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Branding America

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Message Donald Archer
Here, on the Central Coast of California, blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, I seem insulated from Madison Avenue, but not really. All of us are subjected to the phenomenon of "branding"

In the 21st century, branding has come to be a norm as well as a science. Like the ranching kind from which the term is derived, "branding" is a process of association. Whether creating a good image, or a bad one, corporate and political "brands" have taken on monumental scale.

A word, a logo, a phrase---all are used as communication shorthand. Develop an image---"brand" it---and voila, let subliminal association do the rest.

A benign corporate example, that fiction "Betty Crocker," cleverly associates the mass-produced goods of a giant, "masculine" corporation with homey, personal, and "feminine" ones---through psychological suggestion.

Needless to say, a brand is a powerful, and valuable asset. Once established, it can be used to market and sell almost anything: a brand of footwear has taken advantage Caterpillar's reputation for being tough and durable---shoes can be associated with tractors. There is nothing wrong or criminal with the process, but we can be easily manipulated by it---if we are not aware.

Branding works like "Pavlov's dog"---our rational brain is sidestepped, and we are conditioned to respond mechanically: that's good news for dictators, despots, and ideologues; bad news for free human beings and the democratic process.

Most commercial branding is positive: it makes us "feel good" in one way or another. Much political branding is negative.

The negative kind of branding can make us feel angry or fearful, and we're often unaware that it's happening. It turns a political opponent into a rogue. Whether it's the ranting and raving of talk-radio, or subtler ad campaigns---like the health insurance's "George and Louise" commercials in the early 90s, it works.

The power of negative branding came to maturity when the Far Right successfully demonized the word "liberal." Through repetition and marketing, a "liberal" came to be seen as an irresponsible, unpatriotic, big spending couch-potato---a demon who is out to get your hard-earned cash, do nothing productive in return, and corrupt all that is good---in a word, "un-American." Such is the association, not the reality.

The political "branding" of the 1980s and 90s reached epic proportions.

One of the most brand-driven politicians was Ronald Reagan, "the great communicator." Actor Reagan came into American living rooms in the 1950s, via television---a wholesome-looking, fatherly spokesman for cleaning products and electric appliances. As President Reagan, the line between corporate America and political America, between spokesman and statesman, began to blur in a big way. He, himself, was a marketable "brand." "Star Wars" and "The Evil Empire" are two memorable Reagan branding efforts.

In the 1990s, emboldened by Reagan's example, Newt Gingrinch and company introduced their "Contract with America." This marketing triumph made Madison Avenue look like the Little League. What it meant, one couldn't be sure---but you definitely felt something.

"Contract"---associated with sound business deals as well as "social contract," read "democracy"---and "America"---associated with patriotism and apple pie as well as inclusiveness---were combined to generate a feel-good, "we're in it together" sales pitch. Red, white, and blue, and the stars and stripes carpeted the nation. The flag became a logo, "branding" America with conservatism.

Ex-senators have come to endorse Viagra, and corporate America has come to endorse WTO "free-trade." The line gets thinner and thinner. Finally, enter political candidate Arnold Schwartzenegger, as big a Hummer and branded like a Goodyear blimp. No debate, no experience, no public scrutiny---just brand "ARNOLD SCHWARTZENEGGER."

Think of George W. Bush climbing out of a fighter plane costumed in a flight suit with helmet in hand, against a backdrop of lines of sailors, waving flags, the open sea, and a picture-perfect sunset. That was not a spontaneous event; it was a tightly managed production---a staged fiction: an image burned into the American psyche.

Every such event plants associations---in this case, the fiction of a combat-experienced military leader. Each of us is being conditioned by countless sound-bites and photo-ops: the political equivalent of advertising and brand association. What we see and experience is not reality.

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Donald Archer is a painter, observer, and commentator living on California's Central Coast. His work may be seen at www.DonaldArcher.com.
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