The great Bob Newhart used to perform a comedy routine titled “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” which imagined a telephone conversation just before the Gettysburg Address between a slick ad man and the rather dim fellow who had been cast to portray the wholly manufactured and thoroughly market-tested public image of the rail-splitting Great Emancipator. It’s a brilliant bit, the sort of shrewdly observed satire that comedians no longer seem up to, but for sheer laughs about Madison Avenue-style politics even the eerily prescient Newhart would be hard-pressed to beat a recent Washington Post report headlined “The making of Hillary 5.0: Marketing wizards help re-imagine Clinton brand.”
Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has “recruited consumer marketing specialists on to her team of trusted political advisers,” according to the report, and “are sketching ways to refresh the well-established brand for tomorrow’s marketplace.” One of the wizards is taking a leave of absence from her job as a marketing executive for Coca-Cola, and another has previously produced commercials for such corporate giants as Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart. The pair are busy at work on an “H” logo, with the article suggesting it might become as iconic as Coca-Cola’s contour bottles or the McDonald’s golden arches or that three-pointed Mercedes-Benz hood ornament that all the rappers used to wear as jewelry back in the ’90, but they’re also involved in developing a broader campaign message that will reportedly stress “economic fairness.” The authors acknowledge that “authenticity can be a powerful trait,” and note rather ruefully that “despite some raw displays of emotion” in her past failed presidential campaign Clinton “often came across as overly programmed,” but they seem hopeful that the new marketing wizards will solve that problem. They note that the Coca-Cola has a reputation for selling aged brands to youthful consumers, and we’d point out that Wal-Mart has acquired such a reputation for working class authenticity that upper-class liberals such as Clinton won’t allow one in their neighborhoods, so the pair might well be able to work similar magic for their candidate.
It probably isn’t helpful, however, for the Washington Post to make like Toto and draw back the curtain on the wizards as they pull the levers of a smoke-spewing candidate. Democratic primary voters are prone to thinking of “economic fairness” in terms of sticking it to the hated corporations, with manufacturers of sugary drinks and carbon-emitting airlines and minimum-wage-paying Wal-Mart right up there with the Koch Brothers and Monsanto in the liberal hierarchy of villainy, and it might blunt the necessary anti-capitalist message if the audience knew that it was produced by corporate ad agencies on behalf of a board member of numerous corporations. The Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart guy even came up with the “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering slogan that since become a rallying cry of Lone Star State conservatism. A Liz Warren insurgency campaign could easily lure the guys who did the campaigns for Ben & Jerry’s and other hippie businesses, or even the ones who came up with those exceedingly multi-cultural and vaguely homosexual Benniton ads, and make hay of the competition’s corporate connections.
Being untainted by any history of corporate marketing, and eager to avail ourselves of an already formidable campaign chest, we are willing to offer on speculation a few suggestions of our own for the “re-branding” of Clinton.
We would urge that the “new” Clinton be black. Race always trumps sex in the Democrats’ hierarchy of victimology, as Clinton found out to her dismay last time around, and a black Clinton should be able to counter all challenges. Racial transformations are possible, as proved by James Whitmore in “Black Like Me” and Godfrey Cambridge in “Watermelon Man” and Michael Jackson in what was more or less real life, and with help from the most skilled plastic surgeons and Hollywood’s finest make-up artists we think we can get Clinton looking something like Pamela Greer back in the “Cleopatra Jones” days. She’d have to work on that “ain’t no ways tired” minstrel show accent she does, but with help from an ebonics coach and some practice at wagging her hips while waving a finger snap she should do fine.
A black lesbian Clinton might be needed to cover all the bases, along with enough American Indian ancestry to match whatever Liz Warren is claiming, but there’s no telling if the fashion for lesbianism will still be strong come election time. A black and bisexual Clinton seems a surer bet, but that new governor that Oregon installed after the other one was kicked out because of his much-younger fiancee’s phony-baloney “green energy” scams has already staked out that historic “first,” and there’s obviously no way for a Democrat to out-liberal Oregon. In any case, some sort of sexually transgressive tattoo will be required.
The “economic fairness” schtick sounds promising, since only a handful of us doctrinaire libertarians and our puppet masters the Koch Brothers are for economic un-fairness, but it’s always best to not get too specific about such things, since somebody’s ox will inevitably be gored and none of it’s likely to achieve that elusive 3 percent annual growth in the gross domestic product, so we recommend a catchy slogan instead of any policy positions. “Hope and Change” is probably too ’00s, Huey Long’s old “Every Man a King” is too gender-specific, William Jennings Bryan’s “I will not be crucified on a cross of gold” doesn’t make much sense even if you are bold enough to revive the free silver issue, and “You have nothing to lose but your chains” is a bit explicitly Marxist, so we suggest something along the more original lines of “Don’t mess with Hillary.”
Of course, the biography will take some tweaking as well. The “old” Clinton was undistinguished as a lawyer and once chortled about the child-rapist she aided despite knowledge of his guilt, was most famous as a First Lady for pretending that her philandering husband was being framed by a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” her brief tenure in the Senate produced nothing of note, and her tenure as Secretary of State was one deadly blunder after another, so the “new” Clinton will need some accomplishments that the press will be willing to report. Given the willingness of the press, these deeds can be as fanciful as the claims made for Coca-Cola and Southwest Airlines. Our tale would begin with Clinton being born in a little log cabin that she built with her own two hands, then her years at sea with a kindly old Portuguese sailor, followed a storybook marriage written by someone other Jacqueline Susann, more talk about her being “dead broke” from all the lawsuits stemming from problems that we really don’t want to get into, and then her sudden epiphany during a strangely erotic Beyonce concert at the White House that she is and always has been a black woman. Along the way there will be world peace and economic revival achieved and vast right-wing conspiracies quashed, and the focus groups love all that stuff.
Authenticity is what counts most in politics, however, and once we teach Clinton how to fake that we’re sure she’ll be a sure-fire winner in the market place. With our well-remunerated help she could be even bigger than New Coke.
— Bud Norman