Politics sells the sizzle


Asheville Citizen-Times, July 12, 2006

“Sell the sizzle, not the steak” was the marketing brainchild of Depression-era sales guru Elmer Wheeler. It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that our leaders have learned to go Mr. Wheeler one better. They can sell the sizzle and never mind about that steak.

It’s consumer research applied to governance. Today’s political pitch need not correspond to much of anything in the real world. What matters is how well a proposition is selling and how strongly it commands and sustains the attention of key demographic groups.

Verifiable truth and positive results are no longer required. The leadership of the US House recently forced a show debate on Iraq and the “Global War on Terror”, so let’s start there. President Bush’s attempts to rally international support for the invasion largely fizzled. His justifications for the use of force unraveled almost before hostilities officially commenced. After the fall of Saddam’s statue, Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech proved to be a theme park indulgence, but it produced another glorious can-do image. When Bush smilingly offered our Baghdad troops a platter of display-only turkey that Thanksgiving, his approval ratings rose. During the 2004 campaign season, with our factories closing, the Iraqi insurgency gaining strength, and Osama bin Laden still at large, Bush donned a heartland-friendly checked shirt with an open collar and won re-election as the war president who would protect us from gay marriage.

Lyndon Johnson probably couldn’t have conceived of such a campaign, let alone pulled it off.  But slick marketing is our norm. It’s becoming ingrained in the national mindset, something we manage to both disbelieve and accept at face value. This spring when Senator Frist scheduled debates on gay marriage, flag burning, and the estate tax, the media rose as one to expose the obvious. No laws were likely to change. Frist was energizing social conservatives for the mid-term elections. He understood that results aren’t the issue. Brand loyalty is.

Bush’s dash to Baghdad for a photo-op with the new Iraqi Prime Minister was another triumph of form over substance. It’s hard to see how shaking hands with a startled Nuri al-Maliki will help reverse Iraq’s slide into civil war. But the feat of derring-do and trophy pics of al Zarqawi might revive some beleaguered poll numbers. Oh, for the days when it was enough for a bully president to pose with his rifle over the carcass of a dead grizzly.

Bush is selling sizzle, using the same techniques that move everything from soap to mega-church religion and dreams of retirement bliss. The Democrats’ failure to master these tactics may be evidence of moral conflict over re-imagining human beings as trainable sheep, but that’s probably wishful thinking.

Truth to tell, the modern marketers get us to assist with our own degradation. Consumption promises respite from bugs and bigots, bleeding hearts and fears of personal insignificance. Consumer stuff also permits the construction of an endlessly upgradeable cocoon. Within its precincts, the unpleasantness outside loses immediacy. With a touch of the remote control, it vanishes entirely. Consumerist fortresses don’t have to be sustainable. We just hope they last as long as we do.

Ours is not the politics of the real but of the surreal. Most of us do retain the ability to distinguish our privatized realities from the world outside. We simply prefer the former. It’s when we take the next step and begin to withdraw from the outside world that we invite political flim-flam. The trick is defining the tempting payoff in terms of a nebulous quality, such as “security”, or locating it somewhere in the “out there” we prefer to avoid. I can feel good about a promise to put a chicken in every Afghan pot, whether the chickens arrive or not. Just don’t promise ME a chicken and not deliver.

Unfortunately, President Bush’s degree of disconnection from the general reality may be more severe. Study his grin in the cockpit photos as his flight approached Baghdad. It was the old Mission Accomplished flight suit glee. The same expression he displayed with that platter of display turkey. Nutritional value couldn’t have mattered less. Our Commander In Chief was consuming his own sizzle. That can’t be good.

—Michael Hopping
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