“Brand Obama,” “Brand Usa,” And “The Audacity Of Marketing”: Some Candid Reflections at Advertising Age

The election and nomination process is the brand re-launch of the year. Brand USA.  It’s just fantastic.

– David Brain. CEO of the global public relations firm Edelman Europe, Middle East and Africa


The last eight years broke faith in Brand America, and people want that faith restored.


– Carolyn Carter, London-based president and CEO of the global public relations firm Grey Group Europe, Middle East, and Africa


To my campaign manager David Plouffe, my chief strategist David Axelrod, and the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics – you made this happen, and I am forever grateful.

– Barack Obama, Victory Speech, November 4, 2008



Twenty-three years ago the clever anti-television writer Neil Postman dissected the authoritarian nightmare that is modern political advertising in the United States. The television commercial, Postman noted, is the antithesis of rational popular consideration, which leading early philosophers of western economic and political life took to be the desirable and enlightened essences of “capitalism” and “democracy.”


“Its principle theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners,” Postman observed, “believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well-informed, and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest…The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out.  It is the assumption of rationality among buyers that spurs competitors to become winners, and winners to keep on winning.  Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions,” Postman elaborated, “laws are passed to invalidate transactions, as, for example, those which prohibit children from making contracts.  In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.” 


“The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide,” Postman argued, “that it is difficult to remember that there was once a connection between them.  Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people.”


The modern television commercial, Postman noted, makes “hash” out of the capitalist assumption of intelligent and informed consumer sovereignty. It undercuts the notion of rational claims, based on serious propositions and evidence. In the place of cogent language and logical discourse it substitutes evocative imagery and suggestive emotionalism.


When political success came to revolve largely around the same manipulative anti-enlightened methods prevalent in commodity advertising, Postman observed, the same sorry fate fell to “capitalist democracy’s” assumption of rational and informed voters.   Like the bamboozled commodity purchasers propagandized by radio and television ads, voters are subjects of persuasion through deception instead of through respectful and sensible communication. Candidate marketing makes hash out of the myth of voter sovereignty in “democratic” politics [1].





This is why you won’t hear Barack Obama’s progressive and educated supporters saying much about the interesting fact that Obama was recently selected by Association of National Advertisers (ANA) as the “Marketer of the Year.” According to ANA trade journal Advertising Age two weeks before the presidential election, “Sen. Barack Obama has shown he’s already won over the nation’s brand builders.”


Angus Macaulay, the vice president of Rodale Marketing Solutions, told Advertising Age that Obama’s campaign was “something we can all learn from as marketers.”   AOL “Platform A” President Linda Clalirizio praised Obama for doing “a great job of going from a relative unknown to a household name to being a candidate for president.” [2]


Six days after the election, Advertising Age heralded “Brand Obama” as a “case study in audacious marketing.” The journal praised Obama’s “messaging consistency” and “communications success,” placing special emphasis on the Obama campaign’s “boldness, that trait that happens to be the most important for anyone trying to build a brand now, in a chaotic time when many will be tempted to shelve innovation and creativity to take u defensive postures.”


“And at same time Mr. Obama was building his brand with grand gestures,” the journal added, “his campaign demonstrated an understanding of ground-level marketing strategies and tactics, everything from audience segmentation and database management to the creation and maintenance of online communities.”[3]




“The result,” Advertising Age exults, “was a brand that was big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate-enough feel to inspire advocacy that raised funds at record-breaking, almost obscene levels…”


Quite right.  Early in his campaign, Obama pretended to complain that he had become “a blank sheet on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  Reflecting on his apparent ability to win approval from people of wildly divergent perspectives, Obama claimed to worry that “everybody’s projecting – particularly the way I came in – everybody’s projecting their own views onto [me].”[4] The danger, he sensed, was that that some of his fans were going to become disappointed when they found out that he did not in fact represent an indefinite spectrum of viewpoints and interests and actually held positions many of them rejected.  A related risk was that people would jump off “Senator Good Vibes’” ship of “Hope” once they realized that his real-world version of “change” and “unity” would mean some difficult decisions, choices, and sacrifices in accord with his underlying commitment to existing domestic and global disparities and institutions.


The irony behind Obama’s reflection was that Obama and his media-savvy handlers deliberately and naturally pursued universal appeal in pursuit of victory under America’s winner-take all electoral system, where  corporate- and media-crafted candidate image tends to trump substantive policy positions and ideological identifications.  As Rolling Stone political writer Matt Tabbai noted in a February 2007 article bearing the provocative title “Obama is the Best BS Artist Since Bill Clinton:”


“The Illinois Senator is the ultimate modern media creature…his entire political persona is an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can’t run against him on the issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological spectrum. Obama’s ‘Man for all seasons’ act is so perfect in its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself somewhere in the candidate’s background, whether in his genes or his upbringing…his strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view, and conversely emphasizes that when he does take hard positions on issues, he often does so reluctantly… His political ideal is basically a rehash of the Blair-Clinton ‘third way’ deal, an amalgam of Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and the New Deal; he is aiming for the middle of the middle of the middle.” [5]


Acting in accord with the longstanding dance of America’s Winner Take All politics, the media-savvy Obama Team cultivated his “blank sheet” appeal by tailoring Obama’s message in flexible, chameleon-like accord with his own shifting audiences. Claiming to stand above “ideology” and partisan conflict, Obama bashed Wal-Mart and upheld the right to organize unions when talking to labor audiences but extolled free trade,” “free markets,” and entrepreneurial values when addressing “the business community.”  He invoked the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement when talking to black audiences but downplayed racial justice when speaking to white farmers and workers. He embraced capitalism’s supposed virtues when talking to the rich and powerful but seemed stress its “drawbacks” when addressing the working class and poor. He told liberal and progressive primary voters that they could “joint the movement to end the war [on Iraq]” and shift U.S. policy towards peace and negotiation but made sure to tell The Council on Foreign Relations of his belief in the essential nobility of U.S. war aims and empire and of his desire to advance American global supremacy through gigantic military expenditures and a ready willingness to use force, unilaterally when ”necessary,” to “protect the American people and their vital interests.” [6]


He suggested to progressive Iowa and New Hampshire voters that he was a populist outsider out to change the nation’s corrupt, corporate-dominated culture but his campaign was staffed by and linked to Washington and corporate insiders.  His current transition team is loaded with Washington political and policy veterans and his cabinet and administration more broadly will be packed with big players from the Bill Clinton regime. [7]


Hillary Clinton was a “polarizing insider” in Obama’s campaign rhetoric. The President-Elect is courting her to be the next Secretary of State.


The campaign and candidate’s conscious pursuit of “universalist” ideological hermaphroditism was strongly displayed in Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope.  Released in the fall of 2006, this bestselling marked the unofficial beginning of his presidential candidacy. In Steve Sailer’s words, it “show[ed] his wordsmith’s facility at eloquently restating the views of both his liberal supporters and his conservative opponents, leaving implicit the suggestion that all we require to resolve these wearying Washington disputes is to find a man who understands us – a reasonable man, a man very much like, say, Obama – and turn power over to him.” [8]


At the same time, the Obama campaign clearly spent a considerable amount of time, money, and energy cultivating their candidate’s pure celebrity.  It relished and profited from his emergence as a “BaRockstar” – a mass-cultural as well as mass-political persona crafted around the vague and amorphous symbols of “Hope,” “Change,” and “Unity” to absorb the diverse and often confused aspirations and dreams of a mass constituency containing numerous and often contradictory values and positions.





It worked, to say the least.  As mainstream journalist Ryan Lizza recently noted in an interesting New Yorker reflection on “How Obama Won,” Obama’s media and campaign managers took the “tactical view” that “all that was wrong with the United States could be summarized in one word: Bush.” Further:


“The clear alternative, then, was not so much a Democrat or a liberal as it was anyone who could credibly define himself as ‘not Bush.’ [Obama’s legendary media strategist David] Axelrod had a phrase he often used to describe this approach: America was looking for ‘the remedy, not the replica.’ The appeal of this strategy was that, with only minor alterations, it could work in the primaries as well as in the general election, and that, in turn, allowed Obama to finesse the perpetual problem of Presidential politics: having one message to win over the a party’s most ardent supporters and another when trying to capture independents and ‘up-for-grabs’ voters – the voters who decide a general election.” [9]


The key to success is deception and mushiness through mass marketing. Obama’s media strategist David Axelrod and Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe performed masterfully well in blazing this path to victory.


The most genuinely accurate thing Obama said in his highly nationalist and propagandistic November 4th acceptance speech was that he owed his victory to Axelrod, Plouffe, and the rest of his top campaign staff. “You made this happen,” Obama rightly told them, “and I am forever grateful.” [9A]


Obama’s handlers sold him as a “new” brand.  They brilliantly advertised him as the “not Bush” just like Pepsi once expanded as the “not Coke” or like Burger King was once the up-and-coming “not McDonald’s.” They did it with the latest and best selling techniques.


“The 2008 Obama presidential run,” noted Bruce Dixon in February of 2008,“may be the most slickly orchestrated marketing machine in history.” [10] According to the campaign’s financial report to the Federal Election Commission. Obama had by then spent $52 million on “media, strategy consultants, image-building, marketing research and telemarketing.”  As Pam Martens noted in early March of 2008:


“The money has gone to firms like GMMB, whose website says its "goal is to change minds and change hearts, win in the court of public opinion and win votes" using ‘the power of branding – with principles rooted in commercial marketing,’ and Elevation Ltd., which targets the Hispanic population and has ‘a combined experience well over 50 years in developing and implementing advertising and marketing solutions for Fortune 500 companies, political candidates, government agencies.’ Their client list includes the Department of Homeland Security. There’s also the Birmingham, Alabama- based Parker Group which promises: ‘Valid research results are assured given our extensive experience with testing, scripting, skip logic, question rotation and quota control … In-house list management and maintenance services encompass sophisticated geo-coding, mapping and scrubbing applications.’ Is it any wonder America’s brains are scrambled?” [11]


Besides contracting with sophisticated big client corporate marketing firms like  GMMB and the Parker Group, the Obama operation grew its own considerable internal, sophisticated, and vertically integrated mass market research and sales capacities for identifying and seducing political consumers (voters) susceptible to “brand Obama.”  When ABC News anchorman Charles Gibson visited Obama’s sprawling Chicago office seven days before the Ohio and Texas primaries, he observed the quiet hum of a corporate sales office. “The tone of the campaign headquarters,” Gibson noted, was “strikingly serene.” He observed “33,000 square feet of downtown Chicago office space and no one is sure exactly how many staff….The 20-somethings in the New Media department,” Gibson said, “are responsible for everything from designing merchandise sold on the Web site to blogging to unloading videos and managing chat rooms.” By Gibson’s account, “the money flows through the computers, a steady infusion of cash in $10, $25, and $50 dollars. Obama’s media maven Axlerod told Gibson, “It’s strange that a computer terminal can make politics more intimate, but that’s what happened.” [12]


In Dixon’s judgment, however, the Obama campaign’s massive investment in selling their candidate was “not a good thing.  Marketing,” Dixon noted, “is not even distantly related to democracy or civil empowerment.  Marketing is about creating emotional, even irrational bonds between your product and your target audience.” [12A]


It’s nothing new.  Astute commentators since at least the Progressive Age (1890-1914) have noted that campaigns market U.S. candidates like they sell cars, candy, and toothpaste.


But as Lizza suggests, the problem has origins prior to the corporate and mass consumerist age. “By 1840,” distinguished American historian Eric Foner has noted, “the mass democratic politics of the Age of Jackson had absorbed the logic of the marketplace.  Selling candidates and their images was as important as the positions for which they stood.”[13]


The two-party political system that emerged from the U.S. Republic’s blueprint does not encourage the development of parties with clear ideological and policy differences or strong relationships between voter choices and citizens’ actual positions on key policy issues. It leads rival candidates to blur their policy and ideological distinctions in the quest to win those all-important voters in the middle, focusing instead on personal qualities rather than hard policy and ideological differences. [14]


This harsh reality, combined with the almost complete absence of serious left political choices and furthered by the corporate and visual-imaginary takeover of much of the U.S. electoral process in the 20th century,  goes a long way towards explaining why substantive policy issues tend to be badly downplayed in U.S. campaigns.  It also explains much of the desperation and myopia that leads many ostensibly progressive voters and activists to back corporate-imperial candidates guaranteed to betray populist and peaceful promises “upon the assumption of power.” [15]




Before he could be in a position to be sold (brilliantly) on the mass American electoral market, of course, Obama first needed to sell himself to the national political and business elite that controls much of the political action behind the scenes.  That sales job did not involve deceptive one- or two-message commercials and slogans.  It was about candid, up-close meetings in which the candidate made it clear that he posed no substantive challenge to dominant domestic and imperial structures and doctrines. That earlier marketing project, ably recounted by Ken Silverstein and David Mendell [16], took place in late 2003 and 2004 and made possible the first great rolling out of Brand Obama during the senator’s instantly famous keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in late July of 2004.[17]  It has continued behind the scenes ever since, with Obama continually reassuring his many big-money sponsors and corporate media enthusiasts that he is not some sort of starry-eyed idealist about to seriously question the interrelated hierarchies and ideologies of corporate-managed state capitalism, empire, and inequality.


The basic Obama message to the nation’s ruling class – NOT advertised to the electorate – is that he is safe to concentrated power centers even if occasional populist-sounding slivers make their way into the construction of “Brand Obama.”  More than that, the campaign’s message to the elite has included the promise that Obama will wrap reigning institutions and dogma in fake-progressive rebel’s clothing and help repair the damage done to the United States’ global public relations image by the vicious and clumsy post-9/11 excesses of the brazenly imperial Cheney-Bush gang. 


Consistent with that hope, Advertising Age hails President-Elect Obama for producing “An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America.” The journal quotes David Brain, CEO of the global public relations firm Edelman Europe, Middle East and Africa, on how “the election and nomination process is the brand relaunch of the year.  Brand USA.  It’s just fantastic.” [18]


Nick Ragone has an interesting resume.  He is both “a presidential historian” and the senior VP of client development at the leading global advertising firm Omnicom Group’s Ketchum.  “We’ve put a new face on [America] and that face happens to be African-American,” Ragone told Advertising Age.  “It takes a lot of the hubris and arrogance of the last eight years and starts to put it in the rearview mirror for us.” [19]


Rigone might want to review Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four on the deletion of unpleasant history – sent “down the memory hole” – by totalitarian communication authorities. “Rearview mirror” is code language for Orwellian revisionism. 


Then there’s the interesting commentary of Harvard Business School professor John Quelch.  Quelch is a former “WWP Group” (a global advertising firm) board member and the co-author of a recent book with an oxymoronic title: “Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy.”


According to Welch, echoing Orwell, “The election result zero-bases the image of the United States worldwide.  We have a clean slate with which to work,” Welch told Advertising Age. “Let us hope the opportunity is not squandered the way it was after 9/11.” [20]


According to Carolyn Carter, the London-based president and CEO and Grey Group Europe, Middle East and Africa (creator of the popular teeth-rotting “Coke Zero” ad campaign for Northern Europe), “The last eight years broke faith in Brand America, and people want that faith restored.” [21]


Enter the openly imperial Obama, who is “almost like Che Guevera, in a good way,” according to Foreign Policy magazine’s web editor Blake Hounshell. “He has icon status,” Hounshell explains, “with the all the art around the world of his face.”  The difference, of course, is that Che boldly inspired radical challenges to the American Empire but Obama inspires captivation with the corporate-imperial U.S. and its supposed self-reinvention as a land of progressive democracy and endless possibility. According to Scott Kronick, global marketing firm “Ogilvy PR’s” Beijing-based president, Obama’s triumph “send a strong message to the world that despite what many people believe and feel…America can be very open, democratic, and progressive.”[22]




It’s not all good for the masters of American Empire and Inequality, however. The Obama-based “rebranding of America” in the wake of the long proto-fascistic, arch-plutocratic, and messianic-militarist Cheney-Bush nightmare comes with heightened popular product expectations at home and abroad. The risks and likelihood of disappointment and betrayal are high. Many American and other world citizens can be counted on to take “Brand Obama” and the refurbished “Brand USA” and give them meanings that do not accord very well with the U.S. power elite’s agenda. Rising and betrayed expectations are the stuff of actual social revolutions (something rather different than marketing revolutions), as the left historian Barrington Moore once argued. For these and other reasons, Obama will be relying heavily on his marketing and public relations experts to keep the bewildered citizenry’s hopes and dreams properly constrained and downsized. Popular thought coordination through mass marketing will be important to the governance period as well as the election phase of the Obama ascendancy. As Obama’s early and excessively candid foreign policy advisor and Harvard ally Samantha Power told the power-worshipping public affairs talk-show host Charlie Rose last February, “Expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally.”[23].


Chilling words but they signify nothing new in the long history of the dark science of “Taking the Risk out of [American] Democracy”. [24]



Paul Street is a writer and activist in Iowa City.  He is the author of

Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York, 2007), and most recently Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, September 2008), which can be ordered at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987.

Paul can be reached at [email protected].





1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), 126-132.


2. “Obama Wins…Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year,” Advertising Age (October 17, 2008), read at http://adage.com/print?article_id=131810


3. “Barack Obama and the Audacity of Marketing,” Advertising Age (November 10, 2008), read at http://adage.com/print?article_id=132351


4. As quoted in David Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 12, 310.


5. Matt Tabai, “Obama is the Best BS Artist Since Bill Clinton,” RollingStone.com. posted on AlterNet (February 14,  2007), read online at http://www.alternet.org/story/48051.


6. For many details and sources, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulderm CO: Paradigm, 2008), 1-163.


7. For a useful summary of Obama administration insiders, see Stephen Lendman, “Obama Mania,” ZNet (November 17, 2008).


8. Steve Sailer,“Obama’s Identity Crisis,” The American Conservative (March 26, 2007).


9. Ryan Lizza, “Battle Plans: How Obama Won,” The New Yorker (November 15, 2008).


9A. Barack Obama, “Remarks on Election Night,” read at www.barackobama.com/2008/11/04/remarks_of_presidentelect_bara.php. For reflections on Obama’s speech as a form of system-legitimizing propaganda, see Paul Street, “Barack Obama: Empire’s New Clothes,” Black Agenda Report (November 12, 2008), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=879&Itemid=1


10. Bruce Dixon, “Holding Barack Obama Accountable,” Dissident Voice (February 15, 2008), read at www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/02/holding-barack-obama-accountable/


11. Pam Martens, “The Obama Bubble: Why Wall Street Needs a Presidential Brand,” Black Agenda Report, March 5, 2008.


12. ABC News, “Backstage at Barack Obama’s Headquarters,” February 28, 2008.


12A Dixon, “Holding Barack Obama Accountable.” I would argue (somewhat differently from Dixon) that the mass-marketing of candidates is in fact intimately related to democracy in that it is a natural effort on the part of concentrated power to pervert and subvert it.


13. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, volume 1 (New York: WW Norton, 2005), 377.


14. G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change (New York: McGraw Hill, 2006), 139.


15. Edward S. Herman, “Democratic Betrayal,” Z Magazine (January 2007).


16. Ken Silverstein, "Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine," Harper’s (November 2006); Mendell, Obama, 248-49.


17. A very conservative speech by the way.  See Paul Street “Keynote Reflections,” (Featured Article), ZNet Magazine (July 29th, 2004), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=41&ItemID=5951.


18. “An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America,” Advertising Age (November 10, 2008), read at http://adage.com/print?article_id=132352


19. Quoted approvingly in “An Instant Overhaul.”


20. Quoted approvingly in “An Instant Overhaul.”


21. Quoted approvingly in “An Instant Overhaul.”


22. Quoted approvingly in “An Instant Overhaul.”


23. The Charlie Rose Show, PBS, February 21, 2008. See www.charlierose.com/shows/2008/02/21/2/a-conversation-with-samantha-power

(accessed March 1, 2008). For some dark reflections on Charlie and Samantha’s chat, see Paul Street, “‘Calibrating’ HOPE in the Effort to ‘Patrol the Commons’: Samantha Power and the Hidden Imperial Reality of Barack Obama,” ZNet (February 26, 2008), read at www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/16640. Thanks to David Peterson for alerting me to the Power comment. 


24. To steal the title of Alex Carey’s important book: Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, ILUniversity of Illinois Press, 1997). “The twentieth century,” Carey noted, “has been characterized by three developments of great importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

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