By Melissa Aronczyk
Since the US government shutdown last week, lawmakers and public commenters have been worrying about the massive costs to American taxpayers and the US economy. Previous government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 cost us an estimated $2.1 billion in 2013 dollars.
But what people aren’t talking about is the other kind of shutdown that the government impasse reveals. This other kind started long before the government shutdown, and it comes with far greater costs than just money. It’s a shutdown of diverse views, intelligent discussion, and constructive debate. It’s a shutdown of democratic political communication. Politics isn’t about communication anymore. It’s about branding.
Last week, the Adorable Care Act got underway. That’s right, Adorable Care. According to Politico, a former Obama staff member created a Tumblr page featuring photos of cute cats, headlined with pro-Obamacare messages and tagged with the dot gov healthcare URL. It quickly gained traction among the young adult crowd. Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert gave the Adorable Care Act campaign a shout-out on their shows. As of Sunday 6 October 2013, the Adorable Care Twitter account had 2,648 followers. Although the White House denied direct involvement in the Obamacare rebranding campaign, White House press secretary Jay Carney told Politico that he got the point: “Everybody loves cute animals.”
Another branding campaign made headlines last week. Generation Opportunity promotes itself as a youth advocacy group whose mission is to persuade young adults to opt out of Obamacare. Armed with $5 million dollars from the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce (associated with the billionaire Koch brothers), the Generation Opportunity campaign includes social media signups, college campus events, and crass Internet commercials (one of them depicts a ghoulish Uncle Sam character popping up between a woman’s legs during a gynecological exam). It didn’t take long for journalists to discover that Generation Opportunity’s core message — that it’s cheaper for young people to opt out of Obamacare — was baseless.
But the lack of factual evidence is clearly not the point. What political branding campaigns reveal all too clearly is that it’s not about the message. It’s about narrowing the available channels for communication into two starkly opposing sides — left and right, liberal and conservative. There’s no middle ground, no attempt at reaching consensus or even starting a conversation. Branding is about claiming a meme, creating a mindset, and controlling the media.
Advertising and politics have long been intertwined in the national conversation. Back in 2001, former ad executive Charlotte Beers was appointed by George W. Bush as US Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. To many, the appointment represented a doomed attempt to reassert America’s values of freedom and democracy through a fundamentally incompatible means of mass communication: advertising. New York Times columnist Frank Rich was despondent, writing that Beers was chosen “not for her expertise in policy or politics but for her salesmanship on behalf of domestic products like Head & Shoulders shampoo. If we can’t effectively fight anthrax, I guess it’s reassuring to know we can always win the war on dandruff.” Historians like T.J. Jackson Lears have documented the marriage of advertising and politics much earlier, linking it to America’s propaganda needs in World War I.
Branding and advertising were invented to tell stories. Promotional industries exist to create emotional connections between the things we buy and the values we hold. When politics gets on the “brandwagon,” what we get are stories designed to make us buy into ideas without understanding the political consequences. Political deliberation is poorly served by these simplistic fables. We don’t need more distraction in the form of self-interested rebranding campaigns. We need informed debate to help us make smart decisions about the consequences of politics and policy.
Melissa Aronczyk is Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity.