The Obama Advertising Strategy

Marketing in the age of identity politics.

Last week, Expedia released a web ad featuring an older Jewish man, Arnie Goldstein, deciding to take a trip. Where’s he traveling? Why, to the lesbian wedding of his daughter, of course! “This is not the dream I had for my daughter,” he narrates. “Coming out to the wedding from back east, I had some real apprehensions about it. What’s this going to look like, two girls getting married? You have to make a decision. Are you going to have a daughter that you’re going to maintain a very wonderful relationship with for the rest of your life? Or are you going to lose that child?”

Now, this sounds like a very serious moral quandary. But no, it’s just an ad for an online travel agency. “All that trepidation just seemed to go away,” says the dad. “That was a big turning point. Walking Jill down the aisle … Judy and I were just swelling with emotion. You come to terms with it and you say it’s a very natural order of things in your life, and it’s supposed to be that way.”

Whether or not it’s supposed to be that way is up for debate – certainly thousands of years of human society tend to argue the opposite. But in advertising, it’s clear that pandering works. There’s a reason that Oreo has endorsed same-sex marriage with a six-layer rainbow cookie and the slogan “Proudly Support Love!” Pandering to particular communities works.

This is something the advertising community has always known: know your audience, and market to it. It’s why your satellite dish carries 205 channels, even though you only watch four of them. Somewhere, there’s some lonely old shut-in desperate to watch Lifetime. And Lifetime is there to pander to her. Where we all used to watch NBC, ABC, or CBS, now dad watches ESPN, son watches SPIKE, daughter watches MTV, and mom watches Oxygen. And gay friend watches LOGO or Showtime.

None of which is to argue that choice should be limited. If you want to shop at Expedia because they seem to like lesbian weddings, more power to you. But there is no question that our common morality has been fragmented by a marketing machine geared toward communities instead of individuals.

All of which is fine in the context of product sales. The biggest problem is that in today’s modern politics, marketing strategies have been adapted to fit politics. Thus the Obama campaign strongly resembles your cable package: African Americans for Obama, Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders for Obama, Catholics for Obama, Educators for Obama, Environmentalists for Obama, Jewish Americans for Obama, Latinos for Obama, LGBT Americans for Obama, Native Americans for Obama, Nurses for Obama, Parents for Obama, People of Faith for Obama, People With Disabilities for Obama, Rural Americans for Obama, Seniors for Obama, Small Business Owners for Obama, Sportsmen for Obama, Veterans & Military Families for Obama, Women for Obama, Young Americans for Obama.

All of those are real groups on Obama’s website.

And that’s sad.

When political campaigns encourage you to vote based on identity politics rather than who you believe will represent America best, the concept of deliberative democracy breaks down. The founders understood that faction was perhaps the greatest danger to any republic; that’s why they focused on interest counteracting interest, so that in order for anything major to happen, Americans would have to think beyond their own personal interests. That’s why the founders built a system of checks and balances.

But the progressive left did away with that system. They decided that the governmental action on behalf of discrete and insular minorities, to use the left’s favored legal phrase, was the most important task of the government. To achieve it, Americans would continue to vote along lines of identity politics – but the system would now have no checks or balances.

Politics should require either a people who think in terms of the greater good, or a government built to filter out parochialism. Our government today has neither. We have become an Expedia government: pandering to each group, and forgetting to serve the whole.

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