Category Archives: Politics

The GOP’s Cannibalistic Communication Strategy


Recently I haven’t had the chance to post anything that is especially timely, so tonight I thought I would give it a try. I also haven’t written much about politics, or anything else possibly inflammatory, so I thought I’d touch on something new. Of course, this is still fundamentally about communications and more specifically about propaganda.

This evening Eric Cantor, the U.S House Majority leader of the Republican Party lost his seat in the primaries. He lost to David Brat, an economics professor and official Tea Party candidate, who won the heart of primary voters of Virginia by demonizing Cantor as not being conservative enough. Even though polls apparently showed that Brat was no threat, he managed to win by a margin of 11%. How did this happen?

For all intents and purposes Fox News is the propaganda wing of the Republican Party and plays a major role in crafting and delivering the messages of the party to its viewers. I know Fox News is actually quite popular and apparently has much better ratings than other news networks in the U.S, but as a Canadian, I can’t help but feel that they are absolutely crazy. There is such an extreme reaction to anything remotely progressive, such a sense of outrage for all things not-conservative, and such an emphasis on twisting the facts. Hot button issues in America like the Affordable Care Act, Immigration Reform, Gun Reform and Gay Marriage are for some reason at the forefront of the Republican psyche. These aren’t even political issues, these issues in the minds of some Americans are about the very nature of “Freedom”.

In its most terrifying and vitriolic form, it keeps people in a constant state of fear and in an endless posture of defence that breeds a sort of natural radicalism. Much like the recoiled rattle snake on the Gadsden flag, these people consider themselves in a defensive poster and are prepared to strike. This isn’t an attempt to attack these people. It is the natural result of being constantly bombarded with messaging that makes them feel under threat. It engenders distrust and suspicion. If the left is apparently a socialist juggernaut hell-bent on destroying your freedoms, it only makes sense that one would go from right to far right, and in the process, cannibalize your base.

The odd element to this is that no amount of outrageous violent acts or mass killings seems to even remotely curb the propaganda. If anything, it seems to help the momentum of their arguments. The American response to a mass shooting is more gun sales and a renewed vow to protect the rights of gun owners, as if that is somehow the answer to the problem. Now this post isn’t about guns specifically, but espousing some far right-wing ideology, of which gun right seem to be a major issue. I think the de-throning of Cantor will be the first step in trying to back-peddle this process.

Shootings happen and the crazies will always be out there, but losing political power and the wasted funding of vested interests will cause the Republicans to suddenly wake up and realize that they are doing real damage to themselves in addition to the general public. There are more primaries to go and given the magnitude of the upset for Cantor, it is entirely possible that more Tea Party members will unseat traditional conservatives. It’s unfortunate that a lost seat will be the catalyst for this change, rather than more important problems that arise from this situation.

The Republicans have created their own monster by fanning the flames through years of negative and paranoid messaging and it will threaten their future. They have set up a situation where candidates battle to prove that each is “more conservative” than the other, so they can pass some sort of imaginary litmus test. They have created a conservative vs conservative battle that severely weakens their base. I expect in the upcoming weeks and months we will see a toning down of this inflammatory rhetoric, if only to fight for self-preservation. It will hopefully make way for a new communications strategy that isn’t so fear-based. In the short term it may help Republicans keep control of their seats, and in the long term it might help to change the trajectory of the increasingly disenfranchised and paranoid segment of the American population that is wrecking so much havoc.

Rob Ford’s loyal base

I feel compelled to write about Rob Ford now that he has become part of the America’s public consciousness.  After all, his late night appearance on Jimmy Kimmel not only made waves across Toronto media, it also boosted Kimmel’s ratings by 19%.  Rob Ford is a bona fide celebrity, whether the people of Toronto want it or not, and it’s important to understand how he created such a loyal following.  Most importantly because after the different videos documenting his antics are shown, the inevitable question is, “how is this guy running for re-election?”.  U.S Media loves to point out that the “Crack Mayor” has polling numbers that show a surprising level of support, as if it were some sort of punch line about the city as a whole.

Because Rob Ford seems crazy, people outside of Toronto can only assume that Torontoians are equally crazy for supporting him.  No matter what he does, his approval rating rarely drops below 40%.  Here is an interesting graph of Mayor Ford’s approval rating during different controversies from 2011 to 2013 I saw in an article on Torontoist two weeks ago.

Ford approval ratings trend line

                                                                        Ford approval ratings trend line

The Ethos of Rob Ford

Rob Ford’s strength is that he has made himself out to be an average hard working guy who is accessible to the citizens of Toronto.  He is the kind of guy who directly disobeys his communications staff in favour of giving out his personal cell phone number, or coming directly to his constituents’ doorsteps to discuss issues.  In an age where political messaging and posturing is so crafted, where images are perfected, Rob Ford stands out for better or worse.

Let’s not forget that George W Bush was the presidential candidate that most American’s wanted to have a beer with and he won the election partially based on that.  People shouldn’t be voting for their leaders based on how agreeable they would be as a drinking buddy, but we can’t help ourselves.  We want leaders, but we also want somebody that we can identify with.  We desire somebody better than ourselves to lead us, but not someone explicitly better.  Not somebody too good for us.

Radio Magic

During my daily commute I listen to talk radio.  I hardly know what the faces or backgrounds of the host, but I have nevertheless come to feel that I have relationships with the hosts.  They speak to a large audience, but radio has some magic that is very individual.  I assume that’s it’s partially due to the direct connection between speaker and listener, but also the fact that it is live on-the-air radio.  It has an unparalleled degree of verisimilitude because it is so direct.  To bring this back to public relations and propaganda: It makes me think about FDR’s famous fire side chats devised by the Office of Public Information that helped him become a President loved by the people.

Now, Rob Ford is hardly a Roosevelt, but I feel that he does owe a lot of his support to his use of radio.  Way before he was a mayor he had “What’s Eating Rob Ford” a weekly segment on AM640.  He also used other talk radio shows to get his message across by calling in.  Once he was mayor, he had another other radio show with his brother, “The City with Mayor Rob Ford & Councillor Doug Ford” this time on rival station CFRB.  While I did not listen to either of these shows, I can understand how fans of his would really like this type of connection and access.  I can also understand the necessity to connect directly to his constituents rather than use traditional media who have been somewhat hostile to him since he was a councillor.

Through the eyes of supporters

For the members of Ford Nation who have been rooting for the Ford family for years, Rob has become a pretty sympathetic character.  He is widely disliked and ridiculed by media not only in his own town, but now across the continent.  He is also apparently dealing with numerous personal issues: drug addiction, alcohol abuse and weight issues.  Although he never seems to play the victim for these specific issues, I still believe his supporters feel sympathetic to him.  Not in the late-night talk-show feigned concern, but in a way that is much more personal.

For the people that hate Rob Ford all these issues only make him more of a liability for the city and clearly show how unfit he is for office.  For his supporters though, there is a real concern that Rob get help with his issues so he can overcome them and get back to being the sort of person that they want to see lead.  It’s that personal connection that his supporters feel for him.  I believe to them he is more than just a politician they want to vote for, he is somebody they feel they know and care for.  They are sympathetic to his problems and are becoming increasingly defensive when he is brought out only to be humiliated.

When Jimmy Kimmel showed images of Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti with images of Rob Ford it was a study in contrasts.  Sure, Mayor Garcetti looks great in his photo opportunities, but the contrast really brings back what made Rob Ford so popular with his constituents in the first place.  He isn’t the slick politician, he isn’t good at photo ops, he isn’t postured by a team of experts.  He is who he is, unapologetically.

Despite his willingness to get publicity however he can, he shouldn’t have gone on Jimmy Kimmel.  At least he took the ridicule and questions politely without creating a bigger and newer problem.  I did actually feel bad for him as he sort of seemed caught off guard.  This would have been better:

FORD gif

Lessons to learn

Rob ford has harnessed this sort of populist ethos very well.  Whether genuine or not, he created an image that felt authentic, a sort of what-you-see-is-what-you-get mentality for voters.  This has also been his tragic flaw in the past year, as he has been unable to help himself.  The same qualities that brought him close to voters and made him stand out from the pack, and the very same qualities that are now playing a large part in his inability to rehabilitate his image.

I do not live in Toronto so I cannot vote in the mayoral election.  However, I fear that this election will become so focused on an “anybody but Ford” race, which may not be in the city’s best interest.  It would be nice to have a candidate that took Rob Ford’s politics, ethos and dedication to the tax-payer without any sort of crazy personal or legal issues.  Rob Ford has really fallen from grace, and likely will neither be able to re-build his image to gain any new supporters, nor should he.  It would be best for Toronto if he just moved on, but don’t let the exuberance of watching him self-destruct get in the way of the lessons he taught us.

If you can do all the crazy things that Rob Ford has done in the past 8 months, and still have a large base of support that isn’t based in a specifically political ideology, surely you’ve done something right.

PR Offensive: Soda Stream vs Goliath

The recent PR offensive waged against Scarlett Johansson and her choice to do a Super Bowl commercial for Soda Stream is an interesting study in what I believe is clandestine PR.

If you haven’t seen the commercial in question, here it is:

The Controversy

The Controversy surrounding this recent commercial is a little confusing.  When I heard that there was outrage over Scarlett’s choice to be in the commercial I assumed it was somehow offensive or too racy for the “family audience” of the Super Bowl.  Nope, not offensive as far as I can tell, so it isn’t the commercial itself.  Then I thought that maybe Soda Stream had some scandal where their products were harmful to consumers.  Nope, nothing wrong with their product either.  Luckily Gawker took the time to explain the situation for me.

As it turns out, this has everything to do with Israeli/Palestinian relations.  The company’s headquarters are based in Israel and the company is run by Israelis, but one of their 25 international bottling plants is located in the West Bank.  This bottling plant employs both Jews and Arabs and they work together peacefully.  The company pays better wages (perhaps partially due to the low taxes of the West bank) than most other companies in the area.  According to the CEO, he would rather not have the bottling plant in the West Bank, but it was built in 1991 and he isn’t going to turn his back on the Palestinians now. To me, it sounds like the company isn’t doing anything wrong.  I understand the Israel/Palestine issue is important, but I don’t understand why Soda Stream is singled out.  If anything they seem to be doing the right thing by creating a workplace where Jews and Arabs work together for their mutual benefit.

In fact, I imagine if he closed the plant and relocated to Jerusalem proper putting the Palestinian Arabs out of work, the company would receive an even harsher backlash.  This isn’t a business issue as much as it’s a political issue.  In that regard I feel blame should be put on their respective governments and the international community.  However, there is a real business issue underlying the story.

The Company

The Soda Stream Company is actually over 100 years old, as they started in the UK all the way back in 1903 and began selling their first widely available product came out in the 1920s.  They were  acquired by a a few different companies over the years without much growth, then everything changed.  In 2007 their parent company Soda Club Group was bought out by Israeli private equity group Fortissimo Capital.  Since then they’ve really become an impressive company.

Since Fortissmo Capital acquired Soda Stream they have:

  • Installed a new CEO
  • Released new consumer friendly products
  • Won design and innovation awards for their new products
  • Internationally re-branded their company
  • Expanded into global markets
  • Had an IPO on the NASDAQ
  • Developed Corporate Social Responsibility projects
  • Launched a strategic co-branding deal with Kraft Foods
  • Appointed Scarlett Johansson as their global brand ambassador

According to their 2013 documents for Investor’s day they have had impressive growth in revenue and sales.  Here are some charts from that presentation:

sodastrream revenue

from Soda Streams Investors Day 2013 presentation

from Soda Streams Investors Day 2013 presentation

Perhaps the most important slide is their marketing budget vs coca-cola.

from Soda Streams Investors Day 2013 presentation

from Soda Streams Investors Day 2013 presentation

Soda stream is growing at an impressive rate, but they are taking on giants like PepsiCo Inc and Coca-Cola Enterprises, both of which have massive marketing budgets.  As they detailed above, they have to use their small budget wisely and outsmart the competition.  This brings us back to their Super Bowl commercial.

Sorry Coke and Pepsi

The line Scarlett says at the end of the commercial, “Sorry Coke and Pepsi”, is a direct attack on their competitors.  In fact it’s the reason this commercial is banned in the first place.  PepsiCo has historically centered their new advertising campaigns around the Super Bowl.  According to a poll from AdMeter in an article published by USA Today six of the top 25 Super Bowl commercials of all time are from PepsiCo, more than any other company including Budweiser or McDonalds.  So Soda Stream is stepping into PepsiCo’s territory and directly challenging them.

Whether the commercial airs or not does not really matter at this point.  The youtube video has nearly 9 million views, the controversy around Scarlett ending her relationship with Oxfam has made international headlines and Soda Stream has leveraged the controversy by using social media to spread the #sorrycokeandpepsi hashtag.  If Humanaut the branding agency that created this advertisement had promised Soda Stream they’d make a campaign that went viral, it’s been a huge success.  Especially if the commercial actually doesn’t air and they save the $4 million it would have cost for the placement anyway.  They’re getting all the attention for half the price.

I have a feeling that either Coca-Cola Enterprises or PepsiCo played a role the recent PR campaign that focused on Soda Stream’s West Bank bottling facility.  It was a clever way to affect the public perception of Soda Stream as both a product and as a company.  I think the manufactured outrage didn’t go as well as planned, since the Palestinian and Israeli Arabs that work at the facility don’t seem too angry themselves.

Soda Stream will have a hard battle for market share against their soft drink competitors, but if they can continue to outsmart rather than outspend, they will keep growing.