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Opinion/Ideas

Brands on the run

How corporate brands became the new language of the presidential campaign.

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Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
February 10, 2008

JOHN McCAIN WAS about to go into his usual press-conference spiel about how things would have been better if FedEx and Home Depot had been in charge of emergency management during Hurricane Katrina when he suddenly showed concern that his constant references to the Fortune 500 companies might have gone too far.

"I don't like to mention different corporations - that may serve as a commercial for them," McCain said after a recent tour of a Jacuzzi manufacturer in Orlando, Fla.

In this election season, few candidates have been so bashful. Most are choosing to do what would once have come off as gauche, if not corrupting: rushing across the divide between public and private to embrace corporate brands.

"The reality is that we track packages from UPS and FedEx every time we order from Amazon.com," Mike Huckabee said at a debate last fall, arguing that he would more aggressively monitor foreign visitors as president.

Familiar companies and their products are this year's new campaign signifiers, with the business world supplanting civic institutions as a source of common points of reference. Candidates who may have once tried to establish their values by talking about public service or community ties are instead choosing to name-drop budget-hotel chains and big-box stores.

"Brands have become some of the most accessible shorthand in our culture," said Eric Hirshberg, president and chief creative officer of the advertising agency Deutsch LA. "Politicians are leveraging people's enthusiasm and participation in consumer culture."

Candidates have long visited factories and retailers while campaigning and counted captains of industry among their supporters, but in the past have been only tentative in acknowledging particular brands. In his 1952 "Checkers" speech, Richard Nixon said his wife Pat didn't wear mink, but instead merely a "respectable Republican cloth coat." These days, it seems unlikely a candidate would let the opportunity pass without at least identifying the garment's label.

Politicians have been laggards in engaging the new national consumer culture. Oddly, it was Walter Mondale who led the way, embracing a Wendy's catch phrase - "Where's the beef?" - in an effort to belittle rival Gary Hart in a 1984 Democratic primary debate, according to Steven M. Gillon, a University of Oklahoma historian and author of a book on Mondale.

"Wendy's strategy for selling hamburgers was identical to Mondale's plan for winning the nomination and getting elected president," said Gillon, noting that an aide told Mondale about the ad. "Mondale, who had never seen the commercial at the time, was uncomfortable using a hamburger ad to promote his campaign. But he was desperate."

Mondale was also a brand agnostic, choosing not to identify a particular fast-food chain but to say only that Hart's agenda reminded him of "that commercial." Now politicians are doing more than quoting slogans: They are reveling in the identities that corporations have created through expensive branding campaigns.

"People believe in FedEx the way they used to believe in the post office, or they used to believe in the New York Yankees, or they used to believe in their church," said Hirshberg. "Brands have become our national pastime: people follow their brands and root for their brands."

Barack Obama regularly tells a story about a Senate colleague who balked at an Obama reform that has banned lobbyists from treating legislators to meals, asking, "Do you want me to eat at McDonald's?"

"And I said," Obama recounts, "'A lot of your constituents eat at McDonald's. But you earn more than $160,000 per year. You can eat at Applebee's. Go upscale."'

Obama, who has spoken about how he is just years removed from having had to worry about paying a mortgage and pay off student loans, has used brands to project a middle-class family man image. He has mentioned that his two daughters watch Nickelodeon and has proudly boasted that his wife, Michelle, continues to shop at Target.

"When he says she shops at Target, that says two things: she's just like you - she's not shopping at Neiman-Marcus - and it's the more stylish, modern choice than shopping at Wal-Mart," said Hirshberg, who has advised Obama's campaign on advertising strategy. "It's the perfect brand association for him to make."

Indeed, Obama worked to reinforce that contrast at a recent debate where he noted that Clinton had been a "corporate lawyer working on the board of Wal-Mart" while he was working as a community organizer.

"For voters, they look at Wal-Mart and group them in with Halliburton and Exxon-Mobil as clear examples of corporate irresponsibility," said Chris Kofinis, former communications director for John Edwards, a frequent critic of "corporate greed" who recently dropped out of the race.

At an earlier debate, Edwards cited AT&T and Costco, the membership-only discounter, in asserting that he believed there were "good corporations, good employers."

"You want to avoid painting all corporations as bad - the truth is there good and bad companies," said Kofinis, who previously ran an anti-Wal-Mart activist campaign embraced by prominent Democrats. "In this case, the difference between Costco and Wal-Mart is night and day: one is a responsible corporation and one, Wal-Mart, is not."

Yet among Republicans, the nation's largest retailer does not appear to carry such a toxic reputation. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee likes to mention Wal-Mart as a home-state corporate success story, along with Tyson Foods, while McCain invokes the chain's "always low prices" policy when trying to convince voters for the benefits of global trade.

"Do you ever shop at Wal-Mart?" McCain said to an Iowa woman at a November town hall meeting after she espoused a position he dismissed as "protectionist." Later, McCain recalled an inexpensive stack of patio chairs he once brought home from the store.

"He's trying to be illustrative," said Carly Fiorina, a former president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard who has campaigned for McCain. "He's picking household names - if it's a nationally recognized brand, people know what you're talking about."

Not all citations appear so calculated. When Huckabee was criticized for not having read a recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran - an oversight he likened to not being able to "keep up with every single thing, from what happened to Britney last night to who won 'Dancing with the Stars"' - he found solace in an ad from a budget business-hotel chain.

"I may not be the expert that some people are on foreign policy, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night," he said in a radio interview.

Obama betrayed a more bourgeois frame of reference when he visited an Iowa farm last year and asked, "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?"

His opponent Hillary Clinton generally refrains from discussing specific brands, although she has praised the Safeway supermarket chain for the emphasis its healthcare plan puts on prevention, even citing the company by name in her policy papers on the subject.

Mitt Romney, a former consultant and venture capitalist who suspended his campaign last week, used campaign appearances to draw attention to companies he helped nurture in the private sector. When Romney visited a Staples store in Columbia, S.C., a few weeks ago, he effortlessly launched into what he called "the Staples story."

"This was an idea to bring office supplies to the homeowner and to small business people at prices that were more like what very big companies got," Romney said. "It was not easy and - despite the button and the wonderful ad campaign they came up with - it was a very successful effort and now the company employs some 80,000 people around the world."

"It's helpful to show his understanding of the economy and how it works," said Benjamin Ginsberg, a Romney adviser. "The corporations he has visited are perfect examples of that."

While campaigning in Lutz, Fla., Romney ate lunch at a KFC and expounded on his favorite places to eat in the area.

"You know what I love down here? Pollo Tropical. Isn't that nice?" Romney said, referring to a Miami-based Caribbean-style chicken chain ubiquitous in South Florida. "I just got introduced to it a couple of months ago and now whenever I see a Pollo Tropical I like to pull in" and order grilled chicken, rice, and beans.

"I also like Chick-fil-A," Romney said.

Sasha Issenberg is a reporter in the Globe's Washington Bureau. Michael Levenson, Marcella Bombardieri, Charlie Savage, and Peter Canellos of the Globe staff contributed to this article.

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