People with nothing important to think about may wonder what qualifies me to write for Free Inquiry. I am, after all, no expert on humanism. I’m no expert in theology, either. (But then, neither are theologians, unless expertise in the dealings of a nonexistent being is a thing.) And I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that I landed this column because I have photos of Free Inquiry Editor and ardent Christmas nemesis Tom Flynn in flagrante delicto with Santa Claus.
Yet I actually do have an area of expertise. Alleged, anyway. I know a thing or two about marketing and brands. I have avoided bringing this up in prior columns because, one, people tend to view marketers as only marginally more trustworthy than rattlesnakes, and, two, marketing expertise no more qualifies me to write for a secular humanist magazine than knowing how to knit qualifies Martha Stewart to perform gastrointestinal surgery.
For today’s topic, however, my background may have some relevance. It ties in to the fact that—perhaps you have heard—the United States has a presidential election coming up. On November 3, millions of Americans will flock to the polls and vote for their candidate of choice.
Or, more accurately, they will vote for their brand of choice.
I must now tread carefully. According to a pesky piece of legislation called the Johnson Amendment, if I so much as appear to endorse or oppose a candidate, I could endanger the tax-exempt, nonprofit status of Free Inquiry and its copublisher, the Center for Inquiry. (Too bad the Center for Inquiry isn’t a church. Then it could recklessly endorse a candidate, as, say—and here I’ll just make up an example out of thin air—“chosen by God,” and the IRS would look the other way.)
I have no desire to run afoul of the Johnson Amendment, so I shall be clear: The issues, political parties, and persons depicted herein are fictitious. Any similarity to actual issues, political parties, or persons living or dead, is purely coincidental. Should I happen to use the phrase “dangerously incompetent, petulant, uninformed, xenophobic, despotic, anti-human-rights, Dunning-Kruger-Effect–personifying buffoon of a candidate whom only morally bankrupt or utterly misinformed voters would support,” please know that I’m speaking hypothetically and that no such person really exists.
To steer clear of suggesting whom voters should or should not support, I shall instead focus on how a good number of Americans will go about making that choice. They will go about it pretty much the same way they go about choosing any other brand.
And I do mean brand. What a brand does is promise an experience: Red Bull gives you wings; M&M’S won’t melt in your hand; the New York Times prints all the news that’s fit to print; and your candidate is going to fix the country. Keeping a brand promise is another matter. I have yet to defy gravity after downing a Red Bull; I once suffered severe psychological damage after a rogue M&M melted in my hand; I distinctly remember a fit-to-print story that failed to make the Times; and I recall at least one or two presidents who didn’t make everything better.
Don’t get me wrong; I am all for voting for the brand. Contrived photos, sound bites, slogans, hats, buttons, placards, memes, and carefully projected personalities make choosing a candidate easy. Otherwise, voters might have to study platforms, issues, policies, and positions—and having an informed public is no way to run a democracy.
Besides, it’s not as if the stakes are all that high. If an elected official doesn’t deliver on a brand promise, the worst that can happen is inequity, economic ruin, and war. That’s nothing compared with the buck or two you’ll be out if a Snickers bar doesn’t, in fact, satisfy.
The branded candidate might just be our nation’s greatest communication achievement. Think back over past elections. It’s something of a wonder that all the information voters needed for making intelligent choices could be wrapped up in lines such as “I’m with her,” “Make America great again,” “Forward,” “Believe in America,” “Change we can believe in,” “Country first,” “A stronger America,” or “A safer world and a more hopeful America.”
I can’t wait to see what they come up with this year. Note to candidates: As of this writing, “A dangerously incompetent, petulant, uninformed, xenophobic, despotic, anti-human-rights, Dunning-Kruger-Effect–personifying buffoon of a candidate whom only morally bankrupt or utterly misinformed voters would support” is still available. Recent experience suggests that it might resonate with a large swath of voters. Imagine the size of the bumper sticker.