In the digital age, political contests are often decided by how skillfully candidates and their supporters market themselves and reposition their opponents.
What is repositioning?
Repositioning is one of the most misused words in marketing. When used correctly, it means changing the image of a competitor’s brand.
The classic case of repositioning is when Johnson & Johnson publicized studies from the New England Journal of Medicine that analysed the negative side effects of aspirin. At the time, Bayer aspirin was the number one over-the-counter pain reliever in the US. Rather than mention Bayer by name, J&J merely changed the image of the aspirin category by making copies of the study and sending it to medical professionals everywhere. It worked. In a short period of time, J&J’s Tylenol brand of acetaminophen overtook Bayer and other aspirin brands as the number one pain reliever.
Too often misused
Instead of changing the image of a competitive category, too many misuse repositioning to mean changing the image of their own brand. Brands sometimes change their image to fit new conditions in the marketplace. A classic example of this is when Marlboro, a cigarette positioned for women, was turned into a cigarette for men – “real men” – through the imagery of the Marlboro cowboy.
How do politicians use repositioning in their political campaigns?
Politicians have a rich history of doing what they can to change the image of their opponents in the minds of the voting public. Their aim is to place negative images about their competitors in the heads of voters. When done skillfully, politicians use surrogates to say things about their opponent so the negative words and images are less likely to backfire and harm their own image. The surrogates might be friends, relatives, advisors, campaign staff, or marketing firms that they hire. The techniques they typically use include, but are not limited to…
- Editing video clips of opponents to make them look bad – taking what they said out of context.
- Putting a new spin, or position, on statements made by opponents to cast them as negatively as possible.
- Creating commercials that embed sound bites, images, and slogans that portray opponents in a negative light.
- Making “off-the-cuff” negative comments about rivals in public forums and to the news media.
- Getting 527 committees and Super PACs, such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the 2004 election, to create commercials that attack the strengths of opponents.
First recognised master of political repositioning
While repositioning was most likely used as a political weapon long ago, Lee Atwater is the first one credited with using it to help win an election. In the 1988 campaign to elect Vice-President George (H.W.) Bush, Atwater used the image of Willie Horton, a prisoner that committed rape on furlough from prison, to reposition Democratic political opponent Michael Dukakis (then Governor of Massachusetts) as soft on crime.
Even though a previous Republican governor started the prison furlough program, Atwater left that detail out of the repeated commercials he ran on television. He reinforced those commercial images with videos of Dukakis looking rather “goofy” and out of place riding on a tank and wearing army gear.
Roger Ailes, founder of the Fox News channel, and Karl Rove, Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff during the George W. Bush administration, have followed in the footsteps of Lee Atwater borrowing from his playbook to defeat Democratic rivals. Karl Rove’s main strategy is to reposition rivals by attacking their strengths. John Kerry, who ran against George W. Bush in the 2004 election, was decorated for his service in Vietnam.
Although not proven, many believe the architect of a series of ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that attacked Kerry’s war record was none other than Karl Rove. Both the Bush White House and Mr. Rove denied connections with the Swift Boat Veterans that produced the ads, but there are documented connections.
Romney and the Republicans repositioning Obama
As expected, Mitt Romney has been trying to reposition Obama on two main issues – (1) What Republicans have branded “Obamacare” and (2) the economy.
Obamacare or Romneycare? Before it was dubbed Obamacare by rivals, the White House and Democrats called the new healthcare law The Affordable Healthcare Act. Ironically, the basis for this law was a Republican plan that was adopted by then Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. When he was running for the Republican nomination for President, his opponents even called it Romneycare. Even so, the Republicans have done a better job of marketing their position than the Democrats.
Prior to the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the law as constitutional, a majority of Americans opposed the law (even though most have admitted they have not read it). After the ruling, support for the law grew by 5%, but the opposition still holds a majority of 52 to 48% according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. Since the ruling, Republicans are repositioning the law as the biggest tax increase in the history of the world irrespective of facts to the contrary. That has worked before, and if enough people say it, it is likely to work again since many will believe it as most voters are too busy or lazy to read facts or data. They rather believe the sound bites promoted by “pundits” with agendas on both sides.
Economy. Whether he is responsible or not, Obama is vulnerable on the economy simply because he is a sitting President at a time when the economy, while improving, is still sluggish. Never mind that Obama inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression or that problems in Europe are spilling over to the United States. Romney, as one might expect, is trying to take advantage of the dissatisfaction of the American public over the shortage of jobs and the economy. He is doing whatever he can to reposition President Obama as responsible for the economic situation.
President Obama and the Democrats repositioning Romney
Romney is positioning himself as a successful business executive that co-founded Bain Capital, led the Salt Lake City Olympics, and was Governor of Massachusetts. Because of these credentials, he is trying to convince the American public that he is the one that can best improve the economy and create jobs. Obama is trying to reposition Romney as someone that…
- Exported jobs overseas
- Eliminated jobs at companies in which Bain Capital had a controlling interest
- Will take America back to the Bush days.
Who will win?
The polls have Obama and Romney neck and neck with each exchanging leads back and forth over the past two months. My crystal ball broke last week so I don’t have a clue who will win. I will say that I really believe that the winner will be the one that does a better job of marketing himself and repositioning his opponent. That is usually the case, and in a race that is so close with so many variables and question marks, I have no reason to believe it will be any different this time.
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