Advertising: How Political Candidates Market Themselves

When groundbreaking adman Tony Schwartz died this week at 84, obituary writers everywhere reminded readers of his dubious legacy. Schwartz was the creator of the "Daisy" advertisement used during Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign; the ad showed a small girl counting flower petals in a field, then cuts to a countdown ending with a nuclear explosion—suggesting none too subtly that GOP candidate Barry Goldwater would not make the world safe for children or indeed anyone. Considered an early iconic example of a negative TV political ad, "Daisy" was highly controversial and, of course, much imitated in years to come, launching a trend that has become standard operating practice in modern political campaigns. Harvard Business School professor John Quelch, author of "Greater Good:  How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy," notes how this continuing trend is distinctly at odds with the marketing strategies of successful American businesses. He talked about the differences with NEWSWEEK's Caitlin McDevitt. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why do we see more negative advertising in politics than in the business context?
John Quelch:
There is no Election Day deadline in business—it carries on from one day to the next. Businesses worry about growing the size of the overall market to increase sales and shareholder value. For example, Coke and Pepsi both want to increase the amount of carbonated soft drinks that we consume. If Pepsi and Coke go after each other in advertising, they will turn off consumers and reduce demand for both of their brands. Both brands know that they have to live together side by side on supermarket shelves for the long run. For politicians it is different. They don't care about the size of the market [how many people actually vote]. All they care about is winning a plurality on Election Day.
So there is a greater sense of urgency for the political candidate. Is negative advertising a desperate technique or a smart one?
It can be both desperate and smart. It is often used in desperation. Since there is a winner-take-all deadline on Election Day, a candidate trailing in polls is often tempted to pull down the opponent rather than develop a positive case for himself, which usually takes a longer period of time. The objective is to raise doubts about the opponent in minds of the electors—desperate, but often effective against an attractive but relatively unknown candidate such as [Barack] Obama.
How have you seen negative ads work effectively in the consumer-product context?
In the business world, such advertising is usually referred to as comparison advertising. Coke would never run a 30-second ad even mentioning Pepsi, let alone raising doubts about the No. 2 brand. Pepsi, on the other hand, ran the highly effective Pepsi Challenge comparison ad campaign. 
What lessons can political candidates learn from corporate marketing tactics?
If you don't develop a clear and coherent position for your own brand as a candidate, you leave yourself open to being defined by your opponent. A newcomer like Obama has to move quickly beyond the brand he developed for the Democratic Party constituency to now define himself on his terms to the overall electorate. He needs to put more meat on the bones of his "Change We Can Believe In" slogan.
What brands or products do you associate with the candidates?
A month or two ago, Obama—the candidate of the educated elite—was associated with the Starbucks brand; Clinton—the candidate of the blue-collar worker—with Dunkin' Donuts. Now, Obama is the new Prius and [John] McCain the old Ford F-150 pickup truck. In 1998, the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, was caricatured as an elitist policy wonk whose supporters were "limousine liberals." Today, these people are no longer in limousines, they are in Priuses. Obama has to avoid the rap Dukakis fell into of being defined by his opponent. Obama has to move quickly to define himself as a change agent for the mainstream, equally comfortable in a Honda as a Volvo. 
Don't you think it's risky to start treating a political candidate as a marketable product?
When you use words like marketing and branding in connection with politics, many people see a red flag and worry about manipulation and the dumbing down of the political process. In fact, marketing is about understanding the needs and aspirations of consumers or citizens, and developing products or policy propositions in response.
Who is the best-marketed political figure?
The politician who does not need to indulge in any marketing because his actions, deeds and words speak volumes. Nelson Mandela is one such person.
Do you think negative political ads that are not funded directly by a candidate's campaign have the same potential to damage their opponent?
The use of surrogates and third parties to communicate negative messages has gained credence as a result of the impact achieved by the Swift Boaters against [John] Kerry. The impact depends more on the message than the messenger.