A new brand of politics

Anyone familiar with U.S. politics knows that we really only have two parties to choose from. The thing that most people may not think about is how those parties are evolving into powerful brands that increasingly stand for opposing world views.

Most people in the United States align themselves with either the Democrats (Liberal) or Republicans (Conservative). Each party has their own bucket of issues that they represent and voters choose the party that has the most amount of the issues they care about. From a marketing and sociological point of view this leads to some interesting side effects.

As Martin Lindstrom and Douglas Van Praet illustrate in their books — Buy•ology and Unconscious Branding, respectively — good branding has the potential to coerce our biological programming to convince us to buy. In each of their books they examine the underlying neurological and biological factors that drive our decisions, from mirror neurons, to our need to procreate (sex sells), to our desire for fatty and salty foods (hamburgers, am I right?).

Hungry yet?

Our daily decisions are driven by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and a desire to survive. We evolved to make split second decisions to save our higher brain functions for when we really need them. This is why prejudices and heuristics exist, as well as why brand loyalty can be so powerful. Humans have evolved to survive based on the lowest expenditure of energy for the highest maximum return. Branding takes of advantage of this. When you don’t have to think about the decisions you make, you save your brain a lot of effort.

Lindstrom and Van Praet have also done extensive work into the role that our emotions play in our decision making process. We tend to think that we are logic and reason driven beings. However, according to their research and the work of Jonathan Haidt—author of The Righteous Mind—we tend to use our higher brain functions to justify our actions to ourselves, rather than act justly. So, we can start to see how appealing to emotions first and reason second can create compelling and powerful campaigns for politicians. But first, let’s take a step back to some basics.

Anyone in business knows that in order to have a fighting chance in the market you have to differentiate yourself from your competitors; whether it’s based on price, customer service, or offering a product that no one else offers. But the key element in successful marketing is defining your target audience. No business can be everything to everybody, so you have to be everything to a chosen few. One of the ways that companies market to their target audience is by show casing “extreme users” or by demonstrating the ideal of what their product can do (think super models wearing jeans, or your favorite athlete drinking Gatorade).

Let’s take a look at how Nike uses this principle in their advertising. They don’t use everyday people in their advertising, they use elite athletes, the best of the best. They aren’t advertising to elite athletes, rather they are advertising to aspiring amateur athletes who want to be the best. By selling the image of the elite athlete, Nike is able to pull in all of the aspiring athletes as well as the weekend warriors, and even the couch potatoes who think about what it might be like to be a great athlete. There are a lot more people who aren’t extreme athletes than are, but everyone wants to be like the “cool kids.” People love to associate themselves with the “alphas” of society, the rich, the sexy, and the powerful. Essentially, everyone wants to be on the winning side.

And we can all wear the same shoes too!

This same tactic is used come election time. Think about it: if both parties focused on trying to capture the more moderate voters it would be very difficult to differentiate between the two parties, so what do they have to do? They have to advertise to the extremes. Let’s pick a hot button topic right now; gun control.

In order to differentiate themselves, the candidates have to take very strong stances on whether they are pro-gun control, or pro-second amendment. In reality we could find common ground on this issue, but that’s not how you win voters. Few politicians are saying we can’t have guns, instead the discussion really comes down to how people get guns, and what types of guns every day citizens can and should have access to. But in order to divide the voters each party has to take a strong stance to capture the more extreme voters and then work their way back towards the middle. This is where we begin to see the appeal to emotions in the guise of logic and reason.

Let’s take the Republican view on gun control for example. First and foremost most Republicans take the stance that American citizens have a constitutional right to bear arms as is detailed in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Therefore, any government laws that restrict someone’s ability to buy certain types of weapons is an infringement on their second amendment right to bear arms. This is the logical argument. But let’s take a look at the emotions underlying this argument. If Democrats succeed in dismantling the Second Amendment, they could destroy citizen’s rights to buy and own guns, thus destroying their ability to protect themselves. It gets a lot scarier to think that the government doesn’t want it’s citizens to defend itself, than it is to think that safety conscious people would like to put some measures in effect to try to prevent the wrong type of people from getting their hands on deadly weapons. The argument then becomes, the government doesn’t want us to protect ourselves, versus, the government is trying to keep guns out of criminals hands.

Gun control is not the only issue like this. Take abortion (pro-choice vs. pro-life), LGBTQ rights (marriage is between a man and a woman vs. consenting adults should have the right to love who they choose), transgender bathrooms (they might be rapists vs. people should use the bathroom that makes them comfortable), immigration (us vs. them), all of these issues can be handled in ways that don’t divide our population every four years, but they are useful marketing and branding tools that help each party advertise to their potential constituents. You can also start to see the role that fear plays in certain political policies.

Now, going back to the idea that each party has in effect become it’s own brand let’s see how this plays out. When you are building a brand you are trying to build a story and an ideal that people can associate themselves with. People begin to identify themselves by the brands they buy. If I buy Nike I’m a serious athlete, if I drink Starbucks I’m a hip coffee addict, if I buy guns I’m a Republican, if I have an abortion I’m a Democrat.

How do you like your politics?

Our political parties have become brands that we wear just like any other. We begin to associate with others in those groups, we begin to group think and start to mold our opinions to fit with the brands, rather than the other way around. We at first choose brands, products and services based on how they fit into our lifestyle, but then we begin to fit our lifestyles around the brands we choose.

Brands are convenient, they allow us to make decisions without having to think too hard. If your grandma used Clorox, then you are more likely to use Clorox. If your friends drink a certain brand of coffee, you’re more likely to drink that brand of coffee, and therefore more likely to associate with others who drink that brand of coffee.

By building up our political parties into representative brands it provides voters with a short cut for knowing who they are going to vote for. Strategies and policies become less important than what side of the fence someone stands on for a particular issue. It’s not even about solving the problems any more, it’s just about what you think the problems are.

Turning politics into brands makes it easier for both sides to dismiss the opinions of the “other”. By applying a label to someone or something we can easily dismiss it (or embrace it) simply because of that label. It is much easier to dismiss a Democrat or a Republican than it is to dismiss the opinions, values and beliefs of a fellow human. Don’t get caught up in the hype and the emotional pandering.

“Sit, be still, and listen, because you’re drunk and we’re at the edge of the roof.”