Branding a Candidate

We are all consumers. It could be argued that we can more readily recognize major corporate brand symbols, such as Nike’s Swoosh, McDonald’s Arch and Apple’s…well, apple than we can recognize the current president, George Washington, how many Senators there are, or just about any other benchmark of Americanness. We are fast becoming less American citizen and more American consumer. In fact, in a study conducted last year, children, when given identical food items; one in a plain wrapper and the other in a McDonalds wrapper, said that the one in a McDonalds wrapper tasted better. We are brought up to be consumers, no matter what the product.

So, it comes as little surprise that the two candidates currently running for President are putting quite a lot of stock into marketing themselves as a brand. It’s to be expected. You need a simple symbol that is quickly identifiable to the average consumer voter. This symbol is, of course, run through many revisions and tested on focus groups multiple times to achieve the highest possible awareness. Take Obama’s logo, for example:

It’s shaped like an “O,” it implies a new dawn, with the inner white circle rising over a crest of American flag stripes, set against a sky-blue background. Very concise and effective. It encompasses the message of “hope” and “change,” even if you don’t know exactly why or how it does it. Now, take the McCain logo:

Doesn’t say much, does it? It does say that this candidate’s name is McCain, which should come in handy with his base, elderly people. With their memories slipping, they need all the reminders that they can get about who it is that they’re voting for again. For the younger (read- under 65) crowd that may vote for him, it serves as a reminder that, oh yeah, I have to vote for McCain, which, from the sound of it, a healthy amount of Republicans aren’t wont to do. The crest above the name implies, not too subtly, military service, but he’s not running on his military service…or so he says. Logos often are more forthcoming than the product that they’re selling wants to be.

We Americans love to consume more than we love to belong to a group or movement, even if we don’t know entirely what it’s about or what it stands for. Both of these campaigns step right up and hock their wares with equal zeal. From time immemorial, our leaders have put their names on pins and buttons, fliers and posters, trying to get the word out that they are so-and-so and they want your vote/support in their campaign/power grab of whatever they’re running for/orchestrating a coup against. George Washington had campaign buttons, so this is nothing new.

But lately, candidates have taken it to a whole other level. Just a cursory perusal through their campaign stores shows that both Barack Obama and John McCain have a plethora of items for sale. From hats to t-shirts to coffee mugs, tote bags and even rubber Livestrong-ish bracelets, you can very nearly cover yourself and your house from top to bottom with items promoting your favored candidate. Outside of this sanctioned branding, there has risen a cottage industry of small money-grabbing pseudo-businesses that are making their own swag, trying to get some of that always lucrative democratic fervor dollar.

But is this a good thing? Is the selling of a candidate as a brand and a commodity a step that we should be taking? Do I need a John McCain soft-sided cooler?

or a Barack Obama charm necklace?

At some point, we diminish these two men into nothing more than faceless corporate idols about whom we know nothing of substance, nothing of consequence and nothing of value. We’re lowering democracy to the political equivalent of Apple versus Microsoft or Nike versus Adidas. What happens when people who know nothing of a candidate’s policies end up voting for them because they happen to offer the cooler swag or have a more eye-grabbing logo? Does America die a little more with each election that goes by where we don’t talk about issues that affect us and hold our candidates accountable for their positions? Does any of this matter one iota, or should I get off my idealistic soapbox and just go back to writing all of this mindless bullshit in my John McCain recycled paper notebook? Sigh…

I’ve come to the conclusion that idealism is just about as dead as it can be in our country. You’d think that our unwavering cynicism would rise up and decry such silliness as stupid and out of touch. Sadly,  it doesn’t. Most of us are simply fairweather fans of democracy.

Every four years, we get so excited that we jump on the bandwagon and buy up all of the brand-new swag, much to the annoyance of the true fans of democracy, who stuck with it, even through the down years. Then we boorishly stamp out any of the true excitement and meaning that it may have once had, ruining it for everyone involved. By the time we get to celebrate a victory or wallow in a defeat, all of the importance and substance has been wrung out of it.

Then we console ourselves by buying something new and shiny or we celebrate by buying something new and shiny. Meanwhile, our democratic process has been turned into nothing but a dog and pony show, where the snazziest branded product wins. By failing to ask tough questions and actually hold the candidates accountable by demanding that they take on important issues, we end up with paper tigers who shuffle the deck a bit, but fundamentally change nothing, because they simply don’t have to.

Maybe it’s time to ask ourselves; when it comes down to it, does the product in the brand-name wrapper taste any better than the other one?

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