What’s Your “Go-To” Lesson in Politics?
Here’s a question I was asked at a dinner party recently that made me wonder how people here might answer. The question:
What is the single lesson you have learned in your life that most informs the way you view political races today?
Maybe that lesson can be part of a book you read, be it Animal Farm or Atlas Shrugged, Walden or The Road to Serfdom. Maybe it was an event, either public or private. Maybe it was something your mom used to say to you when you were growing up.
For me, I think I would answer differently depending upon what day of the week you asked, but on any given day this would always make the top three, if not hit the number one spot: The Kraft Cheese and Macaroni ad campaign.
I learned about this is an Advertising 101-type class my sophmore year of college, and even though I gave it little thought then I have long found the lesson profound if somewhat unsettling in retrospect. The story as I remember goes like this: Kraft had essentially invented instant mac & cheese back in the 1930s, and for decades had what might as well have been a monopoly of the market segment they themselves created. In the 1970s, however, they began losing huge chunks of market share to competitors. This erosion was not due to price – in fact, a lot of the upstarts were charging more. Instead, research showed that other mac & cheeses were gaining in popularity because people thought they tasted like they had cheese in them. (If you grew up with Kraft as I did, you know that while it is a fine comfort food it tastes nothing like cheese.) This put Kraft executives in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, they were still top dog and had a best-selling product that a generation had grown up with, so they weren’t thrilled with the idea of increasing their costs just to make their product taste like real food. On the other hand, sales, profits and market share were declining on an annual basis. So what to do?
What they did was launch an ad campaign that older Leaguers like myself will still remember: They ran ads for years that had actor housewives and kids say Kraft should rename the household staple Kraft Cheese and Macaroni, because it tasted so cheesy! And the strategy worked. By the early 1980s Kraft had once again become the near monopoly of non-homemade mac & cheese. But here’s the thing: They never changed the recipe. They just told everyone that it was cheesier, and all the people who had abandoned it for not being cheesy enough came back. And what’s more, they stayed – for decades.
In the next year and a quarter, I will think about this lesson every time I see a campaign ad, or hear a talking point given in response to an difficult question during a debate, or read a human interest piece on the man or woman who just might be my next President, Senator or Whatever. Because what I have come to realize is that all party politics that are played with the public are just variations on the Cheese and Macaroni campaign. In the months ahead, publicists for Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and everyone else running will spend billions of dollars trying to get me to believe that the candidate’s families – their marriages and their relationships with their children – are exactly like mine. This is ridiculous, of course. I would never choose a career path that would subject my family to the Hell those fame worshipers are about to put their loved ones through. Hell, these people are actively choosing to essentially widow and orphan their loved ones for somewhere between the next two and ten years, depending on how successful they are.
And those messages on maters of substance won’t fare any better when compared to reality. Seriously, is there anyone that doesn’t bleep DNC Blue that looks at what BO has done in his first term and still buys the Change message? Similarly, is there anyone that isn’t a knee-jerk ditto head that actually believes that the GOP is about reduced government influence and spending in any capacity other than as a campaigning shtick? If you just read either of those last two sentences and felt you dander go up, followed by “Hey, that’s not what my side does!” you have fallen for the Cheese & Macaroni hook, line, and sinker.
Anyway, that’s my go-to lesson. What’s yours? I plan to be surprised and inspired by this lot’s answers.
UPDATE: Additional brilliant part of the ad campaign I just got watching the linked commercial: The use of the phrase “we use Real Kraft cheddar.” Which you actually have to think about before realizing they don’t actually claim to use cheese.