THERE was talk early on in the campaign that candidates today
can buy their way into the White House, that the presidency is
simply a big auction - nonsense. Just look at what happened to the
Steve Forbes candidacy. There is a world of difference between the
buying and marketing of the presidency.
From a marketing perspective, the obvious question would be why
Mr. Forbes plummeted in the polls so quickly. The answer is that
marketing alone cannot ensure strong sales if either the product or
image is perceived to be lacking.
Forbes's initial marketing success stemmed from his ability to
anticipate the needs and desires of his target market - Republican
primary voters. Forbes knew that people vote with their
pocketbooks. Through his focus-group research, he developed his
product - the flat-tax proposal. Forbes was able to convince voters
of the merits of the flat tax - less money paid out to the
government and more to keep for themselves.
Primary voters on election day are no different from consumers
going into a showroom to buy a car or into a store to purchase a
piece of furniture - they don't want to wait three months for
delivery - they want it now.
In politics, as in business, an image must be tailored to the
product. Just as Gatorade created the ideal image for its product
by having Michael Jordan promote it, the flat-tax proposal only
became popular after it was championed by Forbes. It was a
brilliant marketing strategy. Here was a radically different
candidate, not too polished, a little clumsy in public, promoting a
radical message. Forbes successfully created an image of himself as
a virtual outsider to Washington, truly the "un-politician." The
country is in an anti-Washington mood, and voters are still looking
for a candidate to fill the shoes of Colin Powell.
However, as Forbes moved up in the polls in Iowa, his
competitors began to run their own negative commercials, bringing
out the inherent flaws in his flat-tax proposal and raising doubts
in voters' minds about Forbes's leadership abilities. Neither the
product nor the image Forbes was marketing looked so good anymore.
As the barrage of negative advertising increased, Forbes
complained that the Christian Coalition was working with the Dole
campaign to discredit him. From a marketing perspective, the
statement by Forbes was about as smart as McDonald's deciding not
to allow children into its restaurants. …