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Branding Democrats is a Big Lift for Reasons Not (Entirely) Their Fault

Democrats don’t do branding very well, and this has always mystified me. They have, after all, virtually unlimited access to some of the best marketing talent in the world.

Particularly in this last election, who among my fellow copywriters — or art directors or market analysts or media experts — would have turned down an opportunity to use whatever chops they have to rescue the country from the vandals. I would certainly have worked for free, but nobody asked.

So I can say, without being too sour grapes about it, that the messaging my industry turned out — at least what I saw of it — was tepid at best.

Was “Build Back Better” really the best theme line they could come up with? After all that money spent and all those focus groups parsed?

Yes, I am hyper-critical of, and catty about, such things. And yes, the broth smells of too many cooks. But for a line that’s so short, punchy, and self-consciously alliterative, it’s remarkably un-catchy.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, just that it doesn’t radiate any heat. It’s not that you can’t get the idea behind it, just that it makes that idea seem pedestrian. As Nike’s “Just Do It” demonstrated vividly, taglines tend to say more when they say less.

If, for example, the line had simply said “Get Better,” they’d have had multiple meanings, all of them useful. Get better from the virus. Get better from Trump. Get better than Trump. Get better from the economy. Get better people working for you than the slimeballs you’ve had for four years. Potential messages spew from the line, which is how taglines are supposed to work.

But messaging is a problem for Democrats. Which is particularly galling because Democrats are on the right side of what most voters — including most Republican voters — want.

In this election, there weren’t a huge number of ballot initiatives, but minimum wage, legalized marijuana, and redistricting reform did quite well wherever they showed up. Even among Trump voters. Even among non-Trump voters who voted for down-ballot Republicans. Red state or blue.

But beyond that, polls and surveys have shown for years that Americans overwhelmingly favor things like universal healthcare, abortion rights, racial equity, gender equality, environmental regulation, and higher taxes on the rich. Just to name a few. But all those ideas are gasping for air, and it’s not clear Biden can do anything about it.

Dan Wagner, one of Obama’s data scientists said just last week, “If people like your products more than they like you, that’s a branding problem.”

So what do we do about the Democrat brand? It’s clear some fresh thinking is called for, because how can you be on the right side of everything and still not break through?

And here is where I’m going to cut Democrats just a little slack. Because the headwinds they face make it really hard for them to get any message across. No matter how good it is.

Because even more than a messaging problem, we have a media problem. A big one. For every one of those “products” Democrats sell, there’s a right-wing propaganda channel tagging them as radical socialist ideas that must be strangled in their infancy. And there are 70 million people programmed to agree.

This might be the single biggest problem we face, not just as Democrats, but as a democracy. That such an enormous target audience lives within an impermeable bubble of fantasy, and may never be reachable by objective reality.

This will get worse. Fox News and its fellow fantasists are licking their chops at the prospect of a Biden presidency. They’ve never been comfortable with Republicans in power — their natural role isn’t defense, it’s offense. As apologists for Trump, as defenders of his agenda, they’ve had to spend too much time and effort justifying the unjustifiable, and they’ve only gotten clumsier at it over time.

But put them back in the “opposition” — give them a Democrat to slime —and they’ll feel right at home again. It will be much easier for them to throw grenades at Biden than to rationalize Trump’s erratic impulses.

So we can absolutely count on them to gleefully undermine anything Democrats propose, support, or stand for. Their commitment to a permanently diminished country is total.

I have no idea what the solution for this is, but branding — even good branding — won’t be enough. It may be that the only recourse is legal, and that’s hard.

Proving libel is a notoriously high bar. Generally, this is a good thing (imagine if Trump had made good on his threats to throw reporters in jail), but in this case, it means we’re not going to nail Fox just for lying.

But murder is another story. When people die following advice they hear on Fox, this goes beyond libel. It’s no secret that Fox lawyers are concerned about criminal liability, and wouldn’t it be lovely to see words like “reckless endangerment” and “manslaughter” directed at the Murdochs. And at Sinclair, Newsmax, OANN, and Rush Limbaugh while they’re at it.

Can this happen? Who knows? But the Fox factor gets more dangerous over time, and we need new ideas for how to fight it.

So yes, while Democrats’ branding has long been anemic — and they’re not off the hook for that — there’s nonetheless an overarching systemic ill here that goes far beyond branding.

Because even the most compelling message is useless if it never reaches its audience. And as of now, that audience is simply not reachable.  


P.S. As of this post, I’ll be cutting these jabs down to once a week. I have been posting on Tuesdays and Fridays since the pandemic began, but this is no longer sustainable for several reasons, most notably that I’ve unexpectedly brought in a bumper crop of new work which is less interesting but, alas, far more remunerative than blog-writing. I will now be posting on Tuesdays, and will no longer bother you on Fridays. Thanks for understanding, and please keep reading.

Comments

  1. Great article. I agree that the underlying cause and ongoing challenge is the network of right-wing media that has a blinding grip on a huge swath of the population. Perhaps we need to spend more effort considering why there are these people, forces, and interests that have this "commitment to a permanently diminished country." I'm not sure that I personally know anyone like that. Strangely, most people I know are trying to do some good helpful things. Maybe I just hang out with the an unusual crowd.

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