can go to mybarackobama.com and sign for immediate updates from Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, Flickr, Twitter, and several other web 2.0 services. You can get Obama on your mobile phone by texting “hope” to 62262– it’s just as easy as voting for the next American Idol! The media is relentlessly focused on what Michelle Obama is wearing next, and there is at least one blog offering daily updates on her clothing choices (“Follow the fashion of Mrs. O.:What and Whom she’s wearing”). For those who are tuned-in, you can even do Ecstasy tablets shaped like Obama. One wonders where does politics end and the cult of personality begin?

From a Wall Street Journal Magazine profile of Desiree Rogers, former marketing executive and current White House social secretary:

Brand Obama is a marketer’s dream, says Michael Sitrick, chairman of Sitrick and Company, a public-relations firm that specializes in handling sensitive situations and has worked with billionaire Ron Burkle and socialite Paris Hilton. Rogers and the rest of the Obama team have an idyllic American family to work with “straight out of a 1950s sitcom,” Sitrick says. They “really get it from a public-relations perspective.” Not since Jacqueline Kennedy redecorated the White House and used it as a showcase for arts and culture, which helped create the Camelot mystique, has a first family so captured popular fascination, first-lady historian Myra Gutin says.

I think Noam Chomsky addressed it rather well after the Obama campaign won the Advertising Age award:

In commercial advertising, as everybody knows, everybody who’s ever, say, looked at a television program, the advertising is not intended to provide information about the product, right? I don’t have to go on about that; it’s obvious. The point of the advertising is to delude people with imagery and, you know, tales of a football player or a sexy actress who, you know, drives to the moon in a car or something like that. But it’s certainly not to inform people. In fact, it’s to keep people uninformed. The goal of advertising is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices. Those of you who’ve suffered through an economics course know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. But industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to undermine markets and to ensure—you know, to get uninformed consumers making irrational choices.

And when they turn to selling a candidate, they do the same thing. They want uninformed consumers—you know, uninformed voters to make irrational choices based on the success of illusion, slander, invective, you know, body language or whatever else is supposed to be significant. So you undermine democracy pretty much the same way you undermine markets. Well, that’s the nature of an election when it’s run by the business world, and you’d expect it to be like that. There should be no surprise there.

Obama poses with a statue of Superman- via Wikipedia (commons)

Obama poses with a statue of Superman- via Wikipedia (commons)

The controversial Chris Hedges takes it one step further in an article entitled “Buying Brand Obama”, arguing that “Kings, queens and emperors once used their court conspiracies to divert their subjects. Today cinematic, political and journalistic celebrities distract us with their personal foibles and scandals. They create our public mythology. Acting, politics and sports have become, as they were during the reign of Nero, interchangeable.”  And it’s almost indisputable when you start to consider it: Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Ronald Reagan… which are politicians and which are entertainers?  Is there even a difference anymore?  Every time that I think I’ve seen the final, most ridiculous example of this type of overlap, I’m wrong.  Linda McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, is apparently challenging Chris Dodd for his Senate seat.

Obama’s campaign was extremely tightly controlled, leading the New York Times to report that the campaign’s restrictive policies “appear to conflict with the candidate’s stated desire to be unusually transparent and open”.  This story came in the wake of news reports that the Obama campaign had prohibited two Muslim women from sitting behind the candidate at a campaign stop because they were wearing traditional headscarves and the campaign was battling the erroneous perception that Obama was a secret Muslim.

But I suppose that this is politics in the age of television.  Why shouldn’t we buy politicians with the same ease that we buy groceries?  Perhaps soon we can–my local paper reported on upcoming experiments that will allow voters to cast their ballots in the grocery store.  The name of their article was “Democracy in Aisle 3“. I can’t begin to express how that saddens me.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Consumerism, Politics

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (6)

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  1. Jay Fraz says:

    Brynn : It is amazing the degree to which advertising has evolved. "Lifestyle brands" and such are turning from simply advertising to selling a "religion" based around an idea, based around a product.

    Of course the "free market" is in itself a contradiction as all markets require force of ownership.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Jay-

    You're right, and in fact, Wikipedia says "Brands have become increasingly important components of culture and the economy, now being described as 'cultural accessories and personal philosophies'." I guess that needs to be expanded beyond "culture and economy" to include politics.

  3. Jay Fraz says:

    Brynn : I think the original "sin" was brand "religion" with iconography and ideals. It appears that this is the final frontier of advertising. All products as religion.

    It is sad that products communicate ANYTHING about who we are, let alone those who seek brands to communicate for us. Are we truly becoming this socially inept.

    Great post man, I'm rambling I know.

  4. Scarlet Letter says:

    Notably absent from the Obama campaign logo is any reference to the vice presidential running mate. Wonder what the thought was there?

    I'm not sure at what point the Obama "O" and the Pepsi logo came to so closely resemble each other. I can scarcely tell them apart at this point.

    And how weird is it to market oneself under "the big O" symbol–is it a subliminal orgasm reference?

    The "yes we can" slogan I just find unspeakably demeaning and condescending.

    The marketing without focus on substance is troubling in my mind.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn:

    As a counter-balance to your post, I would offer this post I wrote comparing the ubiquitous corporate logo Hello Kitty to Sarah Palin. http://dangerousintersection.org/2008/10/09/hello

    It's amazing how far you can get if you work really hard so that no one can pin much on you. Consider, too, how hard Supreme Court Justices must work to say nothing much at all in order to get approved by Congress. A classic example is Clarence Thomas who, at his confirmation hearings, claimed that he hadn't formulated any opinion about Roe v Wade.

    We live more in an age of images, logos, emotions and personalities rather than a world of facts, falsifiable claims and meaningful accomplishments.

  6. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Scarlet-

    The "big O" reference had occurred to me as well, but I didn't want to infer too much. And you are correct, it is somewhat unusual for the campaign logo not to include a reference to the Vice-Presidential candidate as well. Perhaps its accepting the fact that very few tickets are won or lost on the basis of the vice-presidential candidate (possibly excepting McCain/Palin). Perhaps it's also a pure marketing decision- i.e. simplifying or streamlining the "brand".

    Erich-

    That's a great comparison, I had forgotten that article. The basic point seems true for many politicians though. Politics is often referred to as the art of saying nothing. Ideally, Supreme Court justices ought to be insulated from politics, but to the extent they are forced to be political during confirmation hearings they are apt to behave in ways similar to politicians. That is, in order to be as uncontroversial as possible, it's important to avoid taking a stand on issues that people feel strongly about.

    But in Obama's case, it seems to have changed the dynamic of campaigning for the presidency. Can you remember what the Bush campaign logo was? Did he even have one? What about a campaign slogan? Obama's campaign seems to be one of the first ones that was actually run as a marketing campaign– everyone stayed "on message", it was very professionally done, and Obama appeared as a sufficiently blank slate onto which people could project whatever hopes or fears they had. He can't both be a savior and an anti-christ, but enough people seem to believe one or the other of him with similar fervency…perhaps linking the discussion with Jay's comment above "all products [and politicians] as religion".

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