In 1982, Tylenol faced a potentially lethal brand crisis. Someone tampered with its packaging in a number of Chicago retail locations, randomly lacing the pain relief capsules with cyanide. Fear and chaos ensued. Seven people died, and the well known product risked commercial extinction.
Fortunately, the company slowly clawed its way back from the abyss through a combination of smart repackaging and crisis communications.
Democrats now face a brand crisis of their own -- not with self-identified partisans, but with independents and swing voters that helped elect a congressional majority in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2008.
This shift is evident in polling. A Rasmussen survey in November of 2008 found voters trusted the Democratic Party on 9 out of 10 issues (and tied on one -- national security). About sixteen months later, the most recent Rasmussen poll shows almost a complete reversal, with Republicans now trusted on 9 out of the 10 same issues.
The locus of political pain has shifted in America – from Republicans to Democrats. After Barack Obama won the White House and his party expanded its numbers in Congress, talk abounded about “permanent majorities” and an FDR-like juggernaut in Congress.
To their credit, Democrats exercised party discipline and legislative prowess in passing legislation like the stimulus bill and health care reform. But their tactics and policies also created anger and mobilization among political opponents.
What happened? Are the Tylenol killers at it again, this time tampering with the Democrats’ packaging?
Last week on Pollster.com, political scientist Brendan Nyhan posted a short analysis of some political brand trends over the last year, which reinforces the Rasmussen data titled, “The Disappearing Democratic Brand Advantage.” Looking at the differences between the parties’ net favorable/unfavorable ratings, Nyhan writes that since last October, “the difference in net positive numbers between the parties has closed from 27 points (favoring the Democrats) to 6.” And while Nyhan’s not in the camp expecting a 1994-like blowout in November, he writes, “[T]he Democratic valence advantage that might have helped prevent such an outcome has evaporated.”
Political branding is a hot topic in Washington. Activists and consultants import ideas from the business world to boost the image of candidates or parties. Democrats in 2006 regularly consulted with brand and language guru George Lakoff to boost their image. Republicans also conferred with business branding experts following their stinging defeat in 2006, looking for ways to burnish their appeal with voters.
Not long after Mr. Obama was elected, his former White House social secretary and Chicago friend, Desiree Rogers, said the president possessed the best “political brand” in the world.
Political branding, however, is a tricky business. Democrats may find it difficult – or even impossible – to reverse their brand degradation before November for a few reasons.
First, opponents won’t relent. Tylenol needed to take steps to dig out of its hole, but the company didn’t confront a constant barrage of commercial criticism from its competitors. In today’s permanent campaign environment, parties can try to “fix” image problems, but their efforts are often undercut by the counter messages of the opposition.
Second, social science research shows Americans tend to engage a fragmented media culture by following outlets that reinforce their previously held beliefs. This makes persuasion and image repair on a large scale even more challenging.
Third, factors beyond a party’s control also shape its brand. Tylenol was able to repackage containers, take its old inventory off the shelf, and even develop new types of pills less subject to tampering.
But Democrats don’t have a fast acting medicine for economic pain – especially a medicine to create jobs. They can’t do much to shape the unemployment rate between now and November.
And while unemployment has occasionally topped 8.5 percent since 1950 (when the Bureau of Labor statistics started keeping statistics), it’s only surged above that level once during a midterm election year (1982). Congressional Republicans (the president’s party that year) lost 26 seats in the House that year. There’s no political Merck Manual for a jobless rate near 10 percent.
Finally, it’s difficult to control party outliers. Tylenol could slap a new label on its familiar red box and mass produce millions of identical copies.
Political parties lack such uniformity. In the minds of undecided voters is the Democratic Party Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Harry Reid, Rep. Charlie Rangel or a backbench incumbent congressman? Perceptions of these individuals, as well as their actions, all shape a party’s image.
Political brands are tough to manage. A lot can happen between now and November, but if current patterns continue, Democrats may require something more akin to morphine.