For me, watching Barack Obama win the White House has been like watching a train wreck. The worst thing about it was the feeling of helplessness. Nothing I could do or say could have changed this election, and McCain would have been as bad for the nation as Obama. Having been in sales for as long as I have, I instantly saw Obama’s public relations value. From a purely public relations POV, Obama was the perfect candidate. He had black skin but he was raised in white European culture. Obama has more in common with a Republican lawyer than he does with any average voter. Yet, I have watched the spin doctors turn Obama into liberal America’s darling.
In the last three months since the inauguration, Obama has done things that would have had the rest of us howling had Baby Doc Bush done them. So far, Obama voted in favor of sheltering the telecoms who turned personal information over to Homeland Security. Obama broke his promises to raise the capital gains tax and end the Bush tax cuts. There is also an undeclared war going on in Pakistan which Obama authorized. Then there is this idiotic bailout . If Bush had done any of this, everybody would be screaming in outrage. So why does Obama get a free pass?
Maybe we are not holding Obama accountable because we have a huge emotional stake in his presidency. Twenty eight years of constant neocon rule has taken its toll. We as a nation want change so badly that we can taste it. These are the sort of emotions that Freud’s favorite nephew, Edward Bernays, loved to exploit. Bernays exploited poor self image to sell cigarettes and fear of alien cultures to sell the Cold War. There is a lot of heavy emotion associated with the Bush administration. There is the anger at being lied to, there is grief at the lives being lost in the Middle East, and there is the fear at the deteriorating economy. All of these churning emotions are so easily channeled through the simple two word phrase, “Got Hope?”
The paradox of sales is that originality in advertising rarely sells. The successful advertisement follows the same patterns, and we the consumer have been conditioned to follow those patterns. Let’s look at the original “Got Milk?” TV ad.
See what can happen to you if you don’t have enough cow juice on hand? This commercial was the first in a series of commercials that increased milk sales by over seventy percent. It was the first increase in milk sales in decades! It seemed fresh and funny but followed the traditional patterns. There was a funny vignette where the hero faces a heartbreaking loss because he didn’t have enough milk on hand. To quote the article I linked to:
Goodby’s team fielded qualitative research and learned that many consumers indeed linked milk with sweet, sticky snacks. Pushing further, the researchers flipped around the question: how do people feel when they’re eating something that demanded milk to wash it down, but don’t have milk in the house? Focus group respondents placed in this situation were upset, they felt deprived. They were able to convey viscerally the feeling of having a brownie or cookie remnants stuck in their throat, calling out for a gulp of milk to cleanse the palette.
In the best Bernays manner, the commercial uses the fear of deprivation to sell milk. Fear of not having something important or otherwise is a powerful sales tool. Next time you speak to a financial planner notice how he uses fear of an impoverished retirement to sell you an annuity. That’s how Bernie Madoff did it. He frightened his victims as to what would happen if they failed to invest for their retirements and commenced to make their fears come true. The commercial does the same thing. Only it is fear of a different sort of loss that sells milk.
Then there is the slogan that caught on like wildfire. Once again, quoting the article I linked to:
Goodby and his team used this consumer insight as the spark for what came to be called the deprivation strategy: rather than selling milk as a complement to certain foods, instead the strategy became to remind milk drinkers of the anxiety and disappointment that came when milk wasn’t available at crucial moments. Working to distill this milk-deprived emotional state into a phrase that everyone might instantly understand, Goodby coined the campaign’s well-known grammatically-challenged tagline, ‘got milk?”
It is the ungrammatical use of the word “got” that made the tagline so effective. The ungrammatical use of “got” caught the attention and held it. It was both short and memorable. It was perfect. It got to the point all a person had to do was see the tagline and all the fear of deprivation would jump out of the subconscious. These “Got Milk” signs popped up all over the nation.
Since originality rarely sells, other products jumped on the bandwagon and the country was inundated with slogans like “Got Game?”, “Got Retirement?”, or even “Got Jesus?”.
There were even jokes and parodies. You can still find this T-shirt sold on the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco.
The “Got Jesus” campaign rode the success of the original commercials. The “Got Milk” campaign set it all up for the Christianoids. Just looking at the “Got Jesus” slogan got people thinking of all the horrible things that could have happened to them if they lacked Jesus in their lives. The “Got Pot” parody helped keep the slogan alive and in the public subconscious. The more “Got (fill in the blank)” is used the more effective it becomes. This leads us to the Obama Campaign.
This must be the most effective campaign slogan ever used. It’s an old and established work horse. It has been used to sell everything from milk to religion. It is one we have grown to know and love and we all respond to it if we admit it or not. The sad fact is that we all “Got Hope”. We all have hope that Obama will turn the economy around. We all have hope that he will end the unconstitutional detainments in Guantanamo. Some people have so much hope that they are stating that Obama has already released the prisoners in Guantanamo and ended the war in the Middle East, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Obama has announced a timeline to release the prisoners and so far that is it. Obama is stepping up the war in Afghanistan while making a token show of slowing down the Iraqi war. Three months into his administration and the nation is still in the same situation it would be in if McCain won the election.
Hope is a very powerful emotional condition. People with terminal diseases have been known to continue to hope for a miracle cure as they lay dying. People in hopeless situations tend to hang on to hope as a means to hang on to their sanity. Hope, like any other emotional situation can be exploited by the public relations trade. People are supporting Obama despite the evidence because they are afraid to be deprived of hope. Right now Obama can break into their homes and rob their liquor cabinets, and they would not prosecute because they are afraid of losing their hope. “Got Hope” has caused a psychological confusion between Obama and the changes we are hoping for. It is as if without Obama the changes are impossible.
The worst thing about it is that we are still being sold. Everyday after work I go to the Barnes and Nobles cafe for a cup of tea, and every day I see more and more Obama promotional merchandise. Mugs, books, biographies and commemorative picture books are being hawked long after Obama has won the election. Promotional merchandise is not cheap to promote. The ghost writers and the behavioral scientists that put them out have to be paid up-front. The money you pay at the cash register barely covers the cost of production and distribution. If they are paying on the front end and not regaining the cost on the back-end, all this promotional garbage must be an investment. So my question is what are they going to try to sell us next?
Running out of really good things to read, I turned to the new Dune books co-written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian. In these books, Herbert and his collaborator introduce the ideas of disembodied brains. Some of these bodiless masses of gray matter decide to become sadistic lunatics. Others decide to become ascended masters. It seems that there is no middle ground between the two extremes. In both cases these brains are in the position of Descartes and his disembodied intelligence. Here are these brains entirely depending on technology to perceive the world. Doesn’t that sound like Descartes’ evil genius?
Can you imagine being in that sort of vulnerable situation? There you are, a disembodied brain floating around in a jar, and somebody sticks The Best of the Bay City Rollers into your CD player and leaves the room. How do you make it stop? Worse, what if you are a disembodied brain and your caretaker really hates you and puts reruns of My Mother the Car on your DVD player? Can you imagine the torture? You cannot look away, and all your senses are focused on a bad 60s sitcom. Madness would occur rapidly.
Yet, are we really any better off than these disembodied brains? True, if somebody sticks My Mother the Car in our DVD player, we can shoot the perpetrator and remove the offensive disc, but how much control do we have in our sensory input? Really, how in control are we when it comes to what we are exposed to? I avoid Rush Limbaugh with the same grim determination that I avoid beets and okra, yet I have been stuck in carpools where the driver had that fat moron blathering on. One on-line acquaintance claims that everything he knows about Paris and Britney is from supermarket tabloid headlines, and even that is too much information. My heart goes out to him. Like the disembodied brains, we are helpless in our put and have little control over what we are exposed to.
This has me thinking about subliminal influence. How much of our opinions are formed by influences that we are trying to ignore? How many thoughts are put into our brains by commercials or commentary over the radio while we are driving? Did the belief that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq begin by radio or TV commentators whom we were just half listening to while we were in the car, at work, or cooking dinner? Is the lie that replaces the truth screamed or whispered?
Government and advertisers hire slick behavioral psychologists to get through to us. Are subliminal techniques being used? I don’t see the American people as stupid. It took a lot of preparation to pull of the WMD lie. Can paranoia be the result of all this subliminal exposure that we suffer from every day? Are we reacting from things we are not paying any attention to? Could the new antisemitism stem from people half listening to some of the weird stuff coming out of Amy Goodman and NPR? Could people have fallen for the WMD lie from listening to info radio while driving and not paying attention to what is being said?
As an ex advertising man, I frequently ask myself these questions as I observe what is being touted in the tabloids and on television. Will America become a happier and more stable nation if we curtail the advertising industry? I would like to hear people’s opinion on this matter.