Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is Political Marketing Making Us Crazy?

NOTE: This is a series of four planned posts about how we make decisions as a society, and where our political leadership might be taking us. It is meant to be non-partisan, but my conservative-ness might slip through. In the first post, I discussed the difference between team thinking and crisis thinking, and how we seem to be demonstrating a team mentality while saying we are in a crisis. This post considers the possibility that we are being manipulated by sophisticated political marketing. The following posts will examine the possibility that we are entering a slow moving crisis, and that we are in the process of separating into two distinct societies.

It seems like most people, despite their political leanings, agree that things are very bad right now. The economy is lousy, the world is an increasingly unsafe place, and there is a miasma of despair and anger that seems to have enveloped the country. But what if things aren't so bad? Or, to be a bit more specific, what if we're being made to think things are worse than they are by people who want to manipulate those feelings? And, if that's still too cryptic: what if the political marketing gurus being paid vast sums of money to get their candidates elected are trying to make us feel as terrible as possible to get us to vote the way they want?

Modern political consultants have the full range of data and analytics that other marketers have. This data is so powerful it can, for example, help Target determine when a woman is pregnant, and when she is due. So we should expect that political marketers know what issues drive candidate preference in what cohorts, what personal interests we have that campaigns might tap into (I was served a large number of Pet Lovers for Obama ads a few months ago) and even the factors that will make us more or less likely to go to the polls on a given day.

This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but combined with one other factor it becomes toxic. Namely, we don't much like our politicians right now. Recent polling found that almost twice as many people approve of the BP oil spill than approve of Congress.And while approval ratings for our presidential candidates are significantly higher, a lot of that is probably each team approving of their standard bearer. Fixing the reputation of politicians is going to require a long period of better performance and better behavior, and no individual candidate can do much about that in the short run. So the solution is to make sure that voters find your opponent more odious than you.

This is where we confront the big difference between politics and most other forms of marketing: politics is a zero sum game. Since what matters is not getting as many people as possible to vote for you, but to get one more person to vote for you than votes for any other candidate, politicians and their handlers get just as big of an impact from denying an opponent a vote as they do when they win one for themselves. You can't sell a Chevy just by making people hate Toyota, because they can always buy a Honda or a Ford. But Obama wins if he can make enough people hate Romney even if he is almost as unpopular, and vice versa.

So if we can accept that politicians have to navigate an environment where they, as a class, are disdained, and we accept that in a zero sum game the rewards for negative marketing are at least as high as those for positive marketing, and we accept that political marketers know an awful lot about our hot buttons and our voting behavior, then we can assume these marketers are following a strategy that will increase our misery and our belief that our country is falling apart. Why? Because they know that their base is primed to think the worse of the other team, so negative marketing about an opponent isn't going to turn them off. And they know voters who could go either way aren't inclined to think very highly of politicians, so it is easier to confirm that bias by sliming your opponent than it is to build yourself up while your opponent is sliming you. And lastly, they know that the opponent's base is never going to vote for them, so the best they can hope for is to make that base so disgusted that they choose not to vote at all.

We can see this dynamic at play in this year's debate over Medicare. Both sides are working as hard as they can to convince us that their opponent is going to wreck Medicare for seniors. Neither side acknowledges very directly that Medicare is endangered by rapidly rising costs and that painful decisions will have to be made, but rather imply that their plan is the only way to save the program. The negativity-to-solution ratio is dangerously high. Maybe that's why this Wall Street Journal column resonated with me: the author argues that we are being suckered into thinking the parties are further apart than they are, and that most of what we register as serious disagreement is really just noise.

But, you say, even if the Republicans and Democrats aren't offering serious solutions to our urgent problems, we at least know that we have urgent problems, right? Well, perhaps not. One under-discussed possibility is that the problems we have might not be so insurmountable. Maybe there are structural advantages the US has that will reassert themselves over time, or maybe the public is already waking up to the unsustainability of the course we're on and will back needed changes. As a country, we have faced seemingly impossible problems before, and have always managed to pull through and continue our march forward.

After all, the broad trend of human history is positive, and there are a number of reasons to think tomorrow will be better still. At this point, though, I should put my cards on the table: though I am confident we will continue to advance in the long term, I think the problems this country (and really the entire industrialized world) faces are too big to avoid serious pain in the shorter term. Marketing is a powerful tool, but it rarely conjures emotion from nowhere. Rather, it taps into and amplifies the feelings we already have. So our natural feelings of impending doom may be enhanced by the political back-and forth, but they are based in something real: namely, a concern that we've lost control of the country our forebearers built.

I'll explore the implications of that idea in my next two posts.

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