Persona work – curating the self we present online and offline – connects to political culture in particular ways. Voter familiarity with processes of ‘self-branding’ has two effects. The first is increased literacy with how identities are managed, how flaws are covered up and strengths emphasised; a familiarity with the process of ‘spin’ presenting a curated image to the public. The second is an increased expectation – a demand, even – to know politicians as personalities. To know their lives, their families, their ‘behind the scenes’ thoughts, and to treat them as we treat celebrities.
The consequence of persona becoming central to politics is to position politicians and ‘audiences’ at the centre of politics, rather than policies and constituencies. The core concern of politicians becomes as much about managing their identities rather than making good policy.
Politics as a culture of promotion is nicely contextualised in an article in The Monthly from May, where Richard Denniss surveys the policy around the car manufacturing industry in Australia:
Once upon a time, governments employed communications advisers to help sell their policy ideas to the public. These days, governments more often employ policy advisers to help turn their communications message into new policy ideas. Such is the acceptance of this reversal among the political class that new policy initiatives are called “announceables” (Richard Denniss 2016, ‘Crunch time: Australia’s car industry has met policy failure head-on’).
The concept of ‘announceables’ points to how deeply enmeshed politics is with advertising culture; how much the logic of marketing and promotion is applied to political communication, and the extent that policies resemble promotional strategies. Untangling how politics has come to so much resemble advertising goes beyond the hiring of advertising executives and marketing experts by political campaigners.
From the outset, political promotion has been fundamental to democracy: since people have choice of who to vote for, and the people/parties offering that choice have to communicate what they offer. More than that bare fact, human beings are emotional, affective creatures. We build relationships based on feeling, we empathise, we invest more in people we identify with, and we are also failingly self-interested. So emotional persuasion, individualising messages, and personalising political figures is more effective in getting people to act (including vote) than simply presenting information. Add to that the non-compulsory nature of voting in the US and the UK – meaning that the communication battle involves not only convincing people what to vote for, but also to vote at all – and appeals to the emotions are even more important. Strategists need to look past the parameters of policy to connect with people who aren’t interested in the details and convince them to turn up at the polling booth. Strategies borrowed from advertising and marketing industries have proven highly successful in making that connection.
More broadly, for better or worse, both political promotion and advertising messages exist within an economy of attention where media messages saturate our environments. Competition for hearts and minds isn’t just between different options but also different platforms, and people are well versed in tuning out. One solution to this competition is to communicate in the most concise, efficient, and understandable ways possible. Both advertising and politics trade in base emotions – fear, desire, hope – and rely on symbolism, stereotypes, and sloganeering. Rational decision-making is wedded to gut feeling, and sentiment is peddled as a valid basis for judgement.
Control of the message and the ‘brand’ (or party) image – a match between encoding and decoding – is crucial to both politics and advertising. At the same time, authenticity of the message – claims being taken truthfully – is also crucial. People need to believe what they are being sold. But increasingly in the digital media age, with produsers, citizen journalists, omnipresent microphones and cameras, and interactive media channels, the control of messages is more difficult, and authenticity in this context doesn’t map onto highly controlled, didactic, one-way broadcast forms of communication. Authenticity in the digital age is grounded in individual messaging, two-way communication, and a tone of irony and self-awareness, which all involve less control over the messaging.
Finally, celebrity has become increasingly central to both industries – brand ambassadors are used to connect consumers in more ‘authentic’ and ‘organic’ ways, and politicians are framed and interpreted through the lens of celebrity culture, while celebrities throw their endorsement weight behind one candidate or another.
An interesting example to think through these issues is Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. In the initial stages of his campaign, he eschewed traditional advertising, and instead operated on a strategy of free publicity through making controversial claims, fuelled by his existing celebrity. And while he hasn’t really proposed workable policies, he has been taken as an authentic voice. He has traded a coherent policy platform for the appearance of authenticity, and operated on the mantra of visibility over substance.
Time will tell if Trump’s strategy will pay full dividends, but there is no doubt that his success so far is tied to both his canny use of marketing strategies, and the cultural climate in which advertising, promotion, celebrity and political discourse stitch together seamlessly.