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Marketing: A Matter of Life and Death?

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Marketing goes far beyond selling shoes and filling theater seats. It dramatically affects people's lives and livelihoods, even alters the directions of nations. "Army Strong," anyone? How about "USO: Until Every One Comes Home"? Harry and Louise? Slogans and characters like these are parts of marketing campaigns for intangibles like services, charities, and political opinions. They want something from you, but in these cases it's often not money; it's your opinion, your vote, your actions, or your time.

The same principles apply in the political world as in the commercial: you have to make what you're selling visible and appealing to enough "consumers" that they give you what you need to succeed, whether it's profit or votes, cash or cachet. It's not for nothing that we talk about President Obama "selling" his health care plan and the public deciding whether to "buy" it.

Marketing can influence segments of the American public to support or oppose any big societal change. Remember when President Bush wanted to privatize Social Security? The idea seemed to align with the nation's capitalist, anti-big-government plurarity. Yet a large majority of the public wouldn't buy it.

But Americans didn't reject that plan purely on its merits. They rejected it, in part, because the President didn't sell it well. The plan was seen as threatening an entitlement to which the public had become accustomed. Only a very stong, sharp marketing plan could have made such a change seem wise, or even palatable, and President Bush did not have one.

Now a Democratic President wants to introduce a new public option into the health care system. Ideologically, this move leans in the opposite direction from Bush's Social Security plan. Yet President Obama is having almost as hard a time selling his leftish plan as Bush had with his rightish one. Why? Ineffective marketing on Obama's part, which has left the field open for strong marketing from his opponents.

And their disruptive and provocative tactics are working. In addition to placing emphasis on the Republicans' talking points about deficits, they divert attention away from the issues and towards the political theatrics. The result: polls find more Americans expressing caution and suspicion about health care reform. To counter this, the Democrats must find good marketing strategies of their own: painting the Republicans as do-nothings (a cynical tactic but potentially effective), or suggesting their pockets are being lined by big, private insurance companies.

To do battle, the two sides arm themselves with time-honored marketing techniques: appealing to the heart over the head, saturating the media, simplifying the message, and so on. In cases like this, however, the better marketers will earn something other than bigger profits (although drug companies, insurance providers, and the like are certainly stakeholders too). They will earn the power to determine the well-being of the citizenry.

A bit more important than selling shoes, wouldn't you say?

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About Oren Hope

  • Scott Stone

    I stumbled across this post while helping my daughter research a paper she’s writing about the role marketing plays in the political process. Your comments are dead-on and it’s a real shame that more people don’t “see the strings” in the U.S. political “puppet show”…

  • http://www.orenhope.com/ Oren Hope

    Thanks, Scott. It never changes, election season after election season.