02 February 2011

Selling Government at the Super Bowl: Thomas Frank's brand confusion

I can sympathize with Thomas Frank's frustration. The author of What's the Matter with Kansas, now a monthly columnist for Harper's, took part in a forum for that magazine's February issue in which he, senior editor Donovan Hohn, and four leading ad creators brainstormed to come up with a theoretical ad, designed to be broadcast during the Super Bowl -- the Cannes Film Festival of commercials -- to counteract the anti-government attitude that appears to prevail in the country. Here's Frank's reasoning:

A big part of our political energies in this country is dedicated to hating government. Knee-jerk anti-statism is the unexamined assumption of our time. The Tea Party movement, rock music, the Chicago school of economics all join together in hating the federal government.

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If you ask somebody in the Tea Party movement, "What is freedom?," they'll tell you, "Freedom is the absence of the state."...So I'm wondering if there isn't some way that our Super Bowl spot could remind viewers of those other meanings of freedom [i.e. FDR and Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms"]. Government has a unique selling proposition: It delivers safety and security, really basic things that should be easy to sell. Liberty itself -- that's what government is all about.

Frank is in familiar territory. He first came to notice as a scholar with The Conquest of Cool, which explained how capitalism managed to make rebellion a marketable commodity by making it a fashion statement, by making every new fad a "rebellion" against some form of conformity, by equating consumption with self-expression. Now he hopes to do something similar, as far as certain people are concerned: use the power of advertising to equate government with freedom. He wants the ad men to stress what he sees as self-evident. "Maybe our goal is to convince people that they are already buying the federal government every day," he says, "I mean, you go on public transportation and you're buying it. You go to the post office, you buy it."

But what exactly does he want to sell to his theoretical viewers? The most interesting parts of the forum are the moments when the ad men raise questions that complicate Frank's agenda. One chose to research the project by finding a book on government to read. He was alarmed to find just one book on "government" in a pretty big store. Everything else in the "politics" section was about politics, i.e. partisanship. The one exception was The Complete Idiot's Guide to Government. Hoping to find more objective material, he asked a clerk if there was a "government" section, only to be told that "government is politics." Another ad man suggests that Frank "separate [government] from politics" by selling it as an "innovation company," like NASA writ large. Elsewhere, when they consider emphasizing the many services provided by government, they realize that people tend to identify service with the individual who provides the service, not the bureaucracy that employs him. "The problem is, you don't say 'The U.S. government brought me my mail today,'" one says, "You say, 'The mailman brought me my mail.'" Donovan Hohn notes that Americans polled by Gallup identify the word "government" not with "service," but with "bureaucracy," a word with few positive connotations. Another ad man adds that people tend to identify government with politicians, a term with even fewer positive connotations. One more compares politicians with car salesmen; Americans want the car and often like it, but they assume the dealer is trying to rip them off.

Frank sounds demoralized near the end of the forum. "Those two things -- America and the federal government -- became separate," he laments, "Whereas if you think of the founding fathers, or of Roosevelt's four freedoms, the government and the culture and the nation were inseparable. In a way what we're trying to do is reunite this entity, the federal government, with the culture and the nation it governs." Hohn comes back to the original challenge: "Here we're trying to associate the word government with freedom."

The commercials themselves -- represented by proposal posters and storyboards -- are pretty lame. The best of them compares government to a grade-school class in which the kids get to choose the flavor of ice cream the class will get. The point is that not everyone will get the flavor they want, but everyone gets ice cream! We never learn what Frank thinks of any of the proposals, but Frank himself doesn't seem to have a good sense of what he ought to be selling. He keeps harping on government as the provider of services, even as the provider of freedom, succumbing to the very consumerist logic he elsewhere decries. For the purpose of the exercise at least, he envisions government as a product that someone -- politicians, bureaucrats, etc. -- provides to the rest of the people. He's so desperate to get people to love the "government" that Republicans teach them to hate that loses track of the sort of government people should want. If I had a minute next Sunday to talk to Americans about government, I wouldn't waste it reminding people of the services they take for granted or boasting about them. I wouldn't talk about what government can do for you, because for me, government is what you, the American people, can do. I might not even bother talking about "government." I'd talk about democracy instead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"He's so desperate to get people to love the "government" that Republicans teach them to hate "

I think that really says a lot right there. The government is comprised of American citizens. The Republicans teach hate and mistrust the government. Ergo, Republicans hate and mistrust Americans. Logically, Republicans must hate America.

Our government is the best representation of us as a people. If our government is dysfunctional it is because we are dysfunctional. If our government is dishonest or prone to corruption, it is because we have become dishonest and prone to corruption as a people.

Our government is the people. If we are not an upright, honorable people, how can we expect our government to be?