Friday, May 20, 2005

Government is Not a Marketing Campaign

In today’s politics, it’s not uncommon to hear phrases like “message positioning” or “candidate packaging.” But the Bush Administration has fused government with marketing like never before. And this is not good for any of us.

All politicians use marketing techniques and the Clinton administration was no stranger to the concept. But the long list of Bush’s “marketing strategies” are unprecedented. During his administration, we have seen:

• Actively staged town hall meetings designed not to foster open debate but to create the perception of broad support. Where attendees have been kicked out simply because they showed up with a liberal bumper sticker on their car.

• Political commentators paid to write opinions favorable to administration policies.

Prepackaged “news stories” produced by government agencies and run by local television stations as if they were legitimate news features.

• The White House Chief of Staff explain that the President didn’t start pushing for war with Iraq sooner because, "from a marketing standpoint, you don't roll out a new product in August."

• Attendees to Vice President Dick Cheney’s speeches required to sign a loyalty pledge to ensure there would be no dissent in the audience.

The list goes on. And while a lot of these points have been used by the hateful “Bush-is-evil” crowd to prove some perceived malice, they miss the point. Bush isn’t evil in the least. He’s just a disturbingly good marketer.

But just because these acts might be routine in the private sector in no way means we should tolerate them from our government. Marketing uses techniques specifically designed to hide flaws and inflate advantages. While not sinking to the level of dishonesty, marketing doesn’t exactly seek to create open debate. In fact, marketing techniques are specifically designed to grease the wheels of persuasion, allowing a product to be sold less on its merits than on its image.

But democracy necessitates transparency. Democracy demands facts be analyzed, discussed and understood. When government and politicians use marketing techniques to “sell” their policies, they are undermining the democratic process. Public policy is not a product to be packaged and sold. While there is nothing wrong with trying to make it accessible to the general public, there is something wrong with using tricks to “sell” it.

Again, Bush is hardly alone in this, just its prime practitioner. And while there is no way or need to completely divorce politics and marketing, neither is there a need to tolerate the excesses. Already we have seen the American people generally reject Bush’s Social Security argument, despite its well-honed rollout. As we move into the 2006 and 2008 elections, we should continue to pay careful attention to how politicians present themselves and their ideas. Let’s reward those who favor open debate. And cast off those who prefer the vapid persuasions of marketing.

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this piece is a marketing professional and provides communications related advice and assistance to the Centrist Coalition.


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