The Bush administration’s determination to mimic the hollow corporations it admired extended to its handling of the anger its actions inspired around the world. Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its policies, it launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to “rebrand America” for an increasingly hostile world. Watching these cringeful attempts, I was convinced that Price Floyd, former director of media relations at the State Department, had it right. After resigning in frustration, he said that the United States was facing mounting anger not because of the failure of its messaging but because of the failure of its policies. “I’d be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House,” Floyd told Slate magazine. “They’d say: ‘We need to get our people out there on more media.’ I’d say: ‘It’s not so much the packaging, it’s the substance that’s giving us trouble.’” A powerful, imperialist country is not like a hamburger or a running shoe. America didn’t have a branding problem; it had a product problem.
I used to think that, but I may have been wrong. When Obama was sworn in as president, the American brand could scarcely have been more battered – Bush was to his country what New Coke was to Coca-Cola, what cyanide in the bottles had been to Tylenol. Yet Obama, in what was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all time, managed to turn things around. Kevin Roberts, global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, set out to depict visually what the new president represented. In a full-page graphic commissioned by the stylish Paper Magazine, he showed the Statue of Liberty with her legs spread, giving birth to Barack Obama. America, reborn.
So, it seemed that the United States government could solve its reputation problems with branding – it’s just that it needed a branding campaign and product spokesperson sufficiently hip, young and exciting to compete in today’s tough market. The nation found that in Obama, a man who clearly has a natural feel for branding and who has surrounded himself with a team of top-flight marketers. His social networking guru, for instance, is Chris Hughes, one of the young founders of Facebook. His social secretary is Desirée Rogers, a glamorous Harvard MBA and former marketing executive. And David Axelrod, Obama’s top adviser, was formerly a partner in ASK Public Strategies, a PR firm which, according to Business Week, “has quarterbacked campaigns” for everyone from Cablevision to AT&T. Together, the team has marshalled every tool in the modem marketing arsenal to create and sustain the Obama brand: the perfectly calibrated logo (sunrise over stars and stripes); expert viral marketing (Obama ringtones); product placement (Obama ads in sports video games); a 30-minute infomercial (which could have been cheesy but was universally heralded as “authentic”); and the choice of strategic brand alliances (Oprah for maximum reach, the Kennedy family for gravitas, and no end of hip-hop stars for street cred).
The first time I saw the “Yes We Can” video, the one produced by Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am, featuring celebrities speaking and singing over a Martin Luther Kingesque Obama speech, I thought: finally, a politician with ads as cool as Nike. The ad industry agreed. A few weeks before he won the presidential elections, Obama beat Nike, Apple, Coors and Zappos to win the Association of National Advertisers’ top annual award – Marketer of the Year. It was certainly a shift. In the 1990s, brands upstaged politics completely. Now corporate brands were rushing to piggyback on Obama’s caché (Pepsi’s “Choose Change” campaign, Ikea’s “Embrace Change ‘09″ and Southwest Airlines’ offer of “Yes You Can” tickets).
Indeed everything Obama and his family touches turns to branding gold. J Crew saw its stock price increase 200% in the first six months of Obama’s presidency, thanks in part to Michelle’s well known fondness for the brand. Obama’s much-discussed attachment to his BlackBerry has been similarly good news for Research In Motion. The surest way to sell magazines and newspapers in these difficult times is to have an Obama on the cover, and you only need to call three ounces of vodka and some fruit juice an Obamapolitan or a Barackatini and you can get $15 for it, easy. In February 2009, Portfolio magazine put the size of “the Obama economy” – the tourism he generates and the swag he inspires – at $2.5bn. Not at all bad in an economic crisis. Rogers got into trouble with some of her colleagues when she spoke too frankly with The Wall Street Journal. “We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand,” she said. “Our possibilities are endless.”
The exploration of those possibilities did not end, or even slow, with the election victory. Bush had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform his best impersonation of the Marlboro man, forever clearing brush, having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots. Obama has gone much further, turning the White House into a kind of never-ending reality show starring the lovable Obama clan. This too can be traced to the mid-90s branding craze, when marketers grew tired of the limitations of traditional advertising and began creating three-dimensional “experiences” – branded temples where shoppers could crawl inside the personality of their favourite brands. The problem is not that Obama is using the same tricks and tools as the superbrands; anyone wanting to move the culture these days pretty much has to do that. The problem is that, as with so many other lifestyle brands before him, his actions do not come close to living up to the hopes he has raised.
Though it’s too soon to issue a verdict on the Obama presidency, we do know this: he favours the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time. So he will make a dramatic announcement about closing the notorious Guantánamo Bay prison – while going ahead with an expansion of the lower profile but frighteningly lawless Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and opposing accountability for Bush officials who authorised torture. He will boldly appoint the first Latina to the Supreme Court, while intensifying Bush-era enforcement measures in a new immigration crackdown. He will make investments in green energy, while championing the fantasy of “clean coal” and refusing to tax emissions, the only sure way to substantially reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Most importantly, he will claim to be ending the war in Iraq, and will retire the ugly “war on terror” phrase – even as the conflicts guided by that fatal logic escalate in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his “Yes We Can!” slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede). These movements made unequivocal demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher wages, ambitious social programmes. Because of those high-cost demands, these movements had not only committed followers but serious enemies. Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wing nuts (which, granted, constitute a not inconsequential demographic in the United States). Advertising Age had it right when it gushed that the Obama brand is “big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy”. And then their highest compliment: “Mr Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player.”
Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party monopoly through dogged organisation and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued “bipartisanship” with crazed Republicans once in the White House.
excerpt by Naomi Klein, via The Guardian