Thursday, October 18, 2012

Will Marketing Become Politics?

Familiarity breeds contempt.  

Nowhere does this adage seem more appropriate than in the realm of the current Presidential election.  Voters have now seen so much of President Barack Obama and of Governor Mitt Romney that they can now hate them for any number of reasons based on policy, their wives, choices of attire or hand gestures.  Moreover, their supporters and detractors seem to have fossilized into violently opposed camps.

Welcome to marketing, circa 2025.

I’d argue that politics hasn’t gotten any nastier in the last few years, or indeed in the history of our glorious republic.  After all, in fewer than 250 years, we’ve seen such lowlights as a congressman attacking a senator with a cane,  a presidential candidate’s illegitimate child becoming a campaign prop, and a former vice president shooting a former treasury secretary in a duel.

No, politics hasn’t gotten nastier; rather, media have made nastiness more ubiquitous.  I do not mean to “blame the media,” at least in the traditional sense.  Fox or CNN, Huffington Post or Newsmax, media have never loomed as large as they do today, true.  However, the candidates themselves have contributed to the ubiquity of media: email, online display, low-cost telephony and social media have made it possible for them to reach out to the voters more frequently than ever.

Every action, every offhand remark, every questionable photo op becomes magnified a thousandfold.  First the candidates and their proxies jump on them, then the partisan media take them up and finally it becomes a genuine story.  Gaffes repeat themselves first as tragedy and then as direct mail solicitations.

And we the voters hate the candidates for them.  The media, in the broadest possible sense, have made it impossible to escape the vitriol.  In fact, it seemingly requires vitriol merely to pierce the constant drone of spin, opinion and promises.

Will marketing tread the same path?

Think about it: nearly every marketer has the same infinite media reach as a political candidate.  While mass media such as TV or (what remains of) print remain relatively expensive, online media and social networking platforms give every brand the opportunity for a bully pulpit.  

If you’ve liked a few brands on Facebook or followed a few on Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that some post more than others--way more.  Similarly, some marketers email their opt-ins on a daily basis or even more frequently.  Upshot: near-constant media presence in your social networks, your inbox or elsewhere.

To break through that clutter, these brands may eventually try to adopt some of the tactics pioneered by political candidates:  bolder claims,  direct attacks on competitors, gotchas.

Granted, several factors will inhibit marketers from using the sort of partisan attacks that political candidates favor.  For one, the law does not protect commercial speech as strongly as it protects political speech.  Candidate A can call Candidate B a liar and/or a cheat, but Coke can’t do the same thing to Pepsi unless it has documentary evidence.  Moreover, the stakes in marketing don’t compare to the stakes in politics; Quaker Oats can’t order planes to bomb Iran.

The point remains, however, that ubiquity represents a double-edged sword to marketers.  On the one hand, it gives them more opportunity to engage with their customers and prospects.  On the other, it raises the noise level to the point where, perhaps, only shock tactics will break through.

And if you ever see a Burger King ad that shows Ronald McDonald riding in a tank with a goofy helmet on, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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