Theories of media and communication (II)


When the then junior senator from Illinois gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston Massachusetts, not a lot of people had heard about the name Barack Obama or could accurately foresee a style of electioneering and campaigning that gave America its 44th president and the first African-American resident of the White House. The election campaign made use of new media channels to engage the citizenry to keep them informed, encourage them to take parts in public debate, mobilising them into participation and eventually cast their votes in what has been widely regarded as the most interesting presidential race in American history. The purpose of this essay is not to elucidate on the tactics and strategies employed during the campaign but rather to critically examine the political process as better analysed from a classic perspective of mass media political marketing. This piece will also touch briefly on the viewpoint of a renewed public sphere theoretical approach; however emphasis would be placed on how the campaign was marketed to American and the tools employed to package and market the presidential candidate as a consumer product, the product which hoped to resolve the existing problems of American politics and offer hopes for a better, brighter United States of America.


Habermas examined the nature of the public sphere in his popular 1962 work, "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere" where he traced the historical significances of the bourgeois public sphere existent in the 18th and 19th century as social spaces where 'individuals gathered to discuss their common public affairs and to organize against arbitrary and oppressive forms of social and public power' (Kellner, 2000). These consists of primarily printed materials circulated among the citizenry to inform them and set the agenda for socio-political discourse which was played out in physical meeting spaces like parliaments, pubs, salons, coffee houses and other social assemblies (Kellner, 2000). Habermas lamented the decline in the democratic significance of the public sphere from a libratory function within the traditional media-scapes to an arena of mass cultural production driven by corporate capitalist interest of an elite few who manipulate the state and media with the primary purpose of influencing public opinion. This trend has transformed the citizenry from active participators in political dialogue to passive consumers of good, services, entertainment and political administration (Habermas, 1989:169).


Sassi attempted to differentiate the different between the similar and over lapping concepts of mass media and the public sphere (2001:100), where the latter comprises the former. Civil society had experienced an expansion of mediated communities through the internet and this is resulting in the loss of significance of the political public sphere in favour of a more cultural sphere centred around groups and networks. National powers dominated state structures and mediated print, radio and television media is giving way to a networked space of communication (Keane, 1995). The internet has become a major tool for production and distribution of culture and an in-depth understanding of the agents and models of the inherent exchange within and between these groups and sub-spheres can become a potent factor for the penetration of such spaces.

In identifying the classifications of contemporary public spheres, John Keane distinguished between three kinds. The micro-public spheres which individuals meet in small groups to interact and forge identities. John Fiske (1993) argued that this type of public sphere bears significant importance due to the bottom-up manner through which change is driven. Meso-public spheres are spaces where members of such communities share similar national interest and the dominating range from the defence of democracy and free speech to matters relating to public welfare and civic responsibilities. The final kind is known as macro-public sphere existent at global or regional levels where millions of citizens are affected by "international concentration of mass media organisations previously owned and operated at the nation-state level".

While the renewed public sphere approach may appear an ideal tool for carrying out analysis of the recent American election campaign and its impact on the future of global politics, the end-to-end process was a demonstration of coordinated political marketing which used mass social media in the delivery of politics to the consumer citizen in a creative and comprehensive manner. From the use by the campaign team of the internet to organise activities rallies and political activities within communities to the drive for fundraising, this campaign was a well-orchestrated marketing exercise which employed a number of theories from the areas of standard corporate marketing to formulate a sophisticated, multilateral political communication between the candidate and American Citizens.


This was not the first time that a political candidate or American president had used the mass media as a marketing tool in election campaigns. According to Anna Everett, the campaign was following in the historical precedents established since the days of the use of pamphlets and print materials during the time of Abraham Lincoln to the fireside radio activities of Franklin Roosevelt then unto the television conquests of John F Kennedy and eventually the foray into internet utilisation by Bill Clinton. The politicians of the different media generations have always attempted to solicit public support through the dominant, cutting edge media avenues of the day. Year 2000 saw the George W. Bush campaign use the internet to communicate directly with voters and in 2004 Howard Dean organised community activities and gathered a grassroot-level support for his Democratic Party primaries nomination campaign. Other political candidates had made attempts in the past to harness the internet for campaign purposes but the year 2000 elections was really when the candidate dedicated a significant proportion of their campaign resources to campaigning online (Bimber and Davis, 2003). By this time over half of the American adults were connected to the internet and an increasingly politically active public meant there was a larger demand for political information.

The manner in which the internet works might have an embedded significance to the concept of democracy. While traditional media, pre-web media often offered a uni-directional flow of information from candidate to public, the internet presented a level of interactivity whereby citizens can communicate back to their politicians. This upward flow of communication from the public in turn serves as a measuring tool for campaign teams to understand the issues and concerns of the voters thereby enabling the campaign to package their message in a manner which accurately target the needs and expectations of the citizenry. Another democratic element of political communication through the internet is its purposive characteristics (Bimber and Davis, 2003:6) as the users only see whatever messages they choose to see and the entire political campaign can effectively develop and deliver a process which influences those choices. Susan Rae argues that marketed oriented politics connects the politics with the needs of the people thereby sustaining democracy while Cass Sustein on the other hand argues that the specialisation and decentralisation of political messages on the internet have an adverse effect on democracy as it contributes to 'fragmentation and divisiveness'.


An effective market-oriented strategy is an important feature within political campaigns because it reconnects political interests with public opinion (Lilleker, 2005). The use of citizen feedback mechanisms not only informs the politicians and their campaign strategists of the public's issues and concerns, it also makes them responsive to public preferences (Bowler and Farrell: 1992:231). "A market oriented strategy does not attempt to change what people think but to deliver what they need and want" (Lees-Marshment and Lilleker, 2001:207). Just as the desires of the consumer drive product development so also do concerns of voters drive political branding and presentation. In the way the candidacy campaign was conducted from its onset, the Barack Obama presidential campaign organisers understood the concepts of market-orientation while delivering politics and they aimed to deliver what the people wanted and needed which was change. Change from the successive tenures of a Bush administration which had left a lot of people disconnected and pessimistic about governance, hence the central theme of the campaign was that of "CHANGE". According to Derrick Daye, Managing Director of a successful American marketing organisation, the choice of this rather simplistic slogan branded his leadership message and had the following elements which are consistent with an effective marketing strategy: Simplicity, Consistency and Relevance.

The campaign was formulated in a manner which handed ownership of the campaign message to the public. While this can be regarded as a public sphere debate, within the scope of this work it is analysed from a marketing perspective. Voter empowerment was at the heart of the campaign. Emails were sent to the public to encourage them to influence their friends, associates and even local politicians. On the campaign website there was a section titled 'My BO' or 'My Barack Obama' which was an personalised service where participant can sign up and render varying forms of contribution like donating funds, calling other voters and organising community events. Visitors to the website were rewarded with campaign rally tickets to regional events in exchange for their names, telephone number, email address and other contact details. Post-election statistics showed that there was a high number of 18-32 year olds who were actively engaged in the campaign and eventual voting. This age bracket is what can be described as the 'social network generation' of internet users who are particularly active and adept at the use of online social networking sites.


The end goal of any marketing activity is the sale of a given product to a specific consumer audience. The politics, the product is a complex mixture of a personality, ideology and policy. This was captured in a sensational manner and packaged as a story which was told to the public via multiple online media channels. YouTube launched a service called YouChoose08 for the purpose of the election where each of the presidential candidates was allocated their personal channels where their campaign and supporters could share videos among visitors. In her blog entry titled 'YouTube: The ideal public sphere?' Prof. Lisa Burns noted that the 2008 presidential campaign allowed politicians to target a younger voter audience like has never occurred. The Obama campaign took advantage of this and constantly uploaded vlogs, campaign messages, personal videos of the candidate, policy statements, presidential debates and sound-bites even spoofs and virals which worked on the audience and kept them in touch with the campaign. The ability of users to post comments and engage in non-moderated debate was an effective measurement tool of the extent of outreach and helped shape the content of future speeches and even in some cases producing a direct response from the candidate for example when Republican rival John McCain attacked his past relationship with some controversial figures.

The campaign strategy also took into account the elements and behaviour of American consumer culture. The obsession with celebrity lifestyle also presented another means of appealing to voters. Endorsements of Obama's presidency by popular figures like pop-stars, TV personalities, sports figures and popular politicians were widely publicised by the campaign on their website, Facebook homepage and the candidates personal twitter column. Carefully selected photo opportunities capturing Obama's personality, composure, coolness and appeal were systematically released online to help the public keep track on the candidate's activities and alert them about the positive progress achieved on the campaign trail.

According to John Street, political coverage tells a story and these stories ideally depict the actor (political) as a leader as individuals with influence over events and how these events in turn shape the life of the citizenry. The news is presented in a manner which depicts the actor in a struggle against negative forces and the leader attempting to wake people from their state of rest or inertia (Benton 1997: 146-147). The marketing campaign was built around a story, his story which had a narrative that originates from his exotic multi cultural background and ends up in a force that drives socio-political change. Through the campaign's penetration of modern day social media networks like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and twitter the campaign was able to portray the image of a leader like 'us'. Consumer friendly news, articles and sound-bites were used in large scale to sell the candidate as being in touch with the common American. He was depicted as a candidate in touch by personalised messages to the public assuring them of his grasp and understanding of the issues and challenges they. Although Bimber and Davis argue that interactivity does not necessarily mean engaging but just allows for a flow of information in 'multiple directions' (2003,6)


In conclusion, Jenny Lloyd suggests that a successful political marketing campaign must contain the following five elements. Firstly, there must be a clear presentation of service offerings which inform the voter of the candidate's position on issues of concern such as national security, healthcare, economy, immigration, social stability and foreign relations. The Obama campaign team sent out regular electronic updates to voter databases about the presidential candidate's policy on these key areas and backed this up with the provision of statistics of his voting record in the Senate. Secondly, representation of the candidate must affirm a candidate's integrity and ability to connect with voters of all ages, political orientation and varying levels of political involvement. Thirdly, a successful campaign is one that understands and accommodates the needs of the voters and is ready to respond as appropriate. As mentioned earlier, dedicated workers on the campaign team concentrated on extracting the dominating discussions on online networks, and responses were periodically released from the candidate to address these issues. This then leads to a renewed level of discussion and critique, fed back to the candidate and who in turn reviews his policy plans. An obvious counter effect of this trend is that the candidate may be seen as indecisive and less purposeful than is acceptable among electorate. Therefore the right balance has to be struck between accommodating and being strong-willed and politically assertive. The fourth element of this mix is investment, which is the empowerment of the electorate to own a stake in the campaign by getting personal involvement. The voters are encouraged to invest their time, effort and finances in the campaign with the assurances of future returns either in the form of tax breaks of increased job opportunities. The last constituent of a political marketing mix is the ability to deliver 'effectively, efficiently and ethically' (ibid.: 43).

It can be deduced from the presented case-study of the Barack Obama's presidential campaign that the team employed the use of the web in an innovative market-centric fashion and it yielded immense benefit for the candidate as he won in landslide fashion. While a renewed model of public sphere engagement and citizen interaction was recorded, the dominant model for its analysis is the examination of the political marketing strategies used by the campaign to team to achieve this.


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