Selling the President: the Biggest Marketing Campaign in History

Selling the President: the Biggest Marketing Campaign in History

So tomorrow the Americans go to the polls at the conclusion of probably one of the biggest and most expensive marketing exercises in the history of the planet. Yup, it’s not politics, it’s marketing, with media buys and flashy advertisements and persuasive speeches and ‘product placement’ of candidates within popular television programs like Saturday Night Live.

I know this is no major revelation to most of us, but to the American people, it still seems to be about politics! Go figure! To the rest of the world, the politics seem pretty clear – making the election no contest. In fact, should the unimaginable happen and John McCain comes from behind to win this thing, the rest of the world will point and laugh at the US for the next 4 years. That’s if we’re not too busy propping up their economy as The American Dream goes down the gurgler and the wars spiral out of control.

You Spin Me Round (Like a Record Baby)

The mere fact that the White House race isn’t completely a foregone conclusion shows the power marketing and spin has on the election. Spin on each other’s credentials. Spin on who contributed to the current economic collapse (both Democrats and Republicans should accept blame on this one). Spin on the war against terror. Spin on the differences or similarities (depending on whose side you’re on) between McCain and Bush.

Spin is always a political tool, but the US takes it to a completely new level — obfuscating reality in favour of versions of truthiness as approved by committee.

Do we really know what Obama is like? How much of him is a carefully crafted media construct with millions of advertising dollars and media spending? Is McCain really the person he is perceived to be? And then, of course, the most cynical media push of the entire campaign — Sarah Palin.

Now with Added Palin For Extra Goodness

Built for TV and loving every minute of it, the Palin campaign was deliberately launched as a counter-weight to McCain’s deficiencies. She wasn’t brought onto the ticket to provide political clout and solve the issues facing America. She was put onto the ticket because of the marketing opportunities it brought. The hockey-mom who looked good on telly and gave the McCain ticket a good slice of the news cycles as she captured the imagination by being so unexpected and so unlike a traditional running mate. All charm and giggles, a cartoon character in a two-piece. This strategy was akin to running Mickey Mouse as VP for the novelty value.

Joe Biden may well be the better VP – in fact, most non-Americans are sure of it – but he isn’t the media machine that Palin is. And if there is one thing Americans respond to, it is a powerful media machine. It doesn’t matter that she’s a joke to the rest of us, she entertains – and to many voters, that makes Palin recognisable and likable enough to get their vote on November 4th.

Lights, Camera, YouTube

One way this campaign differs from any previous election is in the use of marketing techniques such as viral video to get the message out. A classic example is the sequel to the ‘Wassup” television commercials of eight years ago. Shot by the original director, it shows the old characters eight years on in Bush’s America. Very, very funny while remaining poignant.

Another notable viral video is Ron Howard’s Happy Days for Obama. Hollywood has always been left of centre but by harnessing the social media circuit, the video certainly got the message out further. These strategies are tailor-made to entertain rather than win a vote through political discourse. By evoking the nostalgia of those Happy Days and Andy Griffiths shows, Howard taps into fond memories of an ideal America and then brings the message home by tying those sentiments to Obama. Very clever marketing.

On the flip-side, McCain’s marketing recently has been of the damage-control variety. Appearing on Saturday Night Live opposite the now famous Tina Fey impersonation of Palin, McCain pokes fun at himself and his own campaign in a way many have called weak. I am sure McCain’s camp feel that by merely appearing on SNL, he reveals himself as entertaining as Palin – self-deprecating and aware of his failings but still fighting to lead.

Entertainment Versus Politics

Using entertainment and humour to get a message across is marketing, not politics. McCain wasn’t putting forward his economic policy. He wasn’t answering his critics. He was spending valuable campaign time in a studio simply trying to get laughs and entertain the audience. It is the only card he seems to have left.

Obama, on the other hand, gained a huge amount of media attention with his thirty minute infomercial that outlined his case for becoming the leader of the United States. But, rather than a political discourse, the infomercial was designed to build the media image. It provided the history of Obama, his values and beliefs as scripted by his campaign team, carefully navigating the more contentious issues American voters have fixed upon. Marketers put this thirty minutes of video together and you can therefore bet that politics took a distant second place to building an acceptable image of Obama as a potential leader.

Whoever wins on November 4, it will be the person who wooed the voters with a better marketing campaign and not because they had the better political plan for the future of the United States.


  1. I am not going to vote for McCain or Obama. I will vote for a third party candidate in hopes that my vote will help create a viable third party. Both candidates say that they are not going to raises your income taxes.
    …………………INCOME TAXES………………
    What about the taxes that the big evil corporations pay?
    They are just passed to the consumer.
    …………WE ARE THE CONSUMER! …………
    They all grow government at any cost to the taxpayer.

  2. Seems like a foregone conclusion to me.

  3. There’s an award for you at