Advertising and marketing gurus have so successfully established the importance of “brand” that we in the political sphere often lose sight of the real core of political argument: character.
The distinction is not trivial. Brand is about a list of facts or attributes. It’s character people use in sizing up strangers, checking in on friends, weighing the merits of a politician.
Coca-Cola is not about content. In fact, it’s nearly content-less. It is a successful brand. Character is all about content. That’s why it’s important in politics. We predict future actions of others based on our beliefs about their character. We can make those predictions because characters appear in stories, and stories follow certain arcs.
We organize our social selves through narratives. We tell stories. We listen to stories. We organize our memories in stories. Even our dreams are stories, though sometimes crazy ones. They are often crazy because our brains try mightily to organize the random neuronal firings during sleep into coherent narratives.
Narratives have characters. They don’t have brands. They have protagonists or heroes. They have victims. They have villains. They have helpers and other secondary characters.
In 2004, Sen. John Kerry tried to establish his role or character. At the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Kerry presented himself as a valiant war hero. That’s such a stock character that Americans would have no trouble understanding it.
The problem was, Kerry didn’t act like a hero. He did not quickly and forcibly stand up to his attackers (Swift Boaters who, with strategic brilliance, diminished Kerry the Hero) as a hero would. He didn’t behave like the character he wanted to establish. A good novelist or film-maker wouldn’t make this mistake. Kerry’s movie flopped.
George W. Bush and his handlers understood the role of character, as infuriating as their success is. One could look at the time of Bush’s national public life, from the start of his campaign in 1999 to the end of his term in 2008, as a decade-long movie. Bush’s character was well defined. Americans thought they could predict what the character would do. Many of us knew the character was a hollow fabrication, but our early predictions of Bush disasters went unheard because of the power of his narrative fictions.
Historically, many progressives have believed that Universal Reason would lead their audiences to reach the right and just solutions if they were just given the facts. But people don’t think like that. We think in stories, stories influenced by emotion, by habit, by expectations.
After 2004 there was a lot of talk about values. The term “framing” is all about values, though many mistake it as another word for “spin.” The term originated in the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, and by it he referred to the narrative frames that dominated social interaction. For instance, a hospital comes with predictable roles. Janitors clean, surgeons operate on us, nurses nurse. The hospital is a frame with predictable roles.
In political and cultural communication, our frames and narratives have to match up. We can’t have the Big Bad Wolf reminisce about his compassionate grandmother while he swallows Red’s grandmother. It’s a matter of character, you might say.
We may find it becomes surprisingly easy to express our values if we begin by thinking of who we are. What is our character? Just like we do in our private relations, we might discover that we naturally communicate our values through characterizations in narratives voters can understand.
Barack Obama understands stories. His grasp of cultural narrative and character is one of the things that most alarms his opponents. His character is well-defined, and most of the Republican attacks upon him are intended to 1) Undo or replace the characterization; or, 2) Point out how his actions don’t match the character Americans believe him to be.
Forget brand. We are writing the novel of America’s future. We must write the characters of that future.