This past January, New Yorker essayist Malcolm Gladwell observed that sports-utility vehicles are bestsellers because Americans have bought into the marketing myth that SUVs are safer than conventional cars. Actually, they are more dangerous because they are less maneuverable and more prone to tip over.
On Nov. 2 Americans bought into another marketing myth—that George Bush would keep them safe. The truth is that the Bush administration has imperiled our security: Bush domestic policies have made the economic future less secure and his international policies have fueled the flames of terrorism. (In retrospect, the motto of the Kerry campaign should have been, “George Bush—unsafe at any speed.”)
Many Democrats believe that those who voted for George W. did so because they are unintelligent, but there is a more plausible explanation for his victory on Nov. 2: Americans preferred Bush because they are vulnerable to mass-marketing myth makers.
Americans bought into a fabricated Bush persona on many levels: Those who voted for George W. believed that he was more pious, patriotic, and athletic than John Kerry. The gulf between the perception of Bush and the reality was the result of a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign.
After it was clear that John Kerry would be the Democratic nominee, a friend remarked that on election day the American electorate would have the choice between spam (Bush) and prosciutto (Kerry); in other words, voters could pick either a manufactured product, a nutritional illusion, or one that was real but unfamiliar to Middle America.
Once Kerry secured the nomination, polls showed him with a slight advantage over the incumbent. The Bush marketers responded with the first stage of their image campaign: George W. is just like you, and John Kerry is not—he’s an effete intellectual. At this point, Laura Bush began to play a bigger role in the campaign because she has broad popular appeal. (Laura’s prominence reminded me of a comment that my mother once made about Dick Nixon, “He must be okay; he’s married to that sweet woman, Pat.”) Throughout the campaign, Laura was used to reinforce the “folks like us” theme. Theresa Heinz Kerry was too exotic for much of Middle America; her presence supported the Republican claim that John Kerry was out of touch with average people.
At the Democratic convention Kerry was packaged as a decorated veteran, “reporting for duty” to protect America. This presented a serious challenge to the Bush image-makers. They responded with two thrusts:
The first was to say, in effect, Kerry served honorably in Vietnam but since then has had a career primarily characterized by vacillation—he’s a flip-flopper. The Bush marketing campaign claimed that George, in contrast, was resolute, “He says what he means and means what he says.”
The second thrust was the infamous “Swift-Boat” advertisements, and the accompanying book, “Unfit for Command.” These attacks served two purposes: they marginalized Kerry’s credibility as a decorated war hero. And, they diverted attention from Bush’s greatest vulnerability, the failure of his Administration to respond to the Al Qaeda threat prior to 9/11.
After Kerry’s campaign was reenergized by his victories in the debates, the Bush image-makers responded with the third stage of their campaign: moral values. Bush was portrayed as the defender of traditional values; he would protect the American family from the “threat” of gay marriage and, more generally, immoral lifestyles promoted by the liberal elite. Kerry was lambasted as a liberal, someone out of touch with core American values.
The Republican theme, Bush will protect America, was extended to the war on terrorism; George W. was portrayed as a Christian warrior who would defend the American family from threats within and without the United States.
Democrats didn’t take this marketing campaign seriously enough. They laughed when, for example, Dick Cheney told an audience that if John Kerry were to be elected president there was no doubt that Al Qaeda would “hit us again.” Rather than talk about values, and Kerry’s own positives, the Democratic campaign managers retreated into policy wonkdom.
When the Bin Laden video ran a few days before Nov. 2, the Democrats had no effective response. But, the video reminded the average American of 9/11 and, therefore, reinforced the artfully constructed image of Bush as protector of the nation. At the last minute, crucial voter groups shifted from Kerry to Bush because of a concern about security and values.
When push came to shove, the American voting public bought the Bush marketing campaign. They chose spam. Not because it tasted better, or was healthier, but because it was comfort food in perilous times. They disapproved of most of what Bush had done in his first term, but they liked him better, felt more comfortable with him.
In 1992, Bill Clinton won because Democrats did a better job of marketing him than Republicans did with George H. W. Bush. In 2000 and 2004, Gore and Kerry lost because the Republicans were better mythmakers. There’s a vital lesson to be learned from this experience—in 2008, Democrats must do a far better job marketing their presidential candidate.