This year’s presidential campaign is shaping up as a case study in how the race for the White House has turned into a form of marketing warfare, featuring advertisements and gimmicks seeking to brand the opposing candidate with a series of indelible negative images.
In recent days, John McCain’s campaign has mocked Barack Obama’s supposed “celebrity” status by comparing him to Paris Hilton, delivered tire gauges designed to deflate Obama’s energy plan, and taunted the Illinois Democrat as a Moses-like figure who believes he can part raging waters.
Obama, in turn, has put his rapid-response team into overdrive, pounding out press releases that seek to rebut every criticism from McCain, while delivering what it considers the ultimate, most politically powerful putdown: asserting that a McCain presidency would equal a third term for Bush.
Recently, McCain tried to deflect Obama’s effort to link him with Bush, unveiling a television ad designed to protect McCain’s brand as an independent willing to buck the party line. “We’re worse off than we were four years ago,” the announcer says. “Only McCain has taken on big tobacco, drug companies, fought corruption. ... He’s the original maverick.”
Often lost in the back-and-forth is the real debate over issues that both campaigns promised voters. But the recent history of presidential elections shows that the branding strategy can work. A single, mocking image—the more outrageous, the more effective—can define a candidate. In 1988, it was Michael Dukakis riding in a tank, and four years ago John F Kerry on his windsurfing board.
On the flip side, candidates try to put out a single, celebratory image of themselves: Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America”, George W Bush’s bullhorn moment at the World Trade Centre site, and McCain as a wounded former prisoner of war.
Over the course of a long campaign, the image makers hope that the positive portrait of their candidate and the mocking picture of the opponent stick in voters’ minds.
—NY Times / Michael Kranish
6 months ago