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December 20, 2006

America's Two Party System: The Marketing Party and The Product Party

-- by Dave Johnson

Co-written with James Boyce, first published at Huffington Post.

We do have a two-party system in America: The Product Party and The Marketing Party. We have one party that spends its energy and its resources creating a product that will improve the lives of its supporters, and then we have a second party, one that invests its energy and its resources managing perception.

One party offers substance but without the sizzle, and one is so incredibly adept at selling that it can charm you into supporting an agenda that helps only those who don't need it, and actually hurts you and your family.

By mastering the management of perception and with an utter disregard for facts and reality, the Marketing Party's agenda and vision gets implemented - despite its horrendous consequences for the country, and the world. It has never been worse than it is now. The chasm between their vision, its consequences and the lifestyle and security of the average American is mind-boggling.

Do not underestimate the power of marketing. With enough money, a good campaign and some time, you really can make people think and do almost anything. Exactly why do you think Coke and Pepsi outsell all the other brands - because their sugar water is vastly superior to others? Exactly why do you think one brand of shampoo is "premium" and another is $5 a gallon - is it because they have different ingredients? No, it is because marketing works, especially on a public increasingly trained to respond.

Marketing works so well that some businesses have grown so accustomed to looking for marketing solutions rather than product solutions that they have developed a mindset that it is cheaper to manage perceptions than to fix a product. If people think the product tastes bad - market it as the best-tasting product and make the rubes think THEY're the problem. The result is they can spend millions on the symptoms and nothing on the disease.

Our "CEO President" Bush appears to be cut from this mold. As it became clear that the Iraq occupation wasn't proceeding as intended, Bush didn't change the product - he changed the sell.

The administration spent $20,000,000 on hiring a PR firm to plant positive stories in the press - instead of spending $20 million on body armor to actually reduce the casualties that fostered the public relations disaster. It created "Vets For Freedom" and planted bloggers among the troops in Iraq to send back positive posts. President Bush made major speech after major speech. And top officials made surprise trip to Iraq after surprise trip to Iraq.

But now we are in a time with the marketing no longer is sufficient to solve the problems. Increasingly, the American people have stopped buying the sell. Just as the American automobile manufacturers are forced to increasing amounts of dollars selling a product that increasingly the public does not want to buy, so too did the Administration have to step up the marketing of a war that the public no longer is willing to support.

Sadly, the past two weeks have showcased the collision of perception and reality. Tragically, the administration continues to hold a cult-like belief in the power of perception management, regardless of circumstances and the politically acceptable options that it has provided itself.

The Iraq Study Group recently came forward with a lifeline for the administration, but their recommendations did not sync with the administration's vision for a moment of victory - again, cheaper to change the marketing. So instead of working with the ISG, Baker and other members were - characteristically - smeared in the right-wing's echo chamber to "soften up" public perceptions in advance of the coming Bush rejection of their advice.

Last week, James appeared as a guest on MSNBC's show THE MOST, and was asked how President Bush could improve the "public's impression" of the war. He said,

"The president doesn't have a problem with the perception of the war, the President has a problem with the facts. ... Eventually the product has to speak for itself, and I think the American People are rapidly coming to the conclusion that we have an Edsel on our hands here. They want a solution, they don't need a new slogan."

Between us, we have more than forty years experience in marketing and advertising, and we both know, all too well, that it is exceedingly common for companies to approach product failures as marketing and advertising failures - it allows them to continue to live in denial about the weakness of their product.

With today's Republicans the first instinct is always about the marketing, and not about the country. According to Bob Woodward, Karen Hughes reportedly said, when she first saw the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, that it was "the perfect backdrop" for a photo opportunity. Even in tragedy, the instinct is toward the marketing instead of the managing.

In the current tragedy the Bush image makers continue to search for the photo-op moment in Iraq. They are looking for the right image - the kiss in Times Square from World War II or the Japanese Admirals on the deck of the aircraft carrier, signing a treaty.

The fact that no such moment exists or ever will exist only increases their desire for it.

Why is their first instinct to market rather than to manage? And how exactly have they gotten away with this total management of perception? How have they been able to sell the American people over the past five years?

The answer may lie in the study of how the "conservative movement" took control of the Republican Party. As Dave wrote last week in Are Progressives Good? Then TELL PEOPLE!,

There are literally hundreds of conservative organizations that primarily exist to persuade the public to support conservative ideas (and, therefore, conservative candidates.) The people you see on TV or hear on the radio or who write op-eds in newspapers are paid by, or at the very least draw upon resources provided by, these organizations.

You might or might not have heard of the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute or Americans for Tax Reform or the This Institute or the That Foundation or the Government-and-Taxes-Are-Bad Association - but there really is a machine or network of well-funded conservative organizations marketing the conservatives-are-good-and-liberals-and-government-are-bad propaganda every hour of every day and they have been doing so for decades.

Yes, marketing. They have been doing this solidly for over three decades and they've been doing it well, and with an incredible amount of money, resources and talent behind it.

The people in power in the Republican Party got there by marketing and perception management, and using a $ell and $mear strategy to demolish and humiliate their opponents, and that is what they know. They come from a culture of saying anything as long as it keeps the rubes buying. Why would a company spend all that money to clean up the product when you can instead spend less and sell the idea that Toxic Sludge is Good For You.

The conservative movement understands this. They understand if they are going to cut student loans, hand over the management of Social Security, arguably the most successful government assistance program in our history, to the private sector, give away valuable public resources and then, on top of everything else, wage a war without reason or basis, the spend must be astronomical.

The American people are a living focus group to the success of their plan. The past thirty years has seen a slow and steady decline in the public's understanding and acceptance of progressive values - like equal rights for all our citizens or the acceptance of all religions.

It's important to point out another old expression: great products sell themselves. And while in practice, it holds that to reach great heights, great marketing combined with great products is actually the key - think Apple and the iPod - the better the product, the less marketing dollars need to be applied to drive sales. YouTube, Facebook, MySpace... If you're selling the best made car in America, the press reviews, customer loyalty and word-of-mouth marketing greatly enhances your paid advertising. If you're selling a lemon, you better have tens of millions to spend.

This brings us to the other party in our two-party system - the well-meaning Product Party that doesn't understand marketing. The Product Party stands in bewilderment as time and time again, The Marketing Party works its perception management magic to win elections, control the debate and lead the media and public to diss its leaders and policies. As Dave wrote last week,

We can see the results of the conservative marketing campaign all around us: War. Debt. Crumbling infrastructure. Falling wages. Loss of pensions. Loss of health insurance. Declining union membership. Massive trade deficits. Distrust of government, courts, schools and other institutions of community. The list just goes on and on.

But really, after decades of conservatives pounding out their message and progressives keeping their message to themselves, what should we expect?

And to make this problem worse, the Marketing Party is very good at shifting the blame for their bad product. For example: take a moment and look at the reality of the financial mess that is being handed to the new Congress - it is stunning. And yet, if the Democrats don't explain this clearly and succinctly to the American people, the result will be that the mess will land - squarely - in the wrong party's lap.

The Product Party's product is responsible and involved government: a government that can fix the schools and patch up the potholes. A government that would actually practice hurricane rescue not just preach it.

The Katrina debacle laid bare the failure of the right wing's anti-government agenda. The reason they didn't do anything for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is they don't really care. Government - or product - is just not what they do - marketing is.

However, they cared deeply when they began to lose the public relations battle - like 9/11 and Iraq, the reality is inconsequential - managing the perception of the reality is paramount.

The Product Party is known for fiscal management and international diplomacy and building mass transit and roads and bridges and schools. This is the party that brought us the middle class and the weekend and Social Security and inspections for e-coli.

But the Product Party is a political party full of boring policy "wonks" holding community meetings where hours are spent arguing the best and most democratic ways to provide services and, well, fix those potholes and even working on the finer points of health care finance administration management policies subsection 3, paragraph... ... and who wants to hear about THAT?

So where the people in the Marketing Party got there using marketing pizzaz, the people in the Product Party got there by plugging away and delivering a product. They're not the most adept at marketing. Whereas the people from the Marketing Party don't understand - or care - about the actual product, apparently the people in the Product Party don't understand - or care - about marketing - reaching and persuading the public. Democrats have long had the product but are woefully unskilled in the marketing and the willingness to spend and support the marketing. There is something to the idea of marketing and selling people on something that goes against the nature of the wonky democracy idealists of the Product Party.

Which leads to their problem. Don't people realize that almost all the veteran leaders in America are Democrats? They ask this - thinking of Max Cleland, Wes Clark, John Kerry, Joe Sestak, Chris Carney, Tim Walz, Jim Webb and more. Don't people understand the Democrats want to raise the minimum wage, improve health care, make global warming a priority, enact the recommendations of the 9/11 commission and more? Don't the understand how much better the Democratic product is for their families and the future?

No, the people don't.

Because you can't just be the party that does the boring work of cleaning up the toxic waste left behind by that wrecking crew - the people known for marketing, selling and heading for the county line. If you want the public to understand what you are about you have to be the party that does the work, and communicates the fact in clear simple English to voters who have better things to do with their lives than listen to the nuances of toxic waste policy.

In fact, The Product Party is not only running against the sell and smear tactics of the right, they're running against a coordinated program that says "government itself is bad." The Republicans have spent 40 years running down government. Ronald Reagan famously said that "government is the problem" and then left for the county line leaving us with 4 trillion of debt. George W. Bush, the "CEO President" emulated Enron, and implemented "no-bid" contracts while the Republican Congress got rid of the system of oversight.

So what can be done? The Democrats have to understand that people respond to marketing, and that building a better product doesn't always mean that the people will flock to you if they don't find out about it. They must remain the party of the Product, but they also need to be the party of the Marketing. Only we can be both, the Republicans can not.

Why? Because the last six years has not only demonstrated the Republican mastery of their marketing but it has shown the misery of the product. From not implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to the absolute abandonment of our fellow Americans in the aftermath of Katrina, and the outrageous lies regarding the solvency of Social Security, the product that we are being sold is dangerous and destructive. "You can't fool all the people all the time." And on November 7, 2006, the marketing plan fell apart.

So now the Product Party has the ball and there is no question that the Democrats will deliver the goods. However, the danger lies not in the performance but in the perception of the performance and especially in how we clearly communicate the mess we inherited.

If Democratic leaders believe that all we have to do do is do a better job, and surely the American voters will reward us with the White House in 2008 and continued control of Congress, watch out.

Our moment in the sun, and moment in power, will be very short-lived indeed.

Posted by Dave Johnson at December 20, 2006 6:38 AM

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