Politicians used to take their lead from marketers. It was the Madison Avenue image-factory that led the way, teaching consultants and candidates how to shape their advertising, how to use sophisticated tools of persuasion to decoct a message into sixty – and then thirty – seconds, how to use research tools pioneered to sell consumer goods. In the end, it meant candidates were turned into brands.
As a result, the practice of selling a politician "like a tube of toothpaste" was routinely attacked by civic-minded observers, commentators and journalists who were outraged at the trivialization of public discourse and the alleged manipulation of voters by the same amoral martini-guzzlers who got you to buy all the stuff you didn’t need in the first place.
Senator Obama’s campaign, however, is changing the conventional adoption sequence. Its ability to use the medium of the Internet as a new kind of collective and connective stimulus has been extraordinary, and in many ways ahead of consumer marketing. And beyond its fund-raising heroics, the campaign’s use of word-of-mouth, its understanding of the tools required to amplify the natural spread of information, has been canny and innovative.
A particularly fascinating development was the launch last week of the site "FightTheSmears.com." Rather than sit back and absorb the attacks that have been zooming around the web, the Obama campaign made the strategic decision to attack them head on. You can’t stop Swift Boat-like attacks, but you can be swifter and more muscular than the Kerry campaign about fighting back.
The site calls out specific attacks in no uncertain terms, e.g. "SMEAR: Michelle Obama says "Whitey" On a Tape" – and then goes on to calmly rebut the accusation. This takes some nerve. Conventional wisdom – in politics and in marketing – has been that you should never legitimize baseless – and source less – charges with a response. Even to repeat the word "whitey" can be seen as provocative, reminding voters of the simmering pot of racial grievances.
This is a situation, which many marketers have faced in their own way; while the nature of the accusations have been different, the risks are similar and the discussions about potential response strategies have undoubtedly been the same.
Marketers have to deal with wild charges and rumors about discrimination against specific groups, about product safety, about the behaviors and beliefs of key executives, about causes and groups they allegedly support, about child labor and animal testing.
These problems have always existed, but their incidence will undoubtedly intensify given the Internet’s ability to take a rumor and send it hurtling into millions of inboxes. Plus there are two other related factors that will lead, in my view, to the growing danger that companies face from assaults on their reputations. One is the transparency the Internet provides – every move a company makes is visible; every disgruntled ex-employee (or current employee, for that matter) has a platform. The second vulnerability springs out of the hyper-skepticism of consumers, who stand poised to expect the worst.
I believe that in the past, marketers have been too timid, too fearful in their reluctance to respond aggressively to attacks, rumors and the concentrated efforts of special interest groups. (An exception was P&G, who eventually but belatedly did step up and denounce those nut jobs who claimed its logo was "satanic.")
But Senator Obama did more than just deny. His website’s URL specifically urges supporters to "fight" the smear. He’s making them deputized agents of the campaign, by asking them to let the campaign know if they received a smear – so they can track down the source. And he’s asking that they forward the site’s content to others, in a form of digital inoculation. This is something new in the consumer world. I’ve never seen a brand when it’s the subject of rumors, open up the defense to consumers in quite this way. But they should. When you’re under stress, don’t circle the wagon. Use your strongest brand evangelists to counter the charges. This will connect them even more to your brand. And when consumers speak up on your behalf, it’s far more powerful than when the company – or God forbid, paid PR flacks – speak.
Once, marketers had to worry about getting consumer to buy what they put in the box. Now, they also have to worry about what others are putting into their customers' inboxes.