Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sleazy Marketing Is Polarizing America

I was always proud of my now-concluded four-decade career in marketing but it is disgraceful now to witness marketing techniques being perverted to tear our nation apart.

Granted, I was sheltered by my specialty in community/destination marketing which is bound by a strict code of ethics.

But isn’t it ironic that the process for selecting or influencing our nation’s civic leadership is one of the few remaining, if not the last sector, of our society that is not compelled to be transparent, honest and ethical?

Instead of marketers showing leadership in this regard, most seem conspicuously silent while a few are instead perverting marketing to make politics even more sleazy.

I always felt marketing was honorable not only because in my profession I used it to better communities but because I came up in the school that taught that:

marketing at its core, like good parenting, is about helping other people make distinctions and good decisions, decisions that are best for them even if in the end your product or service or community or world-view is not selected.

Okay, that may be a little "Kumbayah" but believe me, it works much better than the old-school sales or product-driven approach of hoodwinking customers into buying what you have to sell rather than what they need, often involving unethical subsidies and kick-backs.

Here are two ways I see marketing being perverted in politics not just by some secular Americans but by a group to which this would seem anathema: a small sliver of the 1 in 10 Americans who score highest on the religiosity index and form the core of the so-called Religious or Christian Right now “rebranded” as the Tea Party.

The popular media misuses the term “rebranded” because it is also misused by so many newly-appointed corporate executives eager to stamp their ego on a company or product or to attempt to outrun bad publicity and low public opinion with what in reality is a simple a “renaming” or “refreshing” of the most superficial elements of a brand.

The classic example of the power of renaming is when in 1947, after being known as the as the U.S. War Department for 160 years, the name was changed to The Department of Defense, in part, to make lobbying more palatable.

The news media didn’t miss it when AIG was renamed Chartis after it was caught up at the center of the financial scam that created and deepened the Great Recession and in turn generated the deficit/debt controversy, most of which occurred much earlier. The media didn’t miss it, primarily, because the company publicized the change to comply in part, I suspect, with securities regulations and truth in advertising etc.

But the popular media has failed to see through the crafty story marketers created for the origin of the Tea Party even after revelations a year ago by prize-winning investigative reporter Jane Meyer in an article entitled Covert Operations. I was amused and taken back in time when I read the connection with the John Birch Society, a similarly ultra-conservative movement that opposed the Civil Rights movement.

That the Tea Party is a simple but highly effective “rebranding” of older movements that had fallen out of favor in public opinion and particularly with generations that came of age during the 1990s and 2000s was given even more credibility in an Op-Ed piece earlier this month published in the New York Times.

The authors of the op-ed, David Campbell now at Notre Dame and Robert D. Putnam at Harvard, also collaborated an incredible book, I just finished reading, entitled American Grace – How Religion Divides and United Us based on many surveys including the two-year Faith Matters Survey.

Their op-ed is a preview to a follow-up study that will be detailed in a new edition due out early next year. The book is incredibly easy to read and highly recommended for both the 83% of Americans who belong to a religion and the 17% who do not identify with a religion but 80% of whom believe in God.

The book is also a reminder that, while the current involvement of religion in politics is fueled around a relatively small sliver of the 1 in 10 Americans who are conservative ultra-traditionalists, both socially and economically, religionists were also at the heart of many liberal movements such as the American Revolution, antislavery, the social gospel and both the Progressive and Civil Rights movements.

The divide is so extreme today simply because marketers helped political operatives identify, exploit and exaggerate differences using premarital sex, homosexuality and abortion. They have also used demographic and psychographic projections to panic extremes because the generations coming of age, including those who profess to be religious, are less concerned about the first two issues and are moving to the center on the third.

Marketing is being perverted not to help people understand distinctions and see solutions but to blind them through fear, exaggeration and misinformation.

One last example occurred to me after reading this quarter’s issue of Good Magazine featuring an article by William Wheeler entitled The Information Arms Race.

It summarizers the perversion in politics of a marketing best practice called predictive analytics or micro-targeting. When I worked there before my recent retirement, our community/destination marketing organization for Durham became one of the first to use micro-targeting so I have a modest understanding.

We used it nationwide to identify households that mirrored the characteristics of visitors who had already visited and liked Durham as a destination and shared a predisposition for activities and interests this community can deliver. This informed the decisions on which marketing tactics were most efficient and effective to reach such prospects.

The ultimate goal was to not only to find people we could help in making distinctions and good decisions but to more closely identify the people for whom Durham would be distinctive, appealing, fulfilling and a good fit overall as a destination.

As you will read if you click on the link to the Good magazine article, marketers are instead helping political operatives identify and exploit areas of ambivalence in people predisposed to favor opposing views. Their goal isn’t helping people make distinctions and good decisions but to muddy their thoughts and further widen the partisan divide.

Politics, thanks in part to a polarized Supreme Court decision last year, is probably now even more “no-holds-barred” and vulnerable to sleazy marketers than at any time in the last 100 years.

To me, to be ethical is a particularly American value. Now is the time to infuse the same ethical behavior that is required of other elements of our society into the process of selecting civic leadership for our cities, towns, counties, states and the nation that is required of other elements of our society.

Ethics and politics should not be mutually exclusive.

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