Buyer Beware

It's political season here in the United States.  I'm sure you noticed.  It seems like it's been that way for an unnaturally long time already, and it's not even close to done yet.  That's a presidential election year for you.  We need time to get to know each and every character who's running for the highest office, and I guess that would be wise except that the process gets so clouded with money and lies until most people don't really have a clue who they can believe.  The battle for the presidency has been honed over the years, and the candidates have only gotten better at their feints and parries.  Almost nothing can be taken at face value.

Like many, I'm sick of it.  It's the only system we've got, so I have a duty to be aware and involved, but by this stage in the game, all the shine has worn off.  I'm sure much of the world has been watching our primary debates with the same kind of disbelief and horror I have.  What a pool of candidates we've come up with this go round!  I'm seriously concerned if these are our best and brightest.

That's not to say the field is totally without noble ideals or skills we'll need for the job.  There are candidates who could keep us from running completely over the edge, even some who might do some serious good, but they have been vastly outnumbered and drowned out by the rest of the clowns in the circus.  What is most troubling is how many Americans have let themselves be manipulated by what seems like obvious trickery to me.

In the flurry of campaign ads, interviews and speeches, I always find myself thinking back to grade school when they taught us the classic propaganda techniques commonly used in advertising.  The same basic concepts were introduced year after year.  It was easy to assume that this was something they wanted to impress upon our growing minds, some critical life skill we would need in order to know when we were being manipulated.  Was my school the only one that did this?  Or is it just that we don't think of political advertising in the same way we do when we're being sold a hamburger or a car?

Government is a service, and serving in a political office is a very serious job.  However, candidates are presented as products, using all the same tactics.  This has always been the case, but modern society has taken advertising to new levels.  It's entwined in our lives, and reality TV has made us particularly susceptible to branding.  We're now very eager to buy an easily digestible, simple story about any given candidate.  Pull the right strings, and the public will latch onto the story and seek out only the things that support that story.  Complex isn't as comfortable or as fun, but complex is real.

To win an election, campaigns use advertising.  It's just a fact.  You have to be prepared to evaluate everything they're telling you and to look for more than the simple story.

I've looked around for lessons similar to those we learned in grade school.  There are a variety of lists out there, broken down in different ways.  I encourage you to learn as much as you can about the ways advertising steers people, and then share that knowledge with others- friends, family, children.  The future of our country depends on our ability and willingness to understand when and how we are being manipulated.

So, here are some basics to start you on that path.
  • Bandwagon-  Everyone wants to belong.  You're one of the crowd if you agree.  "Everyone is voting for Candidate X"
  • Compare/Contrast-  Implying a difference between the product and the competition, usually without proof of any kind.  "Candidate X doesn't hate puppies"
  • Faulty Cause and Effect-  Crediting one (or blaming the competition) without a clear causal connection.  "When Candidate X was mayor, no hurricanes hit his town."
  • Loaded Words-  Word choice based on emotional response.  "Candidate X will fight for Freedom, Justice, and this Glorious country."
  • Name Calling- Negative words or ideas are attached to opponents.  "Candidate Y is a Liar.  Vote for Candidate X."
  • Repetition-  Using a word or name over and over to create an association or to make it more memorable.  "You can Trust Candidate X because Candidate X is Trustworthy.  Trust your instincts and vote for Candidate X."
  • Testimonial-  A celebrity or authority endorses the product.  "Candidate X is the only one I trust to lead the country," says Steven Superstar.
  • Transfer-  Attaching positive, desired qualities to the buyer.  "Smart citizens will vote for Candidate X."
There is some overlap in these tactics, and they are often used together as well.  If you keep them in mind, though, when you see your next political ad, interview or debate, you should start to see them easily.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that just because all campaigns use advertising techniques they are not exempt from responsibility for what they say.  If a candidate tells you they didn't really mean what they said on the campaign trail, that they were just playing the game, they are admitting to deceit.  It's not all OK because it's just campaign rhetoric.  Hold candidates accountable.  As I explained once before, an election is like a job interview.  When the questions are asked, you pay attention to what candidates say and also how and why they say it, and the best man for the job should become clear.  Lying in an interview should not get a candidate hired.  It's up to every one of us to keep our heads clear and to see the truth beneath the marketing.  Buyer beware.

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