Political marketing arose when, in the middle of the twentieth century, the methods developed by commercial marketing specialists were adopted for political campaigning. Political marketing replaced unilateral propaganda exactly as commercial advertising has become a plain subsidiary of commercial marketing. Political marketing is considered as one of the most demanding applications of political communication research. It stands at the crossroads of several distinct fields of social sciences engaging in the study or practice of deliberate and purposive communication to reach set goals (Maarek 1995, 2007).
The Emergence Of Political Marketing
It is generally accepted that political marketing started to become a cornerstone of political campaigns when, in the 1952 presidential election, the American Republican Party hired a first-rate marketing consultant, Thomas Rosser Reeves Jr., who managed Dwight D. Eisenhower’s successful transformation from an army general to a civilian commander in chief (McNair 1995). The two main methods then used by Reeves in two successive steps are representative of the two main stages of a political marketing strategy. First, direct marketing by mail was extensively used in order to define Eisenhower’s main campaigning themes, simplifying them according to the “unique selling proposition” method, which Reeves had previously devised for commercial products. Then 49 short televised spots (one for each US state) were aired, strictly following the precise targeting rules also previously developed for commercial marketing (Diamond and Bates 1984).
This shows clearly the two-dimensional aspect of political marketing with its two successive steps: not only does it grant new and modernized communication tools to the politicians, but also it precedes the campaign and influences its strategy considerably, notably in the targeting process. Political marketing does not arrive after the main campaigning decisions are made but comes in from the start as an aid to campaign decision-making.
This also means that political marketing influences and modifies the contents of politics itself. While the political propaganda of a premodern campaign plainly influenced the message and its transmission, modern political communication usually intervenes in the core of the political campaign. This may be advantageous to the development of a campaign strategy for addressing volatile voters. But this also means that rather than presenting a fully organized and focused political program, politicians are pushed to transform it in order to reach and convince the so-called “swing voters” who are commonly considered as being the most susceptible targets of the campaign. Swing voters may decide who will win the election (Maarek 1995, 2007).
Eisenhower’s success in reaching the presidency in 1952 indicated clearly that political marketing, able to find him a strategy for winning the White House, was key to modern political campaigning. In the following years, this led to the exponential development of political marketing in the United States (see, e.g., Sabato 1989; Kaid & McCubbins 1992).
The Expansion Of Political Marketing
Nowadays, as a consequence, political marketing consultants are helping would-be politicians to campaign all over the world and sometimes for the smallest electoral offices in the tiniest constituencies. This expansion also led to a systematic attempt to reach any media potentially helpful to political communication, in what constitutes the second stage in the development of political marketing. From audiovisual mass media to the Internet, and including old-fashioned mail, all media have been employed by political marketing, following the reasoning that a single extra vote thus won might be useful. Even electoral meetings are now staged like rock concerts, and negative advertising is flourishing, not to mention innumerable direct marketing mailings and email spamming. For instance, in France, while campaigning for the presidential office in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy sent unsolicited emails to more than a million mailboxes (Maarek 2007).
While political marketing initially emerged in the United States, it has progressed very quickly to most of the countries where free elections are held (see, e.g., Franklin 1994; Kavanagh 1995; Scammell 1995). Politicians in many countries started to hire American political marketing consultants who had been successfully managing US presidential campaigns, from Joe Napolitano to James Carville and Dick Morris – to mention just a few prominent figures. Sometimes considered as an “Americanization” of political communication processes, this penetration by modern political marketing techniques is now understood as being a sign of plain professionalized modernization, and a reaction to similar media environments and similar electoral circumstances (Negrine 1996; Negrine et al. 2007). Modern political marketing knows no borders, and French or British political marketing consultants are now traveling around the world as much as their American counterparts.
From Campaigning To Governmental Spin
Initially positioned within electoral campaigns, political marketing was bound to expand its borders to political communication at large.
In the 1970s, after the example set by John F. Kennedy, who reorganized the White House according to media management practices, only public opinion polls specialists were hired by governing politicians (Valery Giscard d’Estaing in France, for instance, created a “public opinion cell” in the presidential staff in 1974). Then, in the 1980s, when polls increasingly dictated government public relations, many countries’ governments reorganized accordingly. Some, like France or Italy, also renamed the offices in charge of the government’s public communication (“Communication Publique” and “Communicazione Publica” respectively).
This generalization of political marketing to government public communication is not only motivated by incumbent politicians’ wish to control their messages and to be reelected more easily. Political marketing also became the counterpart of new media developments, especially of the Internet and its widespread possibilities of extending citizens’ free, fast expression (Davis 1999) – with Internet petitioning and blogging as a more recent transformation of that medium (Maarek 2007). Any new announcement in policymaking has now to face the new liberty given to citizens to denounce it instantly and efficiently, thus leading to more carefully planned communication campaigns by marketing specialists. As a consequence, government communication to the public has become more and more dependent on political marketing methods and on newly appointed communication officers and spin doctors, who are eagerly trying to control the government’s media relationships (Jones 1995).
This change was blatant in the United Kingdom when Tony Blair became prime minister after his landslide victory in the 1997 parliamentary election. He established as “director of communication and strategy” his campaign spokesman, former journalist Alastair Campbell, who proceeded to control government communication to the public in every way, thanks to his extended job definition (Wring 2004).
Tony Blair’s success in controlling the media, at least during his first two governments, led to a clear breakthrough of political marketing practices as a policy enforcement tool, even if the media became aware of the political “spin,” which resulted in neutralizing it to some degree. In many countries, this was seen as an example to follow. In France, for example, the two main contenders for the presidential office in 2007, Segolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, both equally claimed Blair’s legacy.
Consequences Of Political Marketing Influence
Two consequences of an increasing political marketing influence are discussed quite often in the scholarly literature: depolitization of politics and excessive personalization.
Depolitization of politics seems to be a paradoxical result of targeting swing voters in election campaigns, who are considered to have a crucial influence on the election outcome. By addressing swing voters through more and more differentiated and elaborate means, political marketing has considerably narrowed the scope of political campaigns and has rendered communication to the public more difficult. By catering to swing voters who have little interest in politics, parties and candidates have toned down the political core of their campaigns and often resorted to plain populism. Likewise, governing politicians have been led to drastically change or withdraw from decisions deemed unpopular, following the results of opinion polls and the advice of public relations consultants. Addressing issues of citizens’ everyday life, or of security and comfort, is considered as more profitable than campaigning or governing on the basis of a political program that people with little interest in politics might find less concrete and unattractive.
The way of addressing the public has also changed. In order to reach a wide audience and particularly citizens with little political interest, politicians are appearing on media entertainment programs and present themselves like show-business celebrities. Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show is a legendary example. Discussing entertaining topics and private affairs has become a prime means of accessing the apolitical citizen. This is supposed to have led to a paradoxical depolitization of political communication. Politicians who rely too much on marketing advisors, however, often find their basic capacity questioned.
An increasing personalization of political communication is also seen as a consequence of political marketing. Personalization is connected to underplaying issues and focusing instead on politicians’ personal charisma, and even their looks and private lives, particularly in election campaigns. The marketing strategy of reaching undecided voters by nonpolitical arguments contributes to personalization, as does the predominance of television in election campaigning. In addition, negative advertising attacking the opponent, a growing phenomenon particularly in American presidential campaigns, directs voters’ attention to the personal characteristics of the top candidates (Ansolabehere & Iyengar 1995). Therefore, the personalities of the front runners become the main reason for casting votes, rather than their political programs or their campaigning themes, and this is assumed to result in a personalization of voting behavior.
Personalization is even having, as a rather dubious side-effect, the celebritization of politics (or “peopolisation,” a franglais word derived from “people”). Politicians assume the status of celebrities, like prominent actors and pop stars, and are treated by the mass media accordingly. For instance, during the run-up to the French presidency campaign of 2007 a celebrity magazine published, as part of a survey of “50 stars at the beach,” suggestive paparazzi photos of a scantily bikini-clad Ségolène Royal, the Socialist presidential candidate. This phenomenon points to the seamy side of political marketing: politicians taking advantage of the sophistication and branding potential of marketing methods have to face situations where the media dictate the rules of the game. Such politicians may not only lose control over their personal image, but also contribute to depolitization tendencies and even growing cynicism among the population.
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