Being Obscure, clearly. Why ‘Romnesia’ and ‘Obummer’ distort elections

They are funny, memorable, and provide plenty of water-cooler conversations.

The campaigns know it. They must have gag writers on staff to supplement their communications and marketing people. The unfortunate thing is that they work.

Not the lines, but the distraction. They provide a sidebar to the main event that eventually drowns the real issue.

When Obama, fresh from his speech in New York this week (the¬†annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial dinner, where both Obama and Romney delivered great one-liners, a tradition of that white tie event) fired up a crowd using a coined word ‘Romnesia‘ it supposedly lit up social media. Sure, it gave the president a stick to poke at his challenger, who has been gaining ground.

But in the last few weeks to the election, it is a huge distraction from what Obama and Romney should be doing: telling voters, especially those uneasy about both candidates, what they stand for. It may have pricked the bubble about the self-created entrepreneur, but it also treats an important election as a referendum on who citizens don’t like, as opposed to what they really want. Bumper stickers are all about this. Bumper-sticker campaigning just feeds this mentality that we don’t really need to know ¬†(or read) the candidate’s policies, so long as we keep up with the tweets, and let the one-liner define our choice.

Locally, in Phoenix, we have one of the most intellectually embarrassing senate races, by Jeff Flake and Richard Carmona. Going by their ads, I personally don’t want any of them representing me.

Like both major parties, they spend millions on tarring each other’s reputation instead of telling us why we should pay their salary. Worse, they hide behind shady organizations that pretend to represent us, who pay for these spiteful spats.

Take a guess: who might ‘Americans For Responsible Leadership’ and the ‘Committee for Justice and Fairness’ represent? They are quite opaque –by design. These political action committees (PACs) poison the waters of democracy. Why?

  • They are still stuck in the mass media mindset, imagining that he who shouts the loudest will win our vote.
  • These nattering nabobs of negativism account for 75% of negative advertisements (a tar bucket that’s worth $507,240,744.99 according to the Sunlight Foundation)
  • Their ‘message’ –a mess of pottage, really– is clear. Don’t think, just vote! Their goal is simple, as in E.B. White’s words: “be obscure, clearly”!

To think we as a country spend billions trying to introduce democracy to other parts of the world!

Nagative campaigning, Mark Antony style

How does one market a presidential candidate?

The “soap” analogy (packaging, promotion and the the rest of the 4 Ps) is no longer relevant. Today’s political marketing strategists employ more subtler techniques. The negative ads have got so sophisticated that they don’t even look like ads.

Take Hillary’s campaign. The pitchman isn’t simply the talking head of some famous person. It’s a talking head of the first pitchman, the former incumbent. The medium isn’t even TV –it’s a much distributed YouTube video that happened to originate on television. The ‘negative’ isn’t even negative, in the Sean Hannity kind of slam. It appears so balanced, you can almost miss it.

Watch how Bill Clinton carefully labels Barack Obama without sounding negative, and having lightening responses to Charlie Rose‘s deeper questions that would have trapped anyone else. There’s block-and-bridge, and like Shakespeare’s classic technique having Mark Antony call Brutus “an honorable man,” he’s all praises for Obama, while stomping all over him.

When probed about whether he thinks they are all fit to be president, Bill prefaces it by saying “not to criticize anybody…” calls Obama somebody who is … “a compelling and credibly attractive, highly intelligent symbol of transformation.” Before that he described him as someone with “enormous talent, staggering political skills.”

The key (negative) word here is “symbol.” Earlier on he made it clear that “symbol is not as important as substance.” He calls Hillary the “agent of change” and Obama a “symbol of change.” Careful repositioning of the competition, without sounding like the old-fashioned negative ad.

Come to think of it, it’s a bit like a soap ad –Doves repositioning of “beauty” not as anti-aging, but “pro-aging.”