Back in the early eighties Pepsi ran a very successful ad campaign involving a blind taste-test between Pepsi and Coke. The commercials ran constantly and they were so successful even Coke began to believe them. This belief in the advertising of the opposition led Coke to abandon a nearly 100 year old product in favor of New Coke. This was a colossal mistake, sales of New Coke never took off and the company’s stock plummeted. After only a few short months Coke introduced Cocoa-Cola Classic which was close enough to the original to stop the slide.
There are several correlations between the market share battle between Coke and Pepsi and the constant battling between the Democrat and Republican parties. The most obvious is the color relationship – Pepsi is the blue product and Coke is the red. This fits nicely with Democrats being the blue party and Republicans the red. In colas and in politics blue is associated with a young, progressive base, red is more traditional and appeals to an older generation.
Ok, I know this seems a little weak but you get my point. If we look at the advertising for these products we can see that a common theme in the ads is a veiled attack against the competition and the implication that people who like the other guy are intellectually inferior, or at least, misguided. This approach, over time, has lead to an almost perfect market split between the two competing products. The taste-test ad campaign, and the resulting New Coke fiasco, demonstrated that the tradition associated with the product is MORE important than the product itself. Many people who chose Pepsi in a blind taste-test were loyal Coke drinkers and they had no intentions of changing products. There were, however, enough people to switch to make Coke take notice.
If we look at the ad campaigns for both political parties from the past election we will see the same marketing techniques in use, with one major exception – neither side attempted to veil their attacks. Both sides were very direct. Since these are political campaigns, and not actually products, we cannot look at sales as a matrix for the success of the advertising. Enter the polls – this is the major mechanism for determining the mood of the “market” in a political campaign. The problem with this is polls are not very accurate, especially when compared to actually market forces.
This accuracy issue has lead, particularly this election season, to some very strange poll results and to, what many people thought was, a surprise result to the election. I am not going to get into the problems with the polling in this year’s election, but suffice it to say that polls are less accurate than market indicators. This is because a poll measures what a person SAYS that they will due or has done – a market indicators measure what a person has ACTUALLY bought. In addition polls are more easily manipulated than are sales numbers. This is very important. If we use the same marketing strategies in campaigns as we do with products we should expect that the difference in data quality will affect the success or failure of the ad campaign.
One thing that both political parties need to be very careful with after this election is dealing with what the election results actually mean. Republicans are feeling as if the election has given them a mandate to pursue vigorously their agenda. The Democrats are torn between, on the one hand, becoming more radical (more to the left) in their approach or, on the other hand, becoming more centrist (more to the right). The danger is that one, or possibly both, parties are in danger of pulling a “New Coke” plan. Without strong market indicators it can be difficult for political parties to reinvent themselves, in favor of their perceived base, without destroying their actual base
This has led me to question the wisdom of treating political parties and candidates as merchandise. Modern mass marketing techniques are excellent for selling sugary beverages but it is lousy for selling politics. This treatment has helped to polarize the political climate while contributing to a lack of understanding of each party’s position on key policy issues. Sure, everyone knows that Democrats are for the poor and Republicans are for the rich. This is one area were advertising has succeeded – it reinforces stereotypes and promotes party talking points. It does not, however, promote real understanding of issues.
I believe that the next phase of political campaign reforms should address this imbalance between marketing and substance. I would love to see political campaigns move away from the slick marketing approach and begin to do ads that are simpler – ads that address the issues and not just point-out the flaws of the other guy.
There is one mass marketing technique that has worked well for colas and could work for politics – the blind taste-test. Line up each party’s ideas for solving each major problem and let the voters decide which answer they like the best. If the answers are not related to the party or the candidate then people will have to focus on the issues. Here is an example of this type of a “blind taste-test” for politics. In the end people may be surprised at their real political views.