The New Machine

I know my anxiety about this political season won’t end until November. And really not then, because I don’t want this ever to happen again. And that depends upon a Clinton Administration doing more than just maintaining the status quo.

But I am struck that the anxiety of the political class and their close partners and associates (which include academics, I think) is always operating on at least two levels. There’s the anxiety I and most everyone else I know is feeling about what a Trump victory could mean and even what it means that he has any measurable support of any kind from our fellow citizens.

However, I also think that in some sense Trump is something else, which is another form of the “disruption” that has become the ideology of 21st Century nouveau capitalism. He is a threat to their economic well-being in a very direct sense. Political consultants, pollsters, advertisers, policy wonks, career civil servants, are on edge because if Trump performs as well as or close to as well as Romney it throws out much of the conventional wisdom about the necessity of an expensive infrastructure for political victory or for carrying out policy initiatives. The countering proposition is that Trump is a unicorn, successful only because of a unique brand name that can’t be easily imitated, or successful only because he understood how to cheap out on the media by making himself the story every day. But what if instead Trump is revealing that you can’t do worse than 40-45% of the national vote no matter what you do, that underneath our voting is basically two major social coalitions that will pretty much do the same thing whether they know a candidate well or poorly, whether they’re worried about a candidate or not, etc.–that only about 10-20% of the voters will actually switch from one candidate or the other?

This fear is easier to see if you’ve studied the history of advertising. There are periodic waves of skepticism from clients about the actual value of advertising–that beyond some basic workaday advertising to create brand familiarity and some point-of-sale payments to get shelf space, the main thing that shifts consumers is just price. Advertisers in different eras have responded to that skepticism by trying to prove the value of their craft, by authenticating and detailing the expert skills that they have, whether that’s the methods of social science or the insights of “creatives”. They hold forth the successes and make ominous remarks about the failures. And of course advertising is today also facing its own forms of “disruption”–the possibility among other things that completely free forms of many-to-many communication will intrisically help to promote commodities that are well-liked by their buyers, and doom commodities that are hated, regardless of the money spent to reverse that verdict.

As with advertising in general, I suspect the infrastructure of campaigning and political authority matters when the candidate or policy is a “marginal buy” for that small group that might go one way or the other. But maybe at least some of the time, all you need is that (R) or (D) after your name in a district or state that’s been built as a social machine intended to elect you.

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2 Responses to The New Machine

  1. Hungry says:

    Nice comment, but don’t forget to keep the cynicism trigger high when looking at distruptive advertising. The large agencies already have a huge peer-to-peer and social group working to “astroturf” a groundswell of uncompensated support for the highest bidders.

    I like the analogy though – there is a similar crisis in autos. Yes, a lot of advertising is one brand vs. another, but in an era of car sharing, urban living, and student loans, the auto companies have to convince a new generation of consumers why they even bother to own a car, yet alone their car.

  2. Jane says:

    But if it turns out that advertising isn’t important than that means that candidates no longer need to hustle for those political donations! That would be great, right! And it would mean a modest scheme to provide federal or state funding of general election campaigns would essentially even the playing field between candidates backed by wealthy interests and those not so backed.

    Sadly, I think that you are wrong that Trump doing as well as Romney would count as “winning,” since Romney did lose. Even if only 10% of the population ever changes their mind, or more likely, 10% can be persuaded to not vote, well, you need that 10% to win! So I suspect that even though the (D) and (R) candidates for President are probably locked in for a large % of the popular vote (it’s hard for me to imagine ever not voting D, that’s for sure), they happen to lock us into endless marginal races, in which every little bit of advertising matters.

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