Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Art of Marketing and Manipulation (a/k/a "The Republican Problem")

A lot of people see politics as overly combative and manipulative, to which I respond, "It's the economy, stupid!"

Politicians and policies are sold or assailed like every other product in our consumer-based, market-driven economy. Why? Because it works. Every technique employed in politics has either come from, or been refined by, Madison Avenue and psychology-based marketing.

Negative campaigns?

Try Mac versus PC. It wasn't good enough for MacIntosh to attack the defects of PCs as computers. It had to first personify the PC into dorkdom before employing a savage tongue-in-cheek assault. Shouldn't we be troubled that a multi-million dollar ad campaign is based on getting us to laugh when the cool kid disses a nerd? (As an aside, does anybody doubt the advertizers were thinking about Bill Gates as the PC embodiment when they came up with that spot?) I promise you, though, that this "message" was tested before it went on the air, and Americans responded.

Pizza places and deli sandwich shops are currently waging cut-throat campaigns against each other. I expect Dominos to tell you anyday now that Papa John "does not care about people like you who cannot afford $25 pizzas."

Another marketing concept politics has taken from the corporate world is the power of a name. Say the words "Phillip Morris" and "lying tobacco company" might pop to mind. Realizing that kind of impression would kill its other product lines, Phillip Morris faced the choice of either: (1) being better; OR (2) changing its name. (Number two seemed like less hassle, so they went with that).

Sometimes the name can't even be written. I was in the grocery store looking for butter, and I realized that none of the boxes actually have the word "butter" anywhere on the packaging. The closest was Country Crock, which read: "Spreadable sticks." Sticks of what? I felt like I was watching the early Viagra commercials when you couldn't tell the product. Had I not been familiar with how sticks of butter are packaged and where butter is located in my store, I would have had no idea what I was buying.

I can only conclude that the manufacturers of the product have market research that says "butter" has negative connotations, a notion supported the prevalence of a "substitute good" called "It's Not Butter." In your face, Imperial!

This is crazy. Do the companies believe I can delude myself into thinking I'm buying something other than butter because it doesn't say butter? Actually, yes, they do. If businesses do what works, and this kind of name change/omission happens all the time, it must work on at least a subconscious level.

This brings us to the notion of Republican "rebranding." Rebranding means the same product with either a new name, new omission, or new packaging. You can add some Yellow #5 to your margarine and call it "New and Improved," but it's not new ingredients, folks. It'll still taste the same.

Likewise, the Republican Party can try to make itself seem "cool and hip" by conspicuously omitting "old" from G.O.P. It can change its logo, create a new slogan, and air new Benetton-style ad campaign ads showing us its "big tent" inclusion. But until it changes its ingredients, it can't fool us. We'll know it's still bad for us like butter.

Or will we?


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

We Is Ignorant! "Indiana Education" Is Turning Into An Oxymoron

The Indianapolis Star reports today that two-thirds of all of our school districts are on "academic watch" or "academic probation." This is a dramatic increase from years prior.

Governor Mitch Daniels - Republican - Year 5. Sue Ellen Reed - Republican - FOUR TERMS, then Richard Bennet - Republican Newbie - Year 1. That's an awful lot of Republicanism presiding over a failing education system, isn't it?

Oh, wait. I'm sure the problem is federal mandates, right? An unnamed source must have said so because the Star writes:

Because the state is not allowed to scrap the federal AYP system, schools that
fail to make adequate yearly progress under that system cannot be placed higher
than the middle tier, "academic progress."

AYP is the shorthand for "No Child Left Behind." Putting aside that "somebody's" defense is that we look worse because of those pesky federal standards, whose pet project was that "No Child Left Behind?!?" Oh, that's right. George W. Bush, another Republican.

Mr. Bennett has said he plans to be more aggressive in taking over low-performing schools. I'll believe it when I see it. The party's history doesn't inspire confidence.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Message to City-County Council: Don't Help!

It's pretty clear that Brendan O'Shaughnessy of the Indianapolis Star doesn't think much of the City-County Council's new ethics code.

Who can blame him?

The proposal gives all employees of the city-county carte blanche to vote on budgets, regardless of financial interest. Why this provision was included is obvious. Both Republicans and Democrats have several members who work for the city-county.

In fairness, I should point out that all legislative bodies can give themselves a pay raise for legislative work, which is certainly a "direct financial interest." We don't make that unethical. But maybe that's because we think the voters will take care of such staggeringly self-interested actions.

What about the more subtle ones? What about a police officer who votes for a massively-increased budget, knowing full well that increased salaries for all will follow? Or what about an employee who votes against across-the-board agency cuts for fear his job might be lost? How likely is the average citizen to know what has happened and respond accordingly?

Moreover, who can look at Monroe Gray's troubles and re-election and tell me citizens always police questionable conduct? Seriously, the bar for our ethics should be defined by which councilor's constituents are the most apathetic, "suckered," or "morally flexible?" Without a code, couldn't a guy consistently vote for his self-interest, make his constituents the beneficiary of questionable largesse, and never worry?

Sorry, but I will always believe that any thought about how I might benefit or suffer should not be part of the city-county councilor's deliberative process, and this code does nothing to stem those considerations. In fact, it explicitly authorizes them.

You see, the code also allows a councilor to vote on a matter if he or she stands to make $5,000 or less. It's unclear from the story whether this is an aggregate for the year, or per vote. Lord knows, I'm praying it's the former. Otherwise, we're going to lose our soul one chunk at a time.

You don't like the substance? Even the symbolic politics of this proposal was botched.

According to the Star, Bob Elrod, the council attorney, said the new code was not meant to suggest that a small benefit does not constitute a conflict of interest.

It suggests precisely that, Bob. Did anybody really think it wouldn't?

But here's my favorite part of the story:

Republican co-chairwoman Ginny Cain said the provision includes council members' spouses and dependent children. She said the intent, for instance, was to allow a council member's son to mow lawns in the neighborhood without having to investigate whether any neighbors have city contracts.
Whose son is getting FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS to cut grass? Uh...yeah, that would definitely be somebody trying to buy a city-county councilor through a family member because that "neighbor" certainly isn't paying the market rate!

Trying to inspire confidence, once again the city-county council just took away what we had left.


Monday, May 4, 2009

I'd Tap That....Surplus! Governor Danielsalaam Versus Carl Drummer

Governor Danielsalaam announced today that we are $255 million below anticipated tax revenue for April of 2009, and we will need to cut ONE BILLION from the budget.

This staggering, unanticipated shortfall is all the support one needs to show Representative Bill Crawford's genius in insisting on a one-year budget. Why Governor Danielsalaam insists on trying to project out two years in this economic environment is mind-boggling. However, that's not the thought-provoking comment.

It's the Guv's recognition that we MAY need to tap some of the state's $1.3 billion in reserves. Sure, if the choices are deep cuts in education or raising taxes instead, I would agree that using some surplus is the right call. But what do I know? I also think it's smart for elected officials to keep some cash handy for a crisis, and months ago, I found myself in a strong minority among my across-the-aisle peers on that point.

Shouldn't a $1.3 billion surplus send my GOP and Libertarian brethren into convulsions? Shouldn't we be hearing righteous clamor for the return of tax dollars taken without apparent need? If we overpay the IRS, at the end of the year, we get a refund. But name the GOP official standing up right now asking for the 1.3 billion refund for all of us.

(Crickets chirp. Tumbleweeds blow through).

You know why we hear very little? Because this is not a point of principle.

Carl Drummer keeps ten million in reserves for the Center Township Trustee's Office, and the blogging conservatorati pillories him. Governor Danielsalaam keeps $1.3 billion, and the GOP tells us he "keeps Indiana fiscally strong."

Can anyone across the aisle explain the difference between these two situations in a way that doesn't make me think you're just changing philosophy based on how much you like/dislike the guy holding the checkbook? Please reply. I'm looking forward to slicing and dicing!


Traveling to Bilerico for Outrage

I'm on the Bilerico Project today as a guest poster. I'm talking about identity politics and Dick Kirby's new movie, Outrage, which is a must see. Be sure to check out my post. Like Bilerico's man Michael Buckley says on "What the Buck," "rate it even if you hate it!"