October 2018

American Political Parties as Lifestyle Brands

Many incidents in recent American politics appear bizarre when analyzed as policy discussions, but become meaningful political acts if interpreted as efforts in brand management. In particular, viewing voter behavior as a form consumer culture provides some explanation for the popular support enjoyed by the Republican party.

by Alexander Maxwell

Observers of American politics have long agonized over the role of advertising in party politics. “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process,” Adlai Stevenson complained after his 1956 defeat in U.S. Presidential elections.[1] Decades later, senators deliberating over the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, the main instrument seeking, however ineffectively, to curb campaign spending, were told that “they sell candidates like detergents.”[2] Political scientists have adopted this theme, noting, in the words of one recent study, that “parties, politicians, and policies are advertised and sold just like detergent, movies, or any other commodity.”[3] If voters choose their candidates the way consumers choose their purchases, however, then party loyalty might resemble brand loyalty.

Many incidents in recent American politics appear bizarre when analyzed as policy discussions, but become meaningful political acts if interpreted as efforts in brand management. In particular, viewing voter behavior as a form consumer culture provides some explanation for the popular support enjoyed by the Republican party.

In many ways, the electoral strength of the Republican party is surprising. When polled on specific issues, American voters usually express progressive opinions. In November 2017, for example, Peter Dreier compiled an anthology of recent opinion polls. The results suggest that strong majorities of American adults, over sixty percent, believe that “large businesses have too much power and influence,” that the economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests,” that “wealth should be more evenly distributed,” that corporations and the wealthy Americans “don’t pay their fair share of taxes,” that the federal minimum wage should not only be raised, but adjusted each year for inflation, that the federal government should “make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage,” that university tuition should be free, that gun buyers should take background checks, and that “growing racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. makes the country a better place to live.” Were American voters to vote in favor of the positions they profess to support, the Democrats would apparently win a lot of elections.

In practice, however, Americans do not vote in favor of the positions they profess to support, and the Republican party controls both houses of congress and the presidency. So how should we understand the choices American voters made in the ballot booth? Why do they not vote for their stated political preferences? The one percent, the multi-millionaire or millionaire class, has a financial incentive to vote for the party that cuts their tax bill. But why do people of modest financial means vote for a party whose professed economic policies deny them health care, education, and other services? These questions have complex answers, and no single explanation captures the whole story.

The Republican party conjures up images of bigots and racists, but also of “cowboys, churches, country music, and pick-up trucks.”

Nevertheless, a comparison with the Cola Wars of the 1970s and 1980s sheds some light on voter behavior. The Cola Wars collectively describe a series of advertising campaigns from the manufacturers of the soft drinks Coca-Cola (“Coke”) and Pepsi. Pepsi, perhaps, devised the most memorable gimmick, the so-called “Pepsi challenge,” a blind taste test. Advertisements showed a consumer, sometimes identified as a drinker of Coke, sampling two unlabeled glasses. The consumer chooses a favorite, then the Pepsi spokesman lifts a screen to show that the consumer preferred Pepsi. The tagline concluded: “Nationwide, more people prefer the taste of Pepsi over Coca-Cola.”

The Pepsi ad campaign became a canonical example of comparative marking, attracting attention not only in advertising circles, but also from experimental psychologists who tried to replicate the results. One amusing study found, for example, that people presented with two identical cups of soda branded L and S consistently preferred soda S.[4] The Coca-Cola corporation conducted its own blind taste tests, apparently finding that consumers actually did prefer Pepsi. Concern over such preferences contributed to the company’s 1985 decision to launch a new product that preformed better in taste tests, the ill-fated “New Coke.”[5] It seems that when people take a blind taste test, they actually do prefer Pepsi.[6] Nevertheless, Coke still controls more market share.[7]

So why do people buy Coke? The “easy answer,” Bartow Elmore suggested in a history of the Coca-Cola company, is marketing: “Coke’s genius lay in its ability to link its product to patriotic events, American family life, and even religious iconography,” such as “rosy-cheeked Santa Clauses and smiling GIs.”[8] Creating an effective brand is more than making people aware of a product, it requires creating emotive associations. Pepsi, of course, also understood the importance of creating a “lifestyle brand,” but has played the game less skillfully. As a consumer who avoids all sugary sodas, I find that the brand “Coca-Cola” brings to mind adorable polar bears and attractive red trucks decorated with Christmas lights. The word “Pepsi,” by contrast, makes me think of Michael Jackson with his hair on fire.[9]

Viewing American political parties as lifestyle brands perhaps explains popular support for the Republican party. The Grand Old Party has a good brand. I am an opponent of the Republican party, but when I free associate from the word “Republicans,” pondering about the cultural associations the Republican Party brings to my center-left mind, I find myself thinking not only about bigots and racists, but also about cowboys, churches, country music, and pick-up trucks. As it happens, I do not even experience any of those latter associations that positively, but I appreciate that they have appeal to others. The Republican brand has a certain alpha-male “all-American” quality, like the Marlboro man. Even as a non-smoker, I see the appeal of the Marlboro man.

When I try to imagine the party as a lifestyle brand, hardly anything comes to mind.

The Democrats, by contrast, have a less attractive brand. I cannot conjure up that many positive associations when free associating about the Democratic party, even though I have consistently voted for the Democratic party over the course of my life. I have been enthusiastic about individual Democratic politicians, but when I try to imagine the party as a lifestyle brand, hardly anything comes to mind. I view the Democrats as professional politicians, which means I associate them with the tedious and vaguely sordid business of politics: committee chairing, back scratching, horse trading, and the like. As a Democratic voter, I am inclined to think that the Democrats care more about improving the lives of ordinary American citizens, but I suppose I also have to concede that Democrats can be a bit sanctimonious. Who enjoys being asked to check their privilege?

I think it speaks poorly for the brand management of the Democratic party that a consistent supporter, such as myself, can think the other side has the better brand. Republican strength in brand management probably reflects conscious political effort. Republican politicians often make electoral arguments to improve their brand. Recall the political backlash Barack Obama faced because of a supposed preference for arugula lettuce and Dijon mustard.[10]  Such politics continues. In September 2018, Texas Republican Ted Cruz posted on Twitter that if his opponent triumphed, “BBQ will be illegal!” and threatened audiences with the prospect of “tofu, silicon and dyed hair” a few days later.[11] Americans may disagree about the political challenges facing the United States, but it seems a fair assumption that nobody prioritizes the food preferences of politicians as the most important issue of our time. Nevertheless, the politics of food-shaming, however contemptible when viewed as policy proposals, makes sense as episodes of brand management. In Texas, it’s probably better politics to be the party of barbecue. Indeed, I expect even Californians would prefer barbecue to tofu.

Understanding voter behavior is difficult, and any “lifestyle brand” effect is obviously only one factor of many. The Democrats, however, seem uninterested in playing this game at all. The Democratic party attracts a lot of idealistic policy wonks who view politics as a contest of ideas. Their instinct is to gather good data, and seek to persuade voters by marshaling compelling arguments. These tactics persuade experts; academics and intellectuals generally support the Democrats. I question, however, whether such tactics sway the bulk of voters. Over and over, it seems, Democrats win the argument but lose the election.

Alexander Maxwell is a historian of East European nationalism. He was born in Los Angeles. He went to high school in Irvine, California and Toronto, Ontario. He went to university in Davis, California and Göttingen, Germany. He went to Graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin and Budapest, Hungary. He taught history in Swansea, Wales and Reno, Nevada and held postdoctoral fellowships in Erfurt, Germany and Bucharest, Romania before landing a permanent job in New Zealand. He likes to travel. He is senior lecturer in history at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he also directs the Antipodean East European Study Group. He is the author of Choosing Slovakia and Patriots Against Fashion. A list of academic publications can be found on his homepage.

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[1] Cited from Vance Pakard, “The Growing Power of Admen,” The Atlantic, vol. 200, no. 3 (September 1957), 59. [55-59].

[2] Hearings Committee on Commerce, United Sates Senate. (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971), 267.

[3] Lynn Carson, Random Selection in Politics (Westport: Praeger, 1999), 5.

[4] Mary Woolfolk, William Castellan, Charles Brooks, “Pepsi versus Coke: Labels, not tastes, Prevail,” Psychological Report, vol. 52 (1983), 185-86.

[5] Bartow Elmore, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism (New York: Norton, 2014), 133-34.

[6] Mark Pendergrast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola (New York: Basic, 2013), 246-47, 239-40.

[7] Ronald Michman, Edward Mazze, Food Industry Wars: Marketing Triumphs and Blunders (Westport: Quorum,1998), 224.

[8] Elmore, Citizen Coke, 8.

[9] Phil Dusenbury, Then We Set His Hair on Fire: Insights and Accidents from a Hall-of-fame Career in Advertising (New York: Portfolio, 2005), 231.

[10] Margot Finn, Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2017), 24; Konrad Ng, “Beyond the Candidate,” in: Heather Harris, Kimberly Moffitt, Catherine Squires, eds., Obama Effect, The: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Campaign (New York: SUNY, 2010), 90.

[11] Ted Cruz, Twitter post of 16 September 2018, URL: <https://twitter.com/tedcruz/status/1041427388062728192&gt;; Harriet Sinclair, “Ted Cruz Claims Beto O’Rourke Will Ban Barbecue in Texas,” Newsweek (20 September 2018), URL: <https://www.newsweek.com/ted-cruz-claims-beto-orourke-will-ban-barbecue-texas-1126148&gt;.

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