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Review: Consumer Democracy: The Marketing of Politics

Does political marketing enhance or diminish democracy?

This is one of the key questions that arises from Margaret Scammell's book: Consumer Democracy: The Marketing of Politics.

Elections are a zero sum game, where the aim of a campaign is to win and it is this competitive element that drives political marketing according to Scammell. Such marketing may be good for democracy for example by developing a deeper understanding of citizen concerns, improving the quality of information, increasing public knowledge, encouraging greater engagement and ensuring the responsiveness of politicians. Equally there are dangers such as manipulating emotions through the use of fear and negative messaging, distortion and misinformation, tribal polarisation and ruthless targeting which can reduce transparency and ignore large sections of the electorate.

Scammell argues our task is to identify and promote political marketing that enhances democracy. She sets out a useful set of democratic dimensions against which we can assess and judge political marketing campaigns.

The Rise of Political Marketing Professionals

Over the last 30 years there has been a marked increase in the professionalisation of political campaigns and a corresponding increase in spending. $6.5bn was spent on political campaigning in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections according to the Washington Post.

“Campaigns around the Democratic globe are professionalising, and the evidence of political marketing accumulates with every new study” Lees-Marshment et al, 2010.

Political campaigns are increasingly drawing on marketing tools and techniques such as data analysis, micro-targeting and predictive analytics. Commenting on the 2012 presidential election, Severinghaus in Forbes Magazine noted that “the Obama team assembled a team of top-notch talent and developed one of the most sophisticated data-driven marketing campaigns the world has ever seen.”  (Kindle Location 161)

Politicians and consultants across the world have been eager to learn from the successful campaigns ran by the likes of Jim Messina, Alastair Campbell, David Plouffe, Philip Gould, Lynton Crosby and David Axelrod. There are now over 3,000 political consultancies in the US and an estimated $1.85bn was spent on such consultants in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections.

To be fair not everyone is enamoured by the expertise of these consultants. For example, Dominic Cummings writing about Brexit campaign says of such experts 'the people who win are taken too seriously' and there is little real expertise. He argues there are a multiplicity of factors that determine elections and some of these longer factors such as demographics or cultural change, can determine who wins regardless of how good a campaign is.

That said there appears to be evidence that campaigns matter and can affect both turnout and vote share. (See The Victory Lab) Campaign mistakes also matter, Cummings believes that campaign mistakes can cause defeat much more often than excellent campaigns can cause victory. The 2017 UK general election may be a case in point as detailed in Tim Shipman's account 'Fallout'.

Does Marketing Enhance Campaigns and Democracy?

The adoption of marketing techniques from focus groups to data analytics has not always been welcomed. At the 1987 Labour Party conference Rodney Bickerstaffe, the General Secretary of the NUPE trade union, said "we cannot hand Labour over to the marketing men to be packaged like breakfast cereal: our policies cannot be contracted out to pick of the polls". (The Unfinished Revolution, Kindle Loc 1655).

Scammell highlights many of the benefits that marketing can bring, for example "marketed politics must always attend to public opinion and grant some possibilities for public voice in shaping political programs and in communication." (Loc 514) Marketing also brings many analytical benefits to campaigns in terms of structure, efficiency and being data driven.

However, while political marketing approaches may improve campaigns are they good for democracy as a whole? One of the key purposes of the book is to create a framework for identifying and promoting more inclusive political marketing that enhances democracy. Below is a discussion of some of the key issues she raises.

Understanding and Building Relationships with Citizens

The commercial marketing world has moved from more transactional advertising approaches to 'relationship marketing' which is about building long term, trusting relationships. The cost of obtaining customers is generally high and relationship marketing focuses on retention and lifetime value. This relationship marketing is arguably more relevant to political marketing, as it inherently is about understanding customers, dialogue and relationship building. (Loc 2777)

This audience research is at the heart of campaign marketing and Philip Gould believed that research, such as focus groups, helped connect people and politicians by understanding voters’ priorities and attitudes.

According to Scammell 'the process of advertising creation is vital, its point is to distil into the most clear and simple language the essential characteristics of competing parties and candidates, to find points of emotional connection with voters.'

Increasing Citizen Engagement

Scammell references Schumpter's theory of competitive democracy (1943) where he emphasises the irrationality of voters and the lack of interest in politics requiring campaigns to motivate and engage voters.  In the early 2000s many commentators talked of a crisis of democracy exemplified by low trust and low turnout rates. In 2000 the turnout at the US presidential election was 50.3%. In 2001 the turnout in the UK general election fell to 59.4%. Thus one potential benefit of campaigns that use marketing techniques to understand concerns, and to respond to them, might be to increase engagement and turnout.

However, given the paradigm shift in campaigns identified by Plasser (2002) from ‘media logic’ i.e. national campaigns for mass television audiences to ‘marketing logic' such as microtargeting, narrowcast advertising, direct email, telemarketing, and text messages. (Loc 1068) This new approach is driven by detailed audience research and specific group targeting.

This is exemplified in the adoption of techniques such as CHAID (Chi-square Automatic Interaction Detection) which was used in the US to identify target voters by postal code (Malchow 2003). The approach incorporates baseline polling with consumer and census databases and claims to predict with 95 per cent confidence the likely voting preferences of any group or sub-group. In 2004 the Republicans developed the ‘Voter Vault’ with detailed information on 168m people. The Democrats developed their own version Datamart.

Modern campaign marketing is now focused heavily on specific groups of voters, such as supporters or likely supporters, rather than the public as a whole. Marketing is less focused on changing the minds of those supporting another party but rather on getting out the vote of supporters, and on persuading small groups of swing voters or those not decided in specific geographies. According to Philip Gould "ever more precise targeting of voters is the driver of campaigns.' (loc 1199)

In the new world of marketing, campaigns may be reluctant to target another party's supporters for fear it may motivate them to vote. Indeed if they target these voters at all it may be with messages to suppress turnout. It has been argued that Trump had three major voter suppression strategies in the 2016 election. For example, informing black voters of Hilary Clinton’s comment in 1994, describing some black teenagers as “superpredators” which was designed to reduce turnout amongst this group.

Another critical view on impact of marketing approaches is set out by Joe Klein in his book 'Politics Lost' where he blames consultants for draining the authentic, human qualities out of politicians. This can give rise to higher levels of cynicism and lower engagement.

Does Marketing Lead to Better Campaign Management?

Scammell quotes Philip Gould that 'running an election campaign is an attempt to create order out of chaos'.

Marketing approaches can be useful in helping to create a systematic and more efficient campaign. Each campaign has the same elements such as research, strategy, message, advertising, organisation and fundraising. Scammell brings forward evidence that of all these elements strategy is the single most important factor. A good strategy is based on extensive research.

The increased professionalisation of political communication has also increasingly led to command and control models for campaigns with messages and communication being decided centrally and controlly ruthlessly from the centre. Scammell notes 'the military high command model is still the predominant way of running campaigns'. (Loc 1328) There is a danger these highly controlled and professional approaches can alienate members of a party, including very senior members.

Political marketing campaigns are very focused on news management and the importance was highlighted by Plasser (2002) who defined it as the control of topics and frames of reporting. Gould talks in depth about the creation of 'the grid' for the Labour Party which was a detailed plan of the news stories they wanted to highlight and promote on each day of a campaign. The purpose of 'the grid', news management and paid advertising is effectively agenda setting. In simple terms the discussion is about the topics where you are strong or the opposition is weak. It is also about creating the narrative to frame stories.

In his book the Victory Lab, Issenberg reports that Jim Messina found you cou  dgauge whether a topic was likely to win media attention by tracking whether it was the subject of chatter on Twitter. 'I found the informal conversation among political class elites on Twitter typically lead to traditional prints or broadcast press coverage one or two days later.'

Does Marketing Lead Everyone to the Centre or Polarisation?

Scammell makes the point a good campaign may be one that wins but that is not the same as a campaign that enhances democracy. She refers to Anthony Down's economic theory of democracy (1957) which argues "to maximise their chances candidates must position themselves at the median in a normal distribution of voters policy preferences. Thus logically candidates gravitate to the centre ground where most voters are."

This centre ground approach can be seen in the thinking of people such as Philip Gould. Scammell  highlights a concern that marketing approaches may lead parties to compete in the centre ground where most voters are located, and where there are few genuine ideological differences.

In the early part of this millenium these arguments were commonplace, namely that parties were becoming very similar and the differences between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party were minimal as they fought for the centre ground. Interestingly just a few short years later the concerns are not about everyone becoming homogenous but rather about polarisation.

The election of Trump, the support for Brexit and Corbyn and the rise of authoritarian populism in Europe have also been blamed on modern marketing. It can be argued that the ruthless targeting of specific groups, appealing emotionally to existing supporters, exaggerating arguments that stretch the truth, data mining personal information, social media marketing and news management, such as Trump's use of Tweets, all stem from modern approaches to marketing and lead to increasing polarisation.

It has to be said that many commentators have rejected the centre ground theory and notion that people move across a linear spectrum from left to right. For example Cummings argues the swing voters who decide elections do not think in terms of left, right and centre. He argues they support much tougher policies on violent crime and tougher anti-terrorism laws AND much higher taxes on the rich and much tougher action on executive pay. Thus they support both policies traditionally considered to be on the right and on the left simultaneously. Interestingly many of the populist parties in Europe do appear to be appealing to both the authoritarian instincts such as tough on crime and immigration and also higher taxes for the rich, which fits the anti-establishment 'us against them' nature of populism.

Recent elections have also highlighted evidence of group polarisation based on age, education and location such as cities versus towns and rural areas. There have been various attempts to explain these new tribes such as David Goodhart's description of the Somewheres and the Anywheres. Modern political marketing tends to identify and target these specific tribes or groups. A task made easier by the use of social media micro-targeting.

The Importance of Branding

According to Scammell branding is the new form of political marketing, “candidates and parties are imagined, researched, and developed as competing brands.” (Loc 1368)

Understanding the way voters view parties as a brand can be a useful tool for analysis. Successful brands in the commercial sector have an element of emotional connection that goes beyond the functional utility of a product or service.  Many products or services meet a threshold of functionality and therefore competition is really about differentiators. This where people make both an emotional and rational decision. The rational decision may be modified by the emotional brand connection whether this is cultural, social or psychological.

The importance of brand research is in understanding how these differentiators affect consumers behaviour.

Scammell provides two useful examples of political branding, namely Tony Blair and George Bush. In the case of Blair there was a need to adjust the brand following the Iraq war and increased hostility to Blair personally. Focus groups revealed three key emotional reactions to Blair namely you've left me, you're too big for your boots, you need to reflect and change. The new brand strategy was designed to address these emotional reactions. They found that small things matter, 'in the case of Blair it was tone of voice that was key to unlocking the reconnection strategy'.  One of the key lessons from the Blair story is the need to constantly strive to understand voters and their emotional connections or disconnections, and to adjust the brand strategy accordingly.

The power of branding is highlighted by Scammell's telling of the George W Bush story. She outlines how Karl Rove repackaged Bush as a brand. (loc 1731) Rather than a failed rich, businessman Rove created a brand story about a straight shooting Texan, a christian, a family man with shared values who lived on a ranch. Despite his family background and wealth, part of the brand appeal was his ordinariness. The use of strong visuals, and consistent messaging was effective.

The branding strategy focused on emotional differentiators. Bush had a limited record of competence so they focused on factors such as being a strong leader, being able to trust him, and caring about people like me.  In the campaign they negatively attacked Kerry on his record and his competence to detract from the areas where Bush was weak and they positively promoted the emotional differentiators. Scammell points to research in political psychology which emphasizes that emotional connections are crucial for voters judgements and participation.

Scammell notes that Bush's popularity fell dramatically post 2004, and 'may offer some comfort to rationalists that substance is the fare of real, wholesome politicians'.

Do Political Marketing Campaigns make a Difference?

Scammell quotes Bartel’s 1992 review of US electioneering which says change in party support is not down to campaigns. He argues that change in support can be explained by three factors:
  1. Underdogs gain ground 
  2. Economic prosperity advantages incumbents 
  3. Heavily outspending opponents will be rewarded with a point or two in vote share
However, the assumption that campaigns don't matter is increasingly challenged. For example, people are less wedded to party allegiances, agenda setting influences what people think about if not what they think. Campaigns may lead to knowledge gain, perception change, mobilisation, persuasion and reinforcement. Our everyday experience of the world is also mediated, and campaigning is not just about changing votes but agenda setting and framing debates.

Scammell concludes “the new consensus is that campaigns do matter, and can have a significant, even if not decisive, impact on citizen engagement and understanding of candidates and elections.”

Can Political Marketing Enhance Democracy?

This question is really at the heart of Scammell's book. She argues that political marketing exists whether we like it or not. It has become a distinct branch of political communication scholarship with its own international journal, annual conferences, and specialist groupings. Scammell argues our task is to distinguish good from bad marketing, and promote democratically desirable political marketing.

Scammell proposes a set of democratic dimensions against which to assess political marketing campaigns, namely:
  • Micro - encourage political learning, encourage affective investment (sense that the election matters to them), increase sense of efficacy (that your vote matters), activate citizen mobilisation e.g. voting. 
  •  Macro - increase public knowledge, promote accountability, promote responsiveness of political elites, and provide system legitimacy 
Many campaigns do not measure up against these critiera, for example those that distort information, those that attempt to use fear as an emotion, and those that target just specific groups and which do not promote better overall knowledge. Campaigns can also be divisive and tribal. Unfortunately political campaigns also frequently adopt war metaphors such as war room and ground battles.  Scammell notes that some political campaigns adopt the language of hate rather than of love.

Political marketing can over-emphasise the leadership brand, as 'the leader can be a way to achieve social, psychological and cultural resonance with voters'. (loc 2925) There are dangers with these emotional brand appeals but as Scammell says 'a good campaign will appeal to our hearts and minds as much as our intellect'. A good campaign will appeal to hope not fear

Marketing campaigns can emphasise the negative or mislead but a good campaign is also attentive and responsive to citizen interests  Knowledge is important to a democracy and citizens now have more access to a wide range of information.  In the commercial space consumers now do more research and visit websites/reviews before making buying decisions.

The political marketing perspective adopted by Scammell also raises key questions about politics and citizen relations within the overall structure of competition. Political marketing differs depending upon the nature of the democratic system. Political marketing that ignores vast swathes of the population 'is often a result of the democratic system that incentivises this behaviour'. Looking at political marketing leads us to question democratic design.

Scammell concludes 'there is plenty of good in marketing, it takes us seriously as adult citizen-consumers, is deeply concerned with what we think and feel, invites our participation, encourages our enjoyment, and seeks mutually beneficial long-lasting relationships with stakeholders'. (Loc 3383)

She identifies ways in which politics can learn from marketing. In reality politicians must sell themselves to us, the citizen, and Scammell makes the case for identifying and promoting more inclusive marketing that enhances democracy.


Things change. Each election is unique, complex and often chaotic as discussed in the book. What worked for one election may not work for another. Scammell notes that one of Philip Gould’s criticisms of political science analysis is that 'it's static and cannot capture the unpredictable and often random nature of politics as it happens'.

What was interesting reading the book now in 2018 is how much has changed in just the few short years since this book was published in 2014. The elections of Trump, of Five Star in Italy, the Brexit referendum and Corbyn's 2017 campaign have raised many further questions about political marketing. Not about the efficacy of such marketing but the impact of these political marketing campaigns on tribalism, truth and knowledge, on polarisation and on democracy itself. There has probably never been a more important time to look at Scammell's ideas about identifying and promoting political marketing that enhances democracy.