Marketing in an age of punditry

1st November 2016

As is my wont, I am a slave to podcastery at the moment, given the imminent elections over yonder. I have never been a sports fan, but my interest in American politics helps me get the drift: the passion, the drama, the pain of losing, and the brine-inducing glory of coming out on top.

Early this morning I was in the weeds, listening to a detailed discussion on how American politics has changed these years, when a point was made that echoes a phenomenon I believe I have been feeling for perhaps twenty years. 

That is, that there is no real experience portrayed by the media anymore. We are all pundits. We watch pundits, we appropriate the opinions of pundits, and then we have a habit of regurgitating the same. 

Who am I to talk for you? But I do talk for myself. At least some of the time. I am a warehouse for the political opinions of others, made towards others.  

I happened on a video of some bearded American citizen entitled ‘Why I Voted for Donald Trump (and F*ck Off If You Don’t Like It)’, and amid his defence of his actions, saw him draw attention the t-shirt which he wore to the polling booth. Inscribed in big bold font: intelligence ≠ regurgitation. 

On both sides of the political divide, the punditry phenomenon burns brightly. The most direct result of this is that we forget to think of ourselves as real people with real opinions. No matter what happens – a scandal of some kind for instance – our response tends to be “Mmmm, this may not play well for Clinton. Or, this will rally the Trump vote…”. 

Thus, we become part of politics-as-horse-race not politics-as-support-mechanism, designed for better living our own lives. 

Punditry infuses all of life.

I once caught myself considering the sexual abuse by Irish priests only as a vector to understanding how inert the Church had become. That is to say, my lazy, pundit-thinking allowed me to transcend (aka ignore) the real pain suffered by real people, in an effort to follow the horse race: in this case, the dismantling of the abusive institutional giants which corruptly ran this country in which I was raised.  

But punditry is perhaps most alive in marketing. (And the question worth considering: is it now a cancer, or does it serve us still?)

Let’s go to the movies. Because I have a feeling it began as a small and steady stream from cinema, where viewers got to understand how the director employed ‘special effects’. In this manner, we began the conversation of looking not just at the puppets, but also the puppetry. 

Things have developed to such a stage that we, as consumers, are fully conversant with the ways and manoeuvrings of marketing and brands whilst simultaneously being their object. 

Think how strange this is. It is as if everything is enjoyed gestalt-like yet simultaneously deconstructed; as if consumption is an act of several viewpoints in the one moment.

I liken this effect to the security man in a theatre, surveying multiple security screens in one glance. He spontaneously oversees front of house, the audience, the act on stage – whilst also seeing the wings, the green room, and the shoddy door out back where fans clamber, awaiting a signature from their actor du jour. 

Punditry sets the cat amongst the pigeons. Because we are all brand managers as well as consumers, we consume not just execution but also strategy. I may not like the comedian’s joke, but I profess to liking her intent; I may not love the meta platform of a certain TV show, but I cannot resist one of its recurring characters. And yes – I may object to a politician’s ignorance and racism, but I may like his meta intent of ‘draining the swamp’ of the same old same olds

In this age of punditry, I think a few principles of marketing need to be re-examined. I will posit them here as if I am sure of what I am saying, but in truth, this is merely the ongoing conversation going on in my own head.

 – There is no such thing as a naive consumer. Sentient human beings use your brand to help them live their lives, whilst also thinking carefully about how your brand is seeking to manipulate them to achieve its own ends. Brands are chosen when the trade-off is acceptable.

 – Emotion is the true power of brands because it, like the sexual energy which will have us do inexplicable things in order to realise some primal desire, is the temporary kryptonite of punditry. For a few fleeting moments, we can be transported and see the world from one point of view alone – and it is that of the much feted ‘consumer’.

 – The strategy better be coherent. I do not say that it needs to be explicit. But if it does not add up to something coherent, it will fail twice as fast as before. Because consumers engage not just in our fabulous executions but also in the meanings that sit behind them. And if the two do not tally, a brand quickly becomes like a poorly plotted novel. No matter how well written, it dissatisfies, and is ultimately not worth the read.

 – We’d better be in the game for something more than profit. The thing about punditry is that it is eternally questioning. It seeks to expose the fundamental truth of things. And high on its list is a desire to understand motivations. Why do they do this? What is their real intent? What is their purpose?

 – Something must happen beyond the spin. Anyone even remotely connected with politics will be aware of the great well of cynicism that awaits politicians who would spin a story away from reality to suit their own ends. They lose their audience in so doing. I suspect brands will evolve in the same direction. In such a new world,  ‘traditional’ communication will be dethroned, relegated to entertaining balderdash. And a quest for a simpler, more spontaneous truth will emerge. And how might this appear to someone? To me? Well, it could be a truth told to me by my friends, perhaps. Or by my neighbours. Or whomsoever I can believe amid the maelstrom of sensationalism that comes my way. Thus I will have curated a group of commentators, hired and fired by me and me alone. And if all of this should come to pass, the paradigm of marketer and marketed will effectively be flipped. 

Punditry is here to stay until it has outstayed its welcome. I expect you are less than impressed by the bravery of that empty statement… When it loses touch with real thinking, and becomes a dark art of spin alone, it will have flown too close to the sun and will fall to earth. 

And then, bit by bit, a new way of seeing the truth will emerge. And we’re off to the polls, yet again.

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