Friday, May 02, 2008

A Lack Of Clarity

As demonstrated by my previous posts I am an Obama supporter, and my belief in his potential to transform many of the problems that we face, domestically and around the world, is undiminished. However, these are perilous times for Obama politically, even though he has, essentially, wrapped up the Democratic nomination.

The accepted wisdom is that controversies surrounding his pastor, Reverend Wright, associates like Bill Ayers, and his poorly chosen "bitter" comments in San Francisco have derailed his momentum. Of course, this is true. But, in actual fact, this damage has been considerably exacerbated by the vacuum that is the Obama campaign's national message and their inability to impact upon the press narrative, especially in the bigger states.

Marketing, famously referred to as the "work of Satan" by the late great, Bill Hicks, is not a practice of dishonesty. Marketing is the process of mass communication and creating a clear message that grabs hold and resonates with those you are targeting.

Obama's message, so positive and hopeful, has been sidetracked, not only by the recent controversies, but also by his inability to control the focus of our national discussion.

While his speech on race was, in my opinion riveting, important, historically accurate, and brave... if you stopped ten people on the street in any state and asked them what Obama's race speech was actually about, I don't think that two of them would give the same answer. As a result, even though his sweeping examination of race in America addressed so much, the difference it made to the electorate was minimal.

Simplicity, clarity, directness, and focus.

These are the key elements to successful marketing. Look at the powerhouse brands that populate our culture: Coke, Nike, etc. The simplicity of their marketing tells you exactly who they are. Their only objective is to grab your attention and pre-dispose your choices.

Whether you are selling soda or trying to get elected you MUST respect your target demographic.

We live busy lives, and our attention spans are shorter than ever before. Most of the choices we make as consumers are entirely subconscious. Why do you buy a bottle of Coke at the convenient store and not Pepsi? Why Vitamin Water and not Life Water, or vice versa? Why are you enticed to buy a new beauty product wandering around the isles at Sephora? Since when did Starbucks become a part of your daily ritual?

Every day the political narrative is bursting with polls, momentum, commentary, and bias and, as potential voters, every day our lives are bursting with family, friends, work and taking care of our homes. When our lives aren't bursting our senses are being bombarded with flashy graphics on Entertainment Tonight or Deal or No Deal. When we're not watching TV, Perez Hilton and TMZ.com are appealing to our most trivial inclinations.

Obama's pastor, Reverend Wright, says "God Damn America!" This is news that grabs our attention.

"A young girl is sleeping at 3AM in the morning, but somewhere in the world there is a crisis..." This is a message that grabs our attention.

"Obama is nothing more than elitist liberal." This is a very simple concept that instantaneously defines Obama in the context of controversial issues like gay marriage, guns, and religion.

By contrast, Obama's message, as important to our vital interests on the economy, foreign policy, and healthcare as any of the above, is not grabbing our attention because it lacks clarity. There is too much cerebral indulgence, too much complexity to his arguments, too much focus on talking to the crowd in front of him and not the soundbites that will be taken and edited for the evening news.

When I think back to Iowa I am struck by how the simple slogans linger in my memory: "Change vs. more of the same" and "Yes we can."

In spite of everything he touched upon in that wonderful speech on race, the resonance and depth to those simple words "Yes we can" were far more profound. They were also more politically prosperous.

Memo to David Axelrod: In the heated exchanges of a Presidential primary election, especially in the bigger states, less is always more. Obama needs to crystalize his message and repeat it over and over again until it is drilled into the national press narrative.