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The Power of Branding in Politics

Trump won in 2016 with disciplined branding, writes Brennan Center Fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy. Will branding be as important in the next election?

October 16, 2019
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Jessica Kourkounis/Getty

How, I have wondered, could America have elected a brand as president in 2016? Simultaneously, I have also seen that Americans are suffering from “truth decay.” To me, these two issues are intertwined, because the more that voters rely on flashy branding to dictate who is electable, the more they are likely to fall for a slick, media-savvy candidate over a competent and truthful one. Trying to answer these questions motivated me to write the book Political Brands.

I am a campaign finance lawyer by training. One of the drivers of the high price of political campaigns is the exorbitant cost of advertising. What first got me interested in branding was a 2011 comment from former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, who warned that political spending by companies may cause the public to view them through a limited partisan lens. As Feingold put it, “We’re going to have Republican and Democrat toothpaste.” His quote inspired me to look at commercial branding, political advertising, and how these two spheres intersect. And that was all before Donald Trump ran for president.

Way before Trump, the language of marketing had already infected political discourse. Recall when President George W. Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card said, “You don’t introduce new products in August,” explaining why the administration didn’t try to “sell” the Iraq War to the American public during the summer of 2002. Or as pollster Celinda Lake explained to me in an interview, “Whether you’re Pepsi or Obama, you have to run a campaign to get your brand out.”

Branding is the process of repeating a word or phrase or logo until it gets stuck in the mind of the public. Political branding comes from the government and from political actors such as candidates, parties, PACs, and politically active non-profits. When the branding comes from the government, it can be anything from useful public information — like the criteria for a balanced diet, as visualized in the Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid — to actual government propaganda, like the lies about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Branding from the government is propaganda when it feeds the public something deeply misleading. Of course, the word “propaganda” carries with it a century of negative connotations. Interestingly, however, even the word “propaganda” started with different connotations than what it has now. It was coined in 1622 by the Vatican, whose idea was to propagate the Christian faith in the New World through “propaganda.” Only in the 20th century did the word take on the ugly meanings that it has today, propelled in large part by the Nazi propaganda machine driven by Joseph Goebbels.

Nowadays, political campaigns are one place where political branding attempts to define candidates, policies, even the state of the nation. Incumbents will try to brand the economy as outstanding and themselves as the cause of the nation’s success. Challengers will try to brand the country as being on the wrong track and brand themselves as the catalyst for needed change.

If you think that elections are cerebral affairs decided by logic and facts, I have bad news for you. As psychologist Drew Westen explained, “Two-thirds of voters’ decisions to support one candidate or another could be accounted for by two simple variables: their partisan feelings and their feelings towards the candidates. Candidates’ positions on the issues had only a modest effect on their electoral preferences.”

In candidate campaigns, which often rely on broadcast ads to reach large and dispersed electorates, the first casualty is often the truth. Put another way, depressingly, facts frequently have nothing to do with who is electable. As Joe McGinniss summed up in his seminal 1969 book, The Selling of the President, “Politics, in a sense, has always been a con game.”

Often, what political ads play on is not the argument that we should support a particular new candidate, but rather that the audience already supports the candidate because he or she is on our team or in our tribe. As cognitive scientists show, evoking a “team” is a powerful motivator. A recent study showed that “once a group is marked as competitive, Schadenfreude [taking pleasure in the misfortune of others] and Glückschmerz [sorrow felt at the good fortune of others] follow: no learning is required.” For some of us, triggering the hatred of another person from another team or love of our team is nearly automatic with the right prompt.

Branding played a crucial role in the 2016 election. As Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen told Congress in February, “Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great. He had no desire or intention to lead this nation — only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. Mr. Trump would often say, this campaign was going to be the ‘greatest infomercial in political history.’”

Branding has surely taken center stage with the Trump presidency. Trump uses repetitive rhetoric on purpose. As a master brander, he knows that repetition of catchphrases or an image is the way to affix concepts in the minds of his audience. Think of his cyclic use of “fake news” or “hoax.” This tactic has taken off anew as Trump battles an impeachment inquiry by accusing his congressional adversaries of being on another witch hunt.

A final reason that I wanted to write Political Brands is to show the artifice of political branding. Typically, the people using political branding techniques are just trying to manipulate the voting public. When President Trump calls his Mar-a-Lago golf club in Florida the “Winter White House,” that is branding — and not original branding, either. President Nixon called his Florida home the “Winter White House” as well.

Or when Trump advisor Steve Bannon said “drain the swamp” about limiting the power of Washington insiders, that was branding. Again, it wasn’t original; it went back to President Ronald Reagan, among others. The original Mother Jones (the woman the magazine is named after) also said “drain the swamp” in 1913. But when working for Cambridge Analytica, Bannon tested the phrase “drain the swamp” years before it was used in the 2016 election campaign by candidate Donald Trump. Clearly, what Bannon was doing was brand testing, and “drain the swamp” hit the right chord for his target market: conservative American voters.

My hope is that perhaps when Americans see that “Winter White House,” “witch hunt,” and “drain the swamp” are all just basic branding trying to sell something, they can be less gullible about falling for messages designed to tug emotional strings and obfuscate the truth. President Trump’s claim that he is “draining the swamp” is no more credible than thinking your Subaru actually loves you after hearing a commercial that claims “love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

Branding techniques can also be used for good. For example, branding techniques were used by Sesame Street to teach generations of children to read. Branding has been called “a process of manufacturing meaning.” I don’t disagree, but that is precisely why branding’s power needs to be interrogated.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.