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Naomi Klein: How Corporate Branding Took Over the White House

Ten years after the publication of "No Logo", Klein looks at how Obama created a brand that won him the Presidency. Will his failure to live up to his lofty brand cost him?

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Indeed everything Obama and his family touches turns to branding gold. J Crew saw its stock price increase 200% in the first six months of Obama's presidency, thanks in part to Michelle's well known fondness for the brand. Obama's much-discussed attachment to his BlackBerry has been similarly good news for Research In Motion. The surest way to sell magazines and newspapers in these difficult times is to have an Obama on the cover, and you only need to call three ounces of vodka and some fruit juice an Obamapolitan or a Barackatini and you can get $15 for it, easy. In February 2009, Portfolio magazine put the size of "the Obama economy" - the tourism he generates and the swag he inspires - at $2.5bn. Not at all bad in an economic crisis. Rogers got into trouble with some of her colleagues when she spoke too frankly with The Wall Street Journal. "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand," she said. "Our possibilities are endless."

The exploration of those possibilities did not end, or even slow, with the election victory. Bush had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform his best impersonation of the Marlboro man, forever clearing brush, having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots. Obama has gone much further, turning the White House into a kind of never-ending reality show starring the lovable Obama clan. This too can be traced to the mid-90s branding craze, when marketers grew tired of the limitations of traditional advertising and began creating three-dimensional "experiences" - branded temples where shoppers could crawl inside the personality of their favorite brands. The problem is not that Obama is using the same tricks and tools as the superbrands; anyone wanting to move the culture these days pretty much has to do that. The problem is that, as with so many other lifestyle brands before him, his actions do not come close to living up to the hopes he has raised.

Though it's too soon to issue a verdict on the Obama presidency, we do know this: he favors the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time. So he will make a dramatic announcement about closing the notorious Guantánamo Bay prison - while going ahead with an expansion of the lower profile but frighteningly lawless Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and opposing accountability for Bush officials who authorized torture. He will boldly appoint the first Latina to the Supreme Court, while intensifying Bush-era enforcement measures in a new immigration crackdown. He will make investments in green energy, while championing the fantasy of "clean coal" and refusing to tax emissions, the only sure way to substantially reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Most importantly, he will claim to be ending the war in Iraq, and will retire the ugly "war on terror" phrase - even as the conflicts guided by that fatal logic escalate in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his "Yes We Can!" slogan from the migrant farmworkers -  si se puede ). These movements made unequivocal demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher wages, ambitious social programs. Because of those high-cost demands, these movements had not only committed followers but serious enemies. Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wing nuts (which, granted, constitute a not inconsequential demographic in the United States). Advertising Age had it right when it gushed that the Obama brand is "big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy". And then their highest compliment: "Mr Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player."

 
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