Election Day At The Point Of Sale

Election Day, thank goodness, is finally here.  The negativity emanating from the airwaves makes it impossible for me to watch live television.  The vicious, nasty, personal attacks on both sides don’t serve anyone well.  Real policy debate is crushed, the facts are obscured, and at the risk of sounding like an intellectual elitist, voters don’t really know what they’re voting for.

We Americans love a good hero story.  Things are so much easier when broken down into good and evil or black and white, but unfortunately, that’s not the way the world works.  We want our Medicare and Social Security, but not “big government.”  We don’t want a draft, but we want to crush our enemies.  We want infrastructure and great public schools, but don’t want to pay taxes.

The old saw, “no pain, no gain,” might work (for others) in the gym, but does not seem to apply to us as a society anymore.

Still, the voters will speak on Tuesday and live with the consequences of their decisions for the next two years.

My prediction is that they won’t be very happy. If you feel the anger now, just imagine what it will be like after the empty promises go unfulfilled and gridlock in Congress makes New York City at rush hour seem like a leisurely Sunday drive down a two-lane country road.

The parallels between politics and life in the supermarket aisles have never been so striking. In the past decade, we’ve seen fads come and go.  Despite the no fat, no carbs, low cholesterol fads of the past decade, obesity just gets worse.

I love the old Rosie O’Donnell stand up routine where she talked about the “Slim Fast Plan.”  “A shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch and a sensible dinner, and you’ll lose weight. Well, if I could eat a sensible dinner I really wouldn’t need Slim Fast in the first place, would I?”

American voters and consumers don’t want a sensible dinner. They want the easy solution.  The Tea Party is this year’s no carb fad.  The anger is understandable, but there’s no real solution there. A year from now, we’ll still be fat and angry.

The facts are available to us, but when did facts ever matter? It’s incredible how we can suspend disbelief.

Honey Nut Cheerios as health food?  It’s better than bacon, eggs, hash browns and toast, but is that really the answer to high cholesterol?  There is a grain of truth to the claim (pun intended), but it’s not the panacea it’s made out to be.  Not that we should really blame General Mills.  They put all the product information right there on the side of the box. People can make their own decisions, as they should.

That’s the promise of the free market. People will vote with their dollars and as Ronald Reagan famously said, they can vote with their feet.  Of course the prospects of picking up your family and moving from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt were promising in his time. It’s different now. We don’t really want to move to China, do we?

Hope is the essence of marketing and politics.  Rational benefits are critically important, but always play second fiddle to emotion.

In some categories – fragrance, personal care and alcoholic beverages – for example, image is everything. There’s no way that Axe users, teenage boys and young men, really think they’re going to have women falling all over them when they choose that product.  But they buy into the dream. If it makes them feel better about themselves, if it helps them live the fantasy, the purchase is well worthwhile.

Not so much with breakfast cereal. I don’t really think that anyone believes that Honey Nut Cheerios will lower their cholesterol on its own, nor that Cocoa Puffs are “part of this good breakfast.”

But they want to believe it, and use the “wholesome, good for you” claims as a rationale.  Yes, it works in the short term to a certain extent, but is it really the best thing for these brands? This approach has to stir up a good deal of cognitive dissonance that can’t be beneficial.

What I’d rather believe is that Cocoa Puffs are damn delicious and great fun.  Your kids need some energy and nutrition in the morning, so if they pour some milk over it and get something into their bodies before school, it’s way better than force feeding them or sending them off hungry.

Is that such a bad message? America without Cocoa Puffs, or soda, or snack foods or hot dogs or Hostess Twinkies or anything else that isn’t politically correct these days just wouldn’t be a good place to live.

I truly love the freedom this country has to offer. I can eat egg whites, fruit, grilled fish and vegetables, or I can have a wonderfully indulgent Double Double with Cheese and fries at In ‘N’ Out Burger. Those choices are mine and mine alone, and both can be good choices for the right reasons at the right times.  I wouldn’t want government to dictate what I should eat as much as I wouldn’t government or anyone else to restrict my freedom of speech.

Honesty, transparency and sincerity are critical to us as marketers, consumers and voters. When we ladder up to why brands are truly meaningful, they sell better and consumers enjoy them all the more.  The reason to buy Raisinettes at the movies is not the product’s “antioxidant” benefits printed on the package. They’re sweet, delicious, fun to eat and great for sharing.  Why distract me and make me think of health when I want to think about fun?

So my hope, this Election Day, is that the cycle scapegoating, nastiness, viciousness and political correctness has reached its zenith. Like the politicians who would do better by telling us how they really feel, I hope that we as marketers can focus on what really makes our brands different and special in a timeless way.

If we really trust the consumer and the free market, we’ll be honest with them and benefit in the long run. Aspiration is what marketing is all about. Let’s choose the aspirations and states of mind for our brands that ring true.

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