After decades spent shooting themselves in the foot, Democrats are finally learning what Republicans have known for fifty years: marketing matters.
There’s a billboard up in Times Square — a huge red, white, and blue electronic display. High tech, high visibility, letters several stories high, spelling out:
“Thank You Joe Biden and Democrats.”
Imagine that. Democrats taking credit for something. Democrats letting people know who’s responsible for that cash in their pockets and those shots in their arms.
Admittedly, Times Square isn’t the media powerhouse it was pre-pandemic. But still. We’re talking Democrats. Democrats take blame better than credit. Or they used to. Now they seem to be doing real marketing. They’re putting out a coherent brand and they’re doing it with a degree of sophistication.
Yes, they’ve long had the technology side covered. Yes, they’ve long known how to micro-target the electorate and put out custom messages to each zip code, and yes, that stuff is important.
But up to now, the messages themselves have been mostly inept. They’ve always felt designed by committee, like all the life had been focus-grouped out of them. Often, they felt defensive, like liberal ideas needed to be apologized for.
But finally, the DNC seems to have learned that while reaching an audience is one thing, having something useful to say to that audience is quite another. And to that end, there’s interesting stuff going on.
The tagline — “Build Back Better” — is okay. It has a lot of good ingredients and somebody smart has thought through its multiple meanings. It acts like a good tagline should. It folds all the many ideas and messages going out there into one unifying brand message — without getting in the way. Despite feeling a little clunky, it works just fine.
That’s mostly because Democrats are making it work. They’re making the brand mean something. And they’re using it consistently, from Biden on down.
Jen Psaki is the perfect spokesperson. She articulates the brand in everything she says. She’s smarter than we are, she takes no bullshit from anyone, and she’s quick on her feet. In many ways, she’s already the public face of the Democrats.
And the cool thing is that the messages coming from her — and from the whole administration — aren’t empty. They’re all positive. They all come with promises and workable plans — real products that real people want. Vaccines, healthcare, infrastructure, economy, justice reform, jobs.
Then there’s this, from a highway in Wisconsin:
Right now, these billboards, customized by state, are popping up on major highways, telling motorists exactly which elected officials are delivering in a crisis. And which are not.
And here’s the thing about billboards. In the age of digital media — with all those ad-tech, AI-based, micro-targeted, marketing automation and analytics platforms — you might think the humble billboard is hopelessly low tech and out of touch. Not so.
Billboards can do something few other media can. They can penetrate the Fox bubble. They can talk directly to the Trump base.
Almost alone among media, billboards can reach multiple demographics with the same buy. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, if you drive on the highway, you’ll see a billboard. If you drive that way every day, you might see it every day. To some extent, you’re a captive audience. You can’t turn it off or switch the channel.
If you’re a Trump voter, seeing a billboard won’t sway you. It might even enrage you. But that’s fine. Democrats don’t need you to like the message, just see it. Preferably every day. Because you certainly won’t see it on Fox, and there’s something to be said for having Trump voters experience reality every now and then. Even if they can’t personally relate to it. What other medium can do that?
But Trump voters aren’t even the target for these particular billboards. The primary target, I’m guessing, is low-interest voters. People who think about politics once every four years, if at all. This is a large audience, filled with a lot of Republicans and independents, and even some Democrats — none of them paying much attention.
But a good billboard gets you to pay attention, if only for a few seconds. Will it make an impression? Will it make that same impression twenty times in a month? Who knows? But those impressions have value — advertisers pay good money for them.
And again, these billboards reach everybody who drives by. Which includes committed Democrats, many of whom would like to feel good about something they voted for. For a change. And calling out a jerk like Ron Johnson warms their hearts.
Remember, a big part of our current predicament stems from complacency, from Democrats’ chronic habit — only recently broken — of not showing up to vote. Democrats need constant reminding of what’s at stake. A good billboard is a small but effective way of doing that.
There’s lots of other good stuff going on, especially in the way Democrats are shaping their legislation while marketing it at the same time. It’s all designed to get people to buy in, to give them a stake in what’s happening.
But it’s also designed to put Republicans under pressure, to make them play defense. All the positive messaging shines a harsh light on the nonstop, over-the-top, bad faith obstruction that defines today’s GOP.
It shines an even harsher light on the filibuster. By their actions — especially their voter suppression schemes — Republicans are forcing that issue. A filibuster showdown is now inevitable, not because Democrats are pushing it, but because Republicans are daring them not to.
Which is one reason why the marketing is so important. People need to hear, not just that there’s good stuff in the pipeline, not just that there are real solutions being proposed, but also who’s standing in the way. We can’t just assume they know.
The differences between the parties couldn’t be more glaring, but that’s nothing new. What’s new is a serious effort — professional, coordinated, and strategic — to show voters what they’ve been missing. And why.