Unless you were too busy watching that Law and Order: SVU marathon on USA two weekends ago, you know that Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan, a representative from Wisconsin, as his VP pick. I watched as Ryan descended the steps of the USS Wisconsin and then gave his first speech as the Republican vice presidential candidate. Obviously, there was a great deal of pressure on Ryan, but I realized that there was also a lot of pressure on Ryan’s speechwriter. I knew that mere seconds after Ryan finished his speech, numerous political pundits would be weighing in on Ryan’s speech via various news networks: analyzing, overanalyzing, and over-overanalyzing every word, sentence, and inflection.
Ryan’s speech was not only his chance to prove himself as a skilled orator and a qualified candidate, but also to establish his public identity. I realized that Ryan’s speech and all political speeches are efforts in marketing and branding. In fact, Ryan, Romney, and Obama all emulate commercial branding strategies in their political rhetoric. I wanted to analyze Ryan’s speech and discern how he attempts to present (read: brand) himself to the American public. Then, I wanted to see what parallels we can draw between political branding in general and commercial branding.
I once read the Gorgias in a freshman-year philosophy class in college. Analyzing Socrates’ oratory was definitely not fun, but I think immersing myself in the world of politics, persuasion, and Paul Ryan will be, if for no reason other than the fact that I get to look at this picture of an extremely-attractive Paul Ryan while I read the full text of Ryan’s V.P. announcement speech:
Image Courtesy Washington Post
Swoon. Did you know that Ryan used to moonlight as a waiter—and a fitness trainer?! Enough digressions though. Margaret Thatcher said, “In politics, if you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” Unfortunately there aren’t any women running in this race, but let’s look at what the men said.
Who Is Paul Ryan?
Ryan has been a representative since 1998, so he has a well-established political career, but his speech in Norfolk, Virginia, was the first time the eyes of every political pundit, election junkie, and political science major were focused on him. It was also his first real moment in the national limelight: according to Gallup, 39% of people had never heard of Paul Ryan before Romney picked him as his VP candidate.
From a branding perspective, the fact that Ryan has a kind of anonymity to him can be a very good thing, because he isn’t tainted with or weighed down by pre-existing impressions. He’s starting with a tabula rasa. Though, to become a household name in such a publicized fashion is the epitome of baptism by fire.
Ryan’s speech is his first chance to define his identity before talking heads start scrutinizing and probing his record, his past, his wife’s family, his financial situation, etc. Before political analysts and cable-news networks start casting Ryan in a certain light and telling people what to think of him (implicitly, of course), Ryan has to establish a clear, positive identity.
In a study examining the rebranding efforts of Tony Blair, Margaret Scammell, a professor at the London School of Economics, states that a brand does not necessarily consist of what a product is, but what consumers perceive the product to be. This means that Obama, Romney, and especially Ryan (given the fact that a sizeable number of people don’t know who he is) have the power to sway people’s perception of them. All candidates running in the 2012 presidential election want people to see them in a certain light, and Paul Ryan makes this abundantely clear in his VP speech.
Paul Ryan: Fervent Romney Worshipper
How does he present himself? He makes it clear up front that he is a family man (I would argue that virtually every politician does this.), but he also connects himself very closely to Romney. His identity is wrapped up in Romney’s identity, and his speech focuses heavily on Romney. He engages in a small-scale panegyric, praising Romney’s leadership as governor of Massachusetts (he even commends Romney’s role at Bain Capital—a position Romney has taken a lot heat for). Ryan’s mini encomium includes hailing Mitt as “a man of achievement, excellence, and integrity.”
The main reason for this is obvious: Ryan is Romney’s running mate. But I think there is another reason. Everyone knows Mitt Romney (If someone doesn’t, then he or she is a great candidate for Jaywalking on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.) He’s been in the spotlight for a long time now. Some people trust Romney, so if Ryan is connected to Romney, people can trust Ryan as well. We talk about guilt by association, but this logic is trust by association. Hopefully, those who have confidence in Romney’s ability to lead America will transfer trust from Romney to Ryan. Ryan hasn’t been in the national limelight, so he can’t spend much time talking about himself, because he doesn’t have any creditability. So he exalts Romney, who has rapport with Americans. Again, trust Romney, trust Ryan. Ryan wants to show people that they can trust Romney, as a political leader and as a financial leader.
This kind of branding strategy that Ryan employs in his political rhetoric is used frequently by commercial brands. Consider Proactiv: the acne-treatment product bills celebrities to represent it. Katy Perry, Julianne Hough, Jessica Simpson, and even the Biebs endorse Proactiv. The logic: people trust these attractive celebs, these celebs trust Proactiv to make them pretty, ergo people should trust Proactiv! This is a chain in which trust progresses from one person or thing to another, and it’s exactly the type of chain Ryan is trying to set into motion through his speech.
Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood…
Ryan presents himself as a frequent worshipper at the altar of Romney, and he also presents himself as part of the solution to America’s problems. He says he is aware of and in touch with the issues everyday people face: “diminished dreams,” “lowered expectations,” and “uncertain futures” brought about by unemployment, debt, and declining incomes. He promises much-needed relief through statements like these:
America is on the wrong track, but Mitt Romney and I will take the right steps, in the right time, to get us back on the right track!
We won’t duck the tough issues…we will lead!
We won’t blame others…we will take responsibility!
We can turn this thing around. Real solutions can be delivered.
Ryan brands the 2012 Republican presidential ticket as the salvation Americans need. He also contrasts Romney-Ryan leadership with Obama-Biden leadership for effectiveness: Obama is about blame shifting and dodging the issues, while Romney represents leadership and responsibility. Listening to Ryan’s speech, it would seem that the choice this November is obvious: it’s a choice between continuing to pursue the same wrong path, or forging a new path (anyone else think all sounds very Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken?). Romney and Ryan: salvaging America since 2012.
Ryan’s strategy of presenting himself as part of the solution to the problems individuals face is another popular commercial branding strategy. Food products have been claiming for decades to solve the age-old problem of so much to do, so little time (Uncle Ben’s microwaveable rice as of late. Hamburger Helper in the 1970s; retro!) Other commercial products brand themselves as problem-solvers as well: beauty products, cars, clothes, etc. People face various types of challenges, from the trivial to the major, so this branding strategy works across various domains, not to mention that this strategy is easy for Ryan to employ, because everyone wants a political and financial rescuer.
Political Branding En Général
After reading and analyzing Paul Ryan’s speech, I thought about political branding in general. I think that there is some degree of consistency in branding across candidates of different parties. I think that all politicians, whether Democratic, Republican, or Independent (oh hey, Bernie Sanders!), try to instill in us the idea that they are family-oriented and in touch with everyday Americans. (Ryan introduced his wife and children right from the get-go.)
Also, the same branding strategies appear in every election: the incumbent brands himself or herself as the person fighting for the American public who needs to stay in office in order to fulfill the promises he or she made during election season. Here’s a snippet of an email I received from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign manager that I think perfectly captures the branding tactics of every incumbent regardless of party affiliation:
The incumbent brands himself or herself as the person who will save the country from all of the detrimental laws enacted by the incumbent. Case in point: Mitt Romney, of course!
It’s interesting that in the 2008 election, Obama branded himself as the fresh-faced, Washington newcomer who would save the U.S. from all the damage done during those eight years of George W., but now he is running as the experienced President who needs another term in office in order to keep America on the right track.
“You’re Setting Me Up to Fail Already…”
Chuck Brymer, president and CEO of advertising agency DDB, states that branding needs to focus on gaining people’s trust. Brands make promises that raise consumers’ expectations, and then “must do everything within their power to deliver on the promise.” When politicians employ branding strategies, they attempt to secure people’s trust by promising that they will solve not only the problems of everyday Americans, but the problems of the nation. Whether it’s rising debt, unemployment, taxes, gun control, or birth control, every politician promises to address the dilemmas people face. This strategy of acquiring trust through promise-making can work for a lot of brands, but I think it’s a poor strategy for politicians, simply because it is so hard for them to deliver on promises. And, when they don’t fulfill their promises, they’ll be condemned by people whose vocalism is more powerful than their ability to think logically.
So, by making promises, politicians might be setting themselves up to fail in the eyes of the American public (Kind of like that flight attendant did to Kristen Wiig in the airplane scene in Bridesmaids.)
Rob Delaney’s Encore Performance
I recently read a blog post on Radian6 that stated that the announcement of Paul Ryan as Romney’s VP pick created a surge in Romney social media mentions. Romney mentions surpassed Obama mentions for the first time in three months.
Hopefully, all of this attention is positive attention. If comedian Rob Delaney serves as a microcosm of Paul Ryan social media sentiment, then I think it is.
I’ve written before that Rob Delaney is Mitt Romney’s #1 fan, and I refer you to him again.
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