Lessons in Propaganda: What Politicians Learned from Business

I am hardly the first to note the application of PR principles to politics. Nor is it a new observation. Kennedy and Nixon had their communications advisors; Lincoln read books on rhetoric—ancient Greeks wrote them.

We now see it in mind-numbing three-word phrases printed, Louis Vuitton-like, on backdrops behind the Presidential podium; in the evolution of “talking points” from a novelty phrase during Monica-gate to commonplace today; and in the devolution of the Cabinet from advisory body to vehicle for staying “on-message.”

Many call this a failing of George Bush or of a Republican administration (though the Clintons know this material well too), or a misapplication or perversion of business principles.

But that’s not quite right. Politicians haven’t misappropriated business lessons—they borrowed directly, main-lining their Big Brother 1984 lessons from the very heart of what has come to be called business best practices.

The problem isn’t cynical politicians twisting business ideas; it is cynical business ideas themselves, granted mainstream legitimacy by business opinion leaders—the business media, business schools, industry associations, and business leaders themselves. Politicians are just following.

Take four common terms: “on message,” “brand,” “alignment,” and “communication.” Now think Marketing 101 (or any CEO’s speech), and see how familiar this sounds:

In this consumer-empowered, media-cluttered age, the company that understands customer needs and communicates its message the best is the one that will survive in this hyper-competitive market.

Consumers have less and less patience and attention span: companies need to develop a coherent branding message—the same on the web, in stores, and in ads—about who they are and what they can do for the customer.

A company not completely aligned around its core value proposition and the message it communicates about that proposition will fail. Sales collateral must be on-message with marketing’s branding; incentives must align with company strategy; measurements must track missions, aggregating to sustainable competitive advantage.

Even marketers—professional cynics—are taken aback by the success of a current ad campaign. You’ve seen it / heard it:

Apply directly to the forehead—apply directly to the forehead—apply directly to the forehead.

Blunt force repetitive trauma to the brain. Think Orwell. Goebbels. Big Brother. The Big Lie.

From there, it’s a quick trip to “we’re in Iraq to stop Al-Qaeda from invading Kansas,” with flight jacket and aircraft carrier backdrop.

Massive repetition works. Better than we like to admit. “Brainwashing” is just a value-laden term for what politely passes as “alignment” and “on-message” in the corporate setting. Even “shared values” brushes uncomfortably close to the same territory.

Reggae rapper Shaggy parodied this angle a few years ago in the song “It Wasn’t Me.” Seeking advice after having been caught in flagrante by his girlfriend, he’s told, “Just say ‘It wasn’t me’.” Repeat it often enough and you can get away with anything. Was he being ironic? Or just astute? (Did he help Larry Craig and OJ come up with “I’m not gay” and “it was my stuff”?)

Mainstream marketing and business 101 teach companies to simplify, refine, and focus on one message and mission, then design the whole organization to apply massive force to the fulcrum point of the customer.

The result is called “tuned,” “focused,” “aligned, “and—most chilling—a perversion of “customer-centric.” Apply directly to the marketing. Apply directly to the marketing. Apply directly to the marketing.

There is nothing “wrong” with these techniques per se—the means, in this case, are value-neutral. It is the ends to which they are put—the motives—that matter.

Unfortunately, Roger Ailes, Turdblossom et al didn’t have to translate the business play book to politics. They copied directly. Both have become about winning against other competitors/candidates—not about helping consumers/voters. Bombardment of the consumer/voter with simple messages is good for quitting smoking or announcing emergency traffic routes. For selling pharmaceuticals, wars and presidents? Not so much.

In business, it’s reach and frequency—in politics, it’s being on-message. Tax and spend. Support our troops. Apply directly to the amygdala.

The problem in business and politics is identical. Both have become all about competition and winning—not about consumers and voters. Both have turned the legitimate concept of “customer focus” from a goal into a tactic, linking it tightly to quarterly earnings and the two-year election cycle.

Business has turned "customer focus" into a codeword for tweak, massage and manipulate.

Modern marketing practices flaunt the dictionary, Shaggy-like, when they turn "communication"—formerly defined as "exchange of information"—into the one-way megaphone of "apply directly to the forehead."

At root, this is a failure of belief systems. We are teaching an ideology of short-term me-me-me-ism in business, and our politicians are drinking the same Kool-Aid. For those who think this brand of “competition” is what makes for a successful economy—take a look at the falling US dollar. A focus on commerce, not on competition, is what makes an economy great. We’ve gotten it backwards.

Don’t blame George Bush, Republican; blame George Bush, MBA President. Until the B-schools start preaching networks, collaboration, transparency and commerce in their strategy classes instead of in their so-called “ethics” classes, we in business have no right to complain about the politicians.

5 replies
  1. Philip J. McGee
    Philip J. McGee says:


    Best yet!!  We are a deceitful nation and through that deceit we become worse each day.  You can’t fool everybody but we seem able to fool ourselves always as we sail blithely along in the sea of denial.


  2. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    I really enjoyed your piece on Lessons in Propaganda.  Labelling does work unfortunately too well. It’s a cheap trick because it’s applied directly to the forehead and does not remove quickly like a good band-aid. It stays, sailing in the swift-boat rivers of raging liberal hippy wildcards and two faced old crony gay priest republicans.  It works so well, it is probably one of the reasons we fail so much in medicine — we can’t sell!  We can’t dumb our message down to "don’t eat salt." or "exercise"  because health problems are more complicated. 

    Doctors come off as standoffish and aloof and unable to relate – bad business. This is nothing new; there used to be respect in not being able to communicate because you know too much. There was a given trust, an uninformed belief. It works in the Church still, but no longer in medicine.  Long before the 1980’s though, when doctors had respect in this country for their supposed knowledge, America was already hooked on "A little dab will do ya" and "7-Up, the Lithiated Lemon Drink".  Maybe it was only in the 80’s when the dumb-it-down gurus decided they could make a lot of money by putting the strategy on paper, preaching it to their pupils and proving it in consumer studies.
    One final reminder though that "I’m not gay" and "it wasn’t me" doesn’t fly.  The more you say it, the more clear the opposite is apparent. Think of the girl who shows up at the party and says "whatever you do don’t look at my shoes!"  Five dollars for anyone who can avoid them!
  3. Ivan
    Ivan says:

    Congratulations for this post. It’s an angle that is rarely promoted but very true. I especially agree with your comment on "shared values" in a business organization. That sometimes seems to be done in the same way than that "apply it directly to the forehead" commercial.

  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Ryan and Ivan, thanks for contributing the special perspectives of the physician and of leadership. 

    I had frankly been thinking of this tendency (short-term, blunt instrument, me-me thinking) as showing up mainly in marketing and politics.  You’re pointing out it’s a broader, more subtle phenomenon.


  5. Nate
    Nate says:

    Customers dont care about quality.

    Voters don’t care about policy.

    The "me me me" people demand and the companies deliver.

    Smart people solve problems and when class was a factor and leadership was reviered smart people had enough respect for the "clients" to do what was best for both.


    I think our populations are bored….


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