Politics is Dead, Long Live Branding: Why George W. Bush is President

July 11, 2001

By Jock Gill for Democrats.com


Let’s talk about branding, as in the image-making machinery and its current role in our society. Is it now the case that hyper-inflated brands are now competing with religion, the arts and philosophy as a principal attempt to give meaning to our lives?

The GOP certainly understands the role of brand as a major source of meaning, importance, and substance for too many of us living in debt-driven consumer cultures. The GOP also clearly understands that branding is a major source of power, and its retention, in a market driven environment. Today they impose upon us the Bush brand. A brand whose value would collapse if the role of the public sector were restored to its proper place as a counter balance to an unchecked market, and brands were once again linked to a physical reality.

I am reading Naomi Klein's recent book "No Logo", which is about branding, multi-nationals and globalization. It is very useful to understand that 'branding' is in constant change and is not a fixed process. Branding in 1890 is not the same as in 1990 nor will it be the same in 2090. Can we drive its evolution for our political advantage? What is the role of brand in politics today?

From the point of view of business and politics, I speculate that the GOP and their allies use branding very effectively to simplify politics and deflect the voters' attention away from the critical issues and problems of our time – for example: AIDs, mail order terrorism, and deterioration of the life support system we depend upon. The GOP uses their hyper inflated brand to redirect the voters’ attention to "images and myths” that bear little resemblance to the hard and inconvenient realities. That is, the GOP is very good at leveraging the disconnection modern marketing has created between the thing [reality] and its brand. The brand now floats free, untethered to any reality which might be used to confirm its content, much less it truthfulness. In fact, Klein, together with Baudrillard, would argue that the hyper-inflated brand has now become more important than the thing. Smoke and mirrors, sizzle and snake oil have trumped reality. Fantasy rules. Reality bites.

Worse, branding in our current culture has become an alternative source of 'the meaning of life' , a Potemkin palliative for a too often spiritually hollow, emotionally impoverished, content free experience of life -- anything you want as long as it is all entertainment and all sports all the time. As a result it is possible that we have become too dependent upon branding to readily give it up. We need to replace junk food branding with branding that truly nurtures and sustains. Perhaps the collapse of the dot.com economy is a harbinger of things to come? Most dot coms turned out to be exercises in branding with no substance or sustainability behind them.

On the other hand, if we could drive branding to a new form that was based on sustainable content, based upon testable reality on the ground, then those mirages only supported by today's hyper inflated bubble brands would fall away and collapse as the hot air swooshes out. This, however, would require some fresh ideas, some new political visions, and lots of self-organizing action at the edges where we all live. We the people must become actively engaged in asserting the primacy of our reality over the hyper inflated brand fantasies currently being foisted upon us.

The issues implied by the data below, for example, suggest a possible set of questions with which to frame a new Democratic view of the world and our position in it.

Consider the annual amount that is necessary for:

Education for all: US$6 billion
Drinkable water: US$9 billion
Healthy deliveries for all
women: US$ 12 billion
Basic health care and nourishment for all: US$13
billion Elimination of poverty: US$ 40 billion

Now compare that with the annual amount spent on:

Parties and pleasure for managers in Japan: US$35 billion
Alcoholic beverages in Europe: US$105 billion
Drugs: US$400 billion
Weapons: US$ 780 billion
Advertisement and marketing: US$ 1000 billion

Source: Human Development Report of 1998 p. 63

In closing, it is useful to remember what Edward Gibbon wrote about ancient Greece:

"In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life and they lost it all --- security, comfor,t freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then the Athenians ceased to be free."

Sounds like George Bush's disastrous tax cut to me, which, after all, is simply an aspect of the hyper inflated Bush brand of "The Meaning of America". Only by re-connecting reality to brand will the emptiness of his vision be revealed.

If we Democrats cannot come up with an alternative vision based upon real content, the issues, and policy, then shame on us. It is time we the people reclaimed our rightful place at the global table and used our new found voices to rejoin the conversation. Thankfully the power of the Internet, with its capacity for conversation and exchange at the edges where we live, will enable us to do so if we chose to act. And act we must!

It is past time we asked, in John F. Kennedy’s terms, not what society can give to us but what we can give to society. It is time we re-asserted and embraced our responsibility as today’s stewards of our children’s future.