Razor Burned

Razor Burned

Should Brands Virtue Signal?

The days of companies like Gillette highlighting “millions of big, strong-limbed super-men” in their advertisements are long gone. 

Source: https://www.campaignlive.com/article/history-advertising-no-100-ads-great-war/1293991

In January, Gillette released a polarizing short film titled, “We Believe: The Best That We Can Be.” The ad – which highlighted a number of issues related to “toxic masculinity,” a current buzzword, especially on the political left – instantly went viral, earning criticism and praise across the political spectrum.

But Gillette’s now-(in)famous ad is only the latest controversial example of companies embracing divisive political “virtue signaling” as a means of communicating with their customers. In a market that is growing more competitive by the day, should companies like Gillette try to stand out by experimenting with political messaging?

The short answer? Only with extreme caution.

Like Gillette’s short film, Nike’s viral 30th Anniversary ad featuring Colin Kaepernick also touched off a firestorm of controversy, earning praise and criticism in equal measure. By embracing Kaepernick, Nike made a deliberate decision to associate its brand with a controversial figure, effectively risking the alienation of potential customers who disagree with Kaepernick’s message of protest.

For Nike, the calculated move paid off: following the boost in free media and the subsequent backlash, Nike’s stock wobbled only before climbing to an all-time high a few days later. It was a risky decision, but it worked; polling has found that although Nike’s overall favorability may have dropped, the brand’s relationship with its most loyal customers only grew stronger.

That doesn’t mean that every brand should jump into the political fray, however. Brands who fail to spend the right amount of time and resources properly calculating the decision can pay a price: Pepsi was forced to apologize to pretty much everyone when they released an almost unbelievably off-the-mark politically themed ad that “united the internet” in disgust, and Starbucks drew the ire of customers when the company launched an engagement campaign encouraging baristas to strike up unprompted conversations about race relations.

As Michael Jordan once said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” For most brands, virtue signaling is a risk that won’t payoff unless proper caution is taken to maximize impact and mitigate – or at least anticipate – the backlash. Brands that fail to take the right steps before jumping into the political debate are in for a close shave with public relations disaster. 

Jamestown Public Affairs – Advocacy. Strategy. Political Insight.

Are Democrats Blowing the Branding Battle?

Are Democrats Blowing the Branding Battle?

Last month, Democratic Party leaders in Washington announced that a new slogan, “For the People,” will be replacing “A Better Deal,” their 2017 rebranding campaign.


“A Better Deal” is largely regarded by pundits and partisans alike as a milquetoast failure. But by trying to replace it with the just-as-milquetoast “For the People,” Democrats are demonstrating in real time an important political axiom for our social media age: branding matters now more than ever, and publicly struggling to do it well can lead to excruciating public relations issues.

It’s not hard to tell what Democratic voters want from their party – they’ve been producing snappy, memorable slogans entirely on their own since President Trump took office.

Photo Attributed to Rhododendrites.

Photo Attributed to Rhododendrites.

They may be ludicrous ideas, but there’s no denying that “Impeach Trump,” “Abolish ICE,” and “Medicare for All” are all two of the most important things a slogan can be: strong and communicative – regardless of how unpopular and objectionable they are.

Neither “A Better Deal” nor “For the People” hits those critical marks. Both are bland, meaningless, hackneyed appeals to populism – a political style that demands authenticity – and while shoddy branding alone isn’t likely to sink a political operation (President Obama managed to get reelected in 2012 despite his empty slogan, “Forward”) voters know inauthenticity when they see it. Boring, half-baked clichés repurposed as party brands aren’t likely to help the cause. 

Effective, inspired brand messaging, however, can do wonders for a campaign. 

While countless skeptical pundits mocked, criticized, or outright insulted President Trump’s now-iconic “Make America Great Again!” slogan, they were wrong to do so – not just because Trump’s message proved to be more enticing than his competitor’s, but because unlike “I’m With Her” and the Democrats’ more recent slogans, President Trump’s brand engaged with voters, encouraging them to map their hopes onto President Trump’s candidacy and proposed agenda. In contrast, Clinton’s slogan mirrored many criticisms of the candidate herself: egotistical, uninspiring, and Hillary-centric.

During and after the election, “Make America Great Again!” as a brand took on a life of its own, proving its staying power and its resonance with voters as it evolved into “#MAGA” on Twitter and in conservative circles around the country. This is the social media era, and a brand that can be condensed, shared, and widely understood – a brand the size of a hashtag – can make all the difference.

The Democrats' failure to effectively brand themselves won’t be the most singular cause if they come up empty handed in November, but it’ll certainly be a contributing one. The fact that they’ve been so publicly trying and failing to rebrand demonstrates that they know the importance of a strong central message – and that they know they haven’t been able to come up with one yet.

Photo Attributed to Gage Skidmore.

Photo Attributed to Gage Skidmore.

Jamestown Public Affairs – Advocacy. Strategy. Political Insight.

Don’t Flunk Media Training 101

Don’t Flunk Media Training 101

3 Media Training Rules to Prepare You For Primetime

If you haven’t seen Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s viral appearance on “Firing Line” yet, well…it’s a doozy.

Here’s a quick cut of the greatest hits:

It’s hard to know where to even begin critiquing Ocasio-Cortez’s performance (or lack thereof, for that matter). From the long silences, to the stuttering, backpedaling and bad information, to her admission that she has no idea what she’s talking about – not to mention her ludicrous claim that Israel is responsible for “occupying” Palestine and promoting a policy of “massacre” against its people – there’s no way around it: it was a train wreck.

It’s a cliché that “all press is good press,” but when it comes to going viral, not all clicks are good clicks. The reaction to Ocasio-Cortez’s oblivious, unsubstantiated arguments was equal parts swift and scathing – rightfully so. The radical talking points that she regurgitated came off more like a case of Candidate Stockholm Syndrome than like a credible and prepared public servant. This, combined with her inability to defend those tin-foil hat positions have landed her in hot water with her own party and put her campaign on the defensive.

But only a few weeks ago, Ocasio-Cortez was hailed in the press as the Next Great Savior of the American Left. What happened? 

“I’m not an expert on geopolitics on this issue"

– Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

It became clear that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t ready for primetime. She was, very simply, ill-prepared.

No amount of romanticism or charm can insulate America’s next big game-changer from becoming a Capitol Hill punchline in the time it takes to compose a snarky tweet. But preparation can.

Here are three basic media training lessons that, had Ocasio-Cortez kept in mind both before and during her interview, would’ve ensured that she came off as credible, even in places outside of her comfort zone:

  1. Do your research. Margaret Hoover isn’t exactly the hardest-hitting interviewer in Washington – indeed, pretty much every question she asked Ocasio-Cortez gave the young Democratic Socialist the benefit of the doubt, to say the least. But even Hoover’s softball questions weren’t enough to save Ocasio-Cortez from the thoughtlessness of her own answers and her own failure to prepare. Upon being pressed by Hoover to clarify her position on Israel, it became immediately clear from her body language that Ocasio-Cortez had done zero research to back up her accusations – and if it wasn’t immediately clear, she admitted as much only seconds later. Taking some time before the interview to brush up on the facts and key data points – like the fact that the unemployment rate isn’t measured by how many jobs are filled, but by how many people are working – can make all the difference when it comes to conveying confidence and command of an issue when the cameras are on and the lights are up.

  2. Limit your responses. Candidates often struggle with this concept – after all, so much of campaigning involves talking to voters and giving speeches – but the bottom line is that if you don’t say it, they can’t write it. When asked a question, deliver your message with confidence, get your point across, and then stop talking; you don’t need any extra verbiage or examples to make your point, and if they’d like to hear more, they’ll ask. Why risk tripping yourself up and creating the perfect content for an opposition hit ad?

  3. Stay on message. Unlike what should have been Ocasio-Cortez’s soft-landing on PBS’ rebooted, non-ideological “Firing Line,” Republican candidates for office often face a hostile press; liberal reporters, bloggers and talking heads who are more interested in smearing conservative interviewees than asking them meaningful questions in good faith. By sticking to your message, refusing to take the bait and avoiding big partisan food fights, you can use the interview as an opportunity to not just get air time, but to directly deliver your message to potential voters without getting distracted.

Whether you’re a respected elected official preparing for a long interview on Meet the Press or a 27-year-old socialist espousing crackpot talking points on PBS, this is the bottom line: at their very best, media appearances are unique opportunities to deliver your message and connect with regular Americans. At their very worst, unprepared media appearances can be an in-kind contribution to your opponent’s emergency fund for their next hit spot on you.

So do your research, limit your responses, and stay on message, unless you’d like to spend a week or so defending your image and getting laughed at by your opponents.

Jamestown Public Affairs – Advocacy. Strategy. Political Insight.

Does an impending Supreme Court Decision threaten Democratic fundraising?

Does an impending Supreme Court Decision threaten Democratic fundraising?

Janus vs. AFSCME looms large for liberal spending groups

By: David Huguenel, Vice President at Jamestown Associates

Any day now, the United States Supreme Court could finally hand down a potential landmark decision in Janus vs. AFSCME, a legal case that could have long-lasting effects on public sector unions and their ability to collect mandatory membership dues from government employees. If the ruling comes down against the unions, it could prevent them from dumping millions into Democratic campaigns, considerably dialing back their political capital.

Most of the conversation regarding the potential ruling has centered on the ramifications for unions such as AFSCME, SEIU, and teachers’ unions, whose millions and millions in political spending have made them a financial force in the realm of politics. The bottom line is that without compulsory membership dues filling their coffers, it’s unlikely that these groups will remain the goliaths of political spending they’ve become over the past decade, and that has them scared.

But they’re not the only ones who should be afraid. Democrats – who are, by and large, the major beneficiaries of unions’ millions in political spending – also stand to lose a great deal. Since 1990, a whopping 93% of all public sector donations have gone to Democratic candidates and causes. Understandably, most pundits have focused on the impact that an unfavorable ruling towards AFSCME might have on Democrats’ fundraising abilities in future elections.

However, a ruling that would strip these unions of guaranteed dues may have other important consequences that have yet to be discussed – namely, the potential resurgence of private sector unions as a main hub of Democratic fundraising.

In 2016, public sector and teachers’ unions outspent building trades and industrial unions by over $32 million. But just ten years prior in 2006, private sector unions outspent public sector unions by nearly $5 million. In fact, private sector unions outspent their government counterparts every year as far back as 1990.** It wasn’t until 2010 that government unions’ spending skyrocketed past their private sector cousins.

As the Supreme Court deliberates Janus vs. AFSCME, the important question isn’t simply whether Democrats will suffer if public sector unions are no longer able to involuntarily siphon money from their members. Smart observers will also be mindful of whether or not the Democratic party will be able to readjust its messaging in order to appeal to private sector unions who, unlike public sector unions, rely on a strong economy for the health of their membership. This will be especially interesting to watch play out in swing states that voted for Obama in 2012, but swung for Trump in 2016.

One thing is for sure – Democrats will have a lot of work to do to court those private sector unions. While public sector unions and their members wear their hatred of President Trump like a badge of honor, private sector building trades and unions have been warmer to him, meeting with President Trump in 2017 to discuss infrastructure and taking the time for a photo op. One can also safely assume that many of the blue collar workers who make up these unions are receptive to Trump’s "America First" policies like the recent steel and aluminium tariffs, and his tough talk on China. But this support for Trump is far from the first time that private sector unions have been vocal supporters of Republican candidates who spoke to issues important to them; in 2013, for instance, NJ Governor Christie received the support of many of the state’s private sector union leaders.

Equally concerning to Democrats should be the voting habits of actual private sector union members. Trump’s victory in 2016 was due in large part to his success with blue collar workers, a once-reliable block of votes for Democrats. Winning them back after losing out on their public union cash cow may prove a daunting political task.

But Democrats not only need to find new ways to court these voters; they also need to appeal to their union leadership. Will they be willing to meet in the middle? If recent history is any indicator, probably not: after their bitter loss in 2016, the Democrats have largely dug their heels in the mud, making it clear that grabbing sanctimonious headlines is a higher political priority to them than adopting practical, common-sense fundraising practices and making necessary political recalculations in the wake of Trump’s victory.

Is this sort of financial virtue signaling the hill the Democrats’ really want to die on? The answer hinges on whether or not the Supreme Court rules in Janus vs. AFSCME to allow public sector union members to opt out of paying dues to unions that they don’t want to belong to. If they do, buckle up – a sudden and unexpected resurgence of private sector unions and their political muscle should usher in a new paradigm for upcoming elections. 

*For purposes of this article, spending totals for public sector unions also include spending by teachers' unions. Private sector unions refer to total spending specifically by building trades and industrial unions. Information was collected on OpenSecrets.org.

**Public sector and teachers' unions outspent building trades' unions by $342,404 in 1998 and $359,300 in 1994, meaning spending was all but tied.

Jamestown Public Affairs – Advocacy. Strategy. Political Insight.

Rethinking the Millennial Stereotype

Rethinking the Millennial Stereotype

Narcissism. Selfies. Avocado toast.

To take the stereotypes at face value would be to assume that the vast majority of Millennials are lazy, entitled cultural and political liberals, obsessed with trivial social media fads, head-in-the-clouds leftwing politics, and leading la-di-da lives of leisure.

But for influencers and advertisers to take the Millennial stereotypes at face value would be for them to miss a number of messaging opportunities that look increasingly more lucrative with each passing year. Shifting cultural perspectives and political and economic realities are changing how America’s young people view the world and respond to certain types of advertising, and these dynamic changes are opening up new opportunities for influencers and advertisers who have the eye to recognize them and the preparedness to seize them.

In fact, cultural trends indicate that the Millennials and post-Millennial Gen Z generation may be more conservative – and thus, more receptive to conservative-minded messaging – than ever before. The Millennial entrepreneurial spirit and “startup culture” lead to the direct creation of the sharing economy, which has already revolutionized entire sectors of the economy through technology. And Millennials are more conservative than previous generations were at their respective ages, indicating that, as they age, Millennials are indeed growing more conservative at a higher rate than those generations that came before them.

Among the youngest Americans, the evidence is even clearer: eight-in-ten Gen Z’ers identify as “fiscally conservative,” and at least one study has proven that it’s not just talk. Gen Z’ers are already practicing fiercely fiscally conservative values, including saving for retirement and viewing skyrocketing college tuition costs with a deep skepticism not found in their generational predecessors. From a cultural standpoint, regular church attendance among Gen Z’ers doubles that of Millennials; sobriety among these young people is up, and sexual promiscuity is down.

Do these cultural and political shifts toward more-conservative attitudes and behaviors mean that all Millennials and Gen Z’ers are now MAGA-hat-wearing Republicans? Of course not. But they do mean that the stereotypes about these generations don’t paint the whole picture, and that a bevy of exciting, new, and profitable opportunities await those advertisers and influencers who are ready, willing, and able to reach younger audiences in creative new ways that speak to their latent conservative sensibilities. As America’s youngest generations mature and come of voting, marriage, and homeowning age, it’s likely that these trend lines will only continue, and that the Millennials and Gen Z’ers may find themselves more openly interested in messaging that speaks to the conservative attitudes they didn’t even know they had.

Jamestown Public Affairs – Advocacy. Strategy. Political Insight.