|A PICTURE HIDES A THOUSAND LIES: THE PHOTO-OP PRESIDENT.|
|There are three
easily recognizable homeless guys who hang out near the Columbus
Circle area where I live -- they've been there for years. One's a white
guy with long graying hair, one's a tall black man with dreadlocks, and
one's a cantankerous coot who spits on people.
During this year's Republican Convention, they were gone -- for the entire week. And lo and behold, Friday morning, when the GOP had bolted town, all three were back, sleeping near the entrance to the 59th Street subway station. In that situation, I almost wanted to ask them where they'd been all week (maybe not the spitting guy).
The whitewashing of the city that occurred during the Republican Convention drives home a larger point that's particularly true of the Bush Administration -- when it comes to governing, the guys in power are singularly obsessed with making things look good; that is, promoting the appearance of leading rather than actually leading.
Saying that our leaders are attuned to theater is nothing new. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were masters of massaging the message, for example. But this administration has brought this sort of execution to a new level; an uninterrupted delivery of the day's political message. It's the President as Brand: a four-year photo opportunity. As advertising increasingly encroaches on every segment of our lives, the GOP, and particularly the administration, have proven that the message comes first.
"They have an uncanny ability to take away an opponent's strength and concentrate public opinion on rhetoric. Just look at the McCain war record attacks, the Kerry war records attacks," says Eric Yaverbaum, president and founder of public relations firm Jericho Communications. "What they have achieved with their opponents'
products is what Coke and Pepsi spend billions of dollars to try and achieve."
The fatal flaw of the marketing-obsessed in this world is that when failures occur, marketing experts concentrate on altering the message rather than altering the underlying idea. The most famous of these is the infamous "Mission: Accomplished" banner upon the flight deck of the U.S.S. Lincolns, with Dubya strutting around in a flight suit.
The administration has proven themselves slaves to this, resulting in the recent spectacle of a sitting president, at a debate intended to decide the future direction of this country, mouthing
slogans like "it's hard work." With the underlying facts behind what he's saying proven wrong, you end up with an empty message -- and critics rightfully pounced on that after the debate.
Mixed Messages Mixed Messages
Still, though, it's hard to argue that the Bushies weren't initially on to something with their manner of repetitive phrases. Malcolm Gladwell's influential bestseller "The Tipping Point" found that children like having messages repeated. The creators of the show "Blue's Clues" discovered that the best success they had with increasing the aptitude of their toddling listeners was if they watched the exact same show, again and again.
Given that the Bush Administration views the general citizenry as "how we think about a 10-year old child," as Chief of Staff and head marketer Andrew Card told The Boston Globe on September 2 -- its approach to getting their message out isn't much different.
One early example of that came in August 2002 at the President's
Economic Summit, held in Texas during one of his many administrative vacations. Cardboard boxes -- without anything in them, mind you -- were placed strategically around the stage, and big placards emblazoned with the words "Economic Recovery" and "Job Creation" adorned the dais, while the president and others answered
questions from the audience.
"People are used to subliminal and not-so-subliminal advertising everywhere," says Marjorie Brody, founder of Brody Communications in Jenkintown, Pa. "He's advertising in a variety of modalities. People learn differently, and the more you can appeal to the different senses, the more impact it has."
True enough -- but as many know, economic growth remained shaky for the next year. But the message of recovery was the more important thing. "Administration officials said a key purpose of the forum was for President Bush to be seen expressing concern and working hard on the economy in the midst of a month-long working vacation," wrote Mike Allen in The Washington Post on August 14, 2002.
Again, pay attention to the words the officials use -- for Bush to "be seen expressing concern and working hard," rather than actually "being concerned," or "working," for that matter. "Projecting leadership" is a popular phrase used by Bush officials -- except, the thing is, "projecting leadership" is also shorthand for not really doing anything.
Shock and Aw, Nuts.
The desire to influence public opinion has never been more prominent than in the conduct of the invasion of Iraq, but the difference this time was there were two populations to convince in terms: the American people, and the Iraqi people. And the latter would prove to be far more resistant to our "marketing efforts." If you doubt this, return to a statement from the Administration's chief marketing officer, Andrew Card, who told The New York Times, after a possible invasion had met resistance from Congress, that "from a
marketing perspective, you don't introduce new products in August."
No, Mr. Card, of course not! You simply have to re-tool the message! And voila -- you get "Shock and Awe," the bombing campaign that was somehow supposed to convince Iraq that this was a fight not worth getting
into. "We want them to quit," said Harlan Ullman, one of the authors of the strategy, developed at National Defense University.
Of course, we see how well that worked out. The Iraqis haven't been convinced. Besides the Mission Accomplished banner, there were
several other instances in which images and reality didn't connect -- the display turkey that the president proudly carted around during his Thanksgiving visit with soldiers in Iraq (only supporters allowed, of course), his theater-in-the-round style campaign appearances that put him in the position of the engaged preacher with probing questions such as "I'm so glad you're in the White House" and the disastrous attempts to sway Arab public opinion by hiring public relations experts like Charlotte Beers (including launching lifestyle magazines called "Hi.")
Once again, though, reality messes with the ability to shape images. With more than 1,000
American soldiers killed -- more dying in each succeeding month -- and an estimated death toll of 20,000 Iraqis, getting the good news out isn't easy. (Especially when the Iraqi rebels figured out the marketing game by beheading people and releasing it on video.)
Damn it if the Bush Administration still isn't trying, though -- The Washington Post reported on September 30 that the White House has a new effort to "improve opinions about the Iraq conflict," by fanning out with Iraqi Americans to U.S. military bases to tell them about "uplifting accounts with good news messages," and in addition, cutting off information about the increasing number of daily attacks from insurgents.
However, that doesn't mean we're necessarily buying it -- or at least, a smart "consumer" doesn't necessary buy it, which is what Brody says we should be. "Caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware," she says. "The reality is, can you trust what anyone is saying? It's your job to sort beyond what we're seeing promoted."
It's this aspect -- eventually, the volume of information is so high that the message simply cannot be retailored or repeated, no matter how great the effort -- which the Bushies haven't figured out. That's because adults aren't children, as Gladwell wrote: "An adult considers constant repetition boring, because it requires reliving the same experience over and again."
Mr. President, more people than ever know what you're selling. And they're starting to get bored of it.
David Gaffen sees a lot of advertising from his couch and has never once lost an argument with his television.