The press polishes the McCain "brand"

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Campaign aides for Sen. John McCain want very much to sell the American public on the "McCain brand" and to pitch the Republican candidate as a sort of stand-alone, untarnished political entity, according to a recent Washington Post article.

Campaign aides for Sen. John McCain want very much to sell the American public on the "McCain brand" and to pitch the Republican candidate as a sort of stand-alone, untarnished political entity, according to a recent Washington Post article.

The marketing ploy, if successful, would not only create distance between the candidate and the rest of the Republican Party, which currently suffers from widespread voter disapproval, it would also effectively elevate McCain and make him a larger-than-life figure, the spokesman for his own maverick brand that's built on political independence.

"The campaign's general-election strategy is to sell the McCain brand to show voters that he is distinct from President Bush and other Republicans," the Post reported.

So guess what members of the press, including those at MSNBC, CNN, NBC, The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Politico, and The Boston Globe, have been doing incessantly in recent weeks. They've been making glowing references to the durability and appeal of the "McCain brand." I mean, how lucky can the Republicans get? The press is echoing precisely the message that the candidate's advisers want repeated again and again. What are the odds?

I assume the sarcasm is coming through loud and clear here.

We all know McCain is supposed to be a maverick. That phony meme has been drummed into voters' heads for nearly a decade now. Yet as Media Matters for America has shown, the media use the label "maverick" despite the many times McCain has fallen in line with the Bush administration or the Republican Party establishment, a lifetime rating of 83 by the American Conservative Union, and his recent rightward shift on high-profile issues such as immigration and taxes. (For the longer, in-depth dissections of that McCain's media free ride, go here.)

Now, in a sort of Phase Two, McCain's all-around maverick-ness is being elevated into an iconic brand status, right alongside Ford and Nike.

The media, which admire the corporatization of campaigns, are hugely impressed by the development. Successful branding represents a kind of marketing nirvana in which you're able, via a collection of images and idea, to differentiate yourself -- or your product -- from others that appear to be identical. (High-profile political journalists understand the career significance of branding and work feverishly during the campaign season to create their own media brand.)

Indeed, the term "brand" conjures up an impenetrable, irrevocable image, an entrenched vision that cannot be altered. In the business world, it often takes a catastrophic event to change people's perception of a well-established and respected brand. As the Post article noted, "The selling of McCain is rooted in one of the oldest theories of product marketing: that a successful brand identity, once established in the American psyche, is virtually impossible to blunt or damage."

So in a way, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the press. By discussing McCain in terms of a formal brand, they're suggesting that McCain's reputation as a maverick has become so embedded, so ingrained, that it has transcended into a formal trademark. And since it's a brand, who are journalists to question it or to alter it?

Of course, when reporters and pundits fawn over the mighty McCain brand, almost none of them acknowledges the central role they played in building it. In fact, the press is almost entirely responsible for the marketing of McCain. So when admiring the McCain brand, journalists are really just admiring their own handiwork.

Branding, and brand management, is certainly nothing new in politics, nor is there anything inherently wrong with it. Campaigns today are often less about the candidates running as themselves and more about them running as an extension of who voters perceive them to be. As Fast Company magazine recently noted, "Politics, after all, is about marketing -- about projecting and selling an image, stoking aspirations, moving people to identify, evangelize, and consume."

In fact, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has won widespread acclaim for the innovative steps it has taken, from social networking and graphic design, to successfully launch the Obama brand. "Barack Obama is three things you want in a brand," Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of the advertising giant DDB Worldwide, told Fast Company. "New, different, and attractive. That's as good as it gets."

But Obama's campaign, like most truly national marketing endeavors, has spent an enormous amount of money on mass communications to help build his unique and durable brand.

With the often cash-strapped McCain however, all that heavy lifting has been done by the press, pro bono. Or can you name a single McCain television ad that solidifies his brand, or the ground-breaking communications approach that has become synonymous with his campaign? I suspect you cannot, because in terms of forward-thinking, creative marketing, McCain's campaign remains utterly forgettable. But what he does have is an entire political press corps doing his marketing and branding for him by incessantly tagging him as a maverick.

What's also unique with McCain is that the press itself constantly and openly refers to the McCain brand as its own entity. It wraps the candidate in his own brand and openly refers to his candidacy in that kind of reverential language. By contrast, how many articles and headlines in the political press do you see touting "the Obama brand"?

Here's a recent sampling of the media's obsession with pushing the McCain brand:

  • "Senator John McCain commands one of the strongest brands in American politics: maverick Republican, reformer, willing to challenge the party hierarchy." [The Boston Globe]
  • "McCain has cultivated an image that has branded him as an independent maverick now for more than a decade." [Jonathan Weisman, The Washington Post]
  • "[McCain's] got a pretty strong brand identity as being a maverick and being anti-politics and anti-Washington." [NBC's David Gregory]
  • "John McCain's brand ... has been pretty well-established since 2000. He's likable. He's a maverick." [John Harwood, CNBC and The New York Times]
  • "The maverick brand is intact for John McCain." [John Harwood]
  • "[T]he perception right now of McCain is someone who's experienced, someone who they see not of the Republican brand or the Bush brand, but of the maverick brand." [NBC's Tim Russert]
  • "McCain's poverty tour builds his brand but raises questions" [McClatchy Newspapers headline]
  • "By virtue of his maverick brand, nontraditional stances on key issues and his Western roots, McCain may be able to compete in states that were far out of reach for Bush and that have otherwise been trending away from Republicans." [the Politico]
  • "Polishing the McCain Brand" [headline of a Kenneth Blackwell column in The New York Sun]
  • "[McCain's] out there working on his brand: I'm a different kind of Republican. I'll fight Bush here. I'll reach out with Democrats there. I'm a guy you can trust. I'm a patriot." [CNN's John King]

And again, what's completely missing from the brand discussion is any acknowledgement of the media's central role in its creation. There literally would be no McCain brand if the press hadn't methodically built it and then enthusiastically promoted it.

Worse, the press rarely details instances in which McCain obviously flip-flops -- political maneuvers that any neutral observer would say damage a maverick brand of integrity.

A recent and glaring example was highlighted on May 1, the fifth anniversary of President Bush's Iraq war speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln with the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner hanging behind him. Asked about that five-year remembrance on the campaign trail, McCain said using a banner that asserted "Mission Accomplished" "was wrong at the time."

But back on June 11, 2003, during an appearance on Fox News, when the topic of the "Mission Accomplished" event came up, McCain did not criticize the banner or the speech. Instead, he suggested the event proved that "the major conflict is over" and that, "the regime change has been accomplished."

McCain also said on the "Mission Accomplished" anniversary that while he didn't blame Bush for the "specific banner," "I do say that statements are made, 'a few dead-enders,' 'last throes,' those are, as opposed to the banner, direct statements which were contradicted by the facts on the ground."

But this, too, is revisionism on McCain's part. While he did criticize the administration's overly optimistic descriptions of progress in Iraq at a 2006 campaign event for then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), three days later, under criticism from the right, McCain backed down, putting out a press release "commend[ing]" President Bush "for his public statements offering Americans an honest assessment of the progress we have made in Iraq."

McCain has also performed unsightly flip-flops on immigration and taxes. Yet even in the wake of those political contortions, which the press routinely ignores, reporters and pundits actively embraced the "brand" talk -- the same rhetoric that the McCain campaign is actively touting.

Still, reporters defend the incessant maverick hyperbole. Chatting with readers online recently, The Washington Post's Weisman insisted the maverick label stuck because McCain often "clashed" with Bush. Providing an example, Weisman noted that McCain "fought the GOP over tobacco in 1998." It's true that in 1998, McCain backed legislation to regulate the tobacco industry that most of his GOP colleagues did not support. And McCain stressed he would "never" give up his efforts to regulate the industry. However, as the blog Think Progress pointed out:

Weisman's defense of McCain's self-ascribed "maverick" label falls short of the facts. The reality is that McCain's "never" pledge didn't last very long. Not only has he since voted against a bill that would have raised tobacco taxes by 61 cents in order to pay for an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, but McCain is now backing away from a tobacco regulation bill that he co-sponsored.

Forget all those facts, though. Because according to Weisman, when it comes to McCain the maverick, "It's going to be hard to break the brand."

And even harder with the press so busy promoting and polishing it.

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