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Vote or Die

No self-respecting marketer could possibly condone the way George W. Bush and John F. Kerry are spending their sales and marketing budgets. Even though record-breaking sums were lavished upon television commercials in the months leading up to the national conventions, the dynamics of the race remained about the same as they were before the two candidates blew all that money. It is, indeed, a mind blower. The marketers of American politics have largely turned a blind eye to the reality that television is not the wheelhouse of sales and marketing.

No self-respecting marketer could possibly condone the way George W. Bush and John F. Kerry are spending their sales and marketing budgets.

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Even though record-breaking sums were lavished upon television commercials in the months leading up to the national conventions, the dynamics of the race remained about the same as they were before the two candidates blew all that money.

It is, indeed, a mind blower. The marketers of American politics have largely turned a blind eye to the reality that television is not the wheelhouse of sales and marketing.

Procter & Gamble, American Express, and General Motors know this; it’s reflected in the way they spend their budgets these days. Any entry-level marketer knows it by now. It’s not that the Internet is the new television (although it isn’t). Nor is it simply that we don’t live our lives around the TV the way we used to (although we don’t) or that the commercials aren’t as well done as they used to be (although they aren’t).

It’s more that the image-building capacity of television, while powerful, tends to give short shrift to the all-important call to action. If projecting an image is the only objective — great! But traditional, 30-second, image-oriented commercials do tend to be a bit weak in the sales department. For any marketing activity to pay off, at some point it has to make the cash register — or the voting machine — ring.

Image building (or destruction) is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

What is the solution? The answer is not simply to abandon television, because it does have its role, albeit a declining one. Some marketers have had reasonably good success with layering 800 numbers and other “sales” triggers into their television spots, but usually the effect is disjointed at best and outright cheesy at worst. In any case, why try to turn television into something it’s not when there are so many other ways to motivate consumers?

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One such interesting alternative is brought to us by none other than Sean “P. Diddy” Combs (it’s kind of weird, but politics has lately acquired a certain pop culture “cool” factor that is crying out to at least a few good, marketing capitalists).

P. Diddy’s Sean John brand is working with designers including Tommy Hilfiger to create T-Shirts that say “Vote or Die.” According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, a P. Diddy spokesperson says the hip-hop mogul wants to “get the message to young people in a cool way, but also put a sense of urgency to it.”

Other, even more mainstream, brands are blending marketing with a political call to action. Ben & Jerry’s set up voter registration tables at its stores on its annual “free scoop day.” Maybe that’s not so surprising because Ben & Jerry’s is kind of known for its activism. Just the same, their stunt does underscore the potential to mix political marketing with frozen butterfat, and top it all off with a compelling call-to-action — it’s get a free cone and the freedom to vote, all in one shot.

Similarly, 7-Up is staging a “Step Up Tour,” which, according to a press release is intended “to celebrate music as a form of personal expression and to empower young people to realize and utilize their voting power to create positive change in the world.” Still more intriguing is Motorola’s partnership with Rock the Vote, in which election news and quizzes are being sent via Motorola brand mobile phones.

Why don’t candidates do the same thing to engage and energize their supporters? What’s good for Motorola could be absolutely killer for the first candidate to use mobile phones to turn out the vote, flash-mob style. It really shouldn’t be that hard to do: An “I voted” button available only to those who have hung a chad (so to speak) could double as a pass to an exclusive election night party at a trendy club, with the location communicated, friend-to-friend, by text message.

My very favorite sales and marketing idea for politics comes courtesy of Ken Hakuta, otherwise known as Dr. Fad, and perhaps best known as the creator of the Wacky Wallwalker. Dr. Fad’s idea is that middle-school kids should be given control over a parent’s vote in exchange for doing their homework. He has set up a Web site where kids and their parents can sign a pact to this effect.

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One might argue that most kids wouldn’t see a trip to the voting booth as much of an incentive to hit the books, but Dr. Fad thinks that underestimates kids. He could be right (or not) but his direction is dead on because, yet again, he is embedding a call to action into his marketing concept — and with a lot of imagination and faith in the future, to boot.

In fairness, it’s not that political marketers are totally oblivious to anything but television advertising. Both political parties, for example, are working on video games designed to engage voters and in the process move them on the issues. The Democrats have created a video game called Opinions, and the Republicans have launched one called Kerryopoly.

Some observers think these games aren’t effective because they are so obviously the product of the two major parties. That may be true. The real shortfall, however, is pointed out by Barbara Shimaitis of the Ad Council, who told The New York Times that while political video games might entertain, they do little to change behavior; they aren’t really designed to get the player to vote.

Ah, but they could be designed to do just that. Video games today are being used to treat everything from A.D.D. to fear of spiders, airplanes and heights. There’s no reason video games couldn’t be used to cure the world’s greatest democracy of its odd aversion to the democratic process.

Granted, there are limits to the potential of brands to mix with politics, and certainly with specific presidential candidates. But there is tremendous opportunity for candidates to take a page from the likes of Sean Jean, Motorola, Ben & Jerry’s, and 7-Up and work it to their competitive advantage.

That doesn’t seem likely to happen this time around. Both the Bush and Kerry camps have signaled their intent to continue to squander the bulk of their millions on old-fashion television advertising alone. But if the election is as close as everyone seems to think it will be, the margin of victory just might go to the candidate who does the best job of integrating their image-based marketing with some call to action sales.

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