George Bush has anointed Barack Obama the Democratic candidate for President, predicting he would negotiate with terrorists, and no less an authority than Joe Klein has declared the (extremely) junior senator from Illinois the winner of the Democratic presidential nomination. So we can safely pause for a moment in this long-running story to wonder how the hell he pulled it off.
To arrive on Time’s May 19 cover and in Bush’s recent speech to the Knesset, Obama came from left field to redefine American politics. (Time’s headline pronounced Obama “the game-changer.”) Along the way, he triumphed over obstacles that would have killed a traditional politician, including the Rev. Jeremiah Wright debacle (twice) and the “God, guns and xenophobia” debacle. Most recently, he rejected Hillary Clinton’s and John McCain’s idea for a gas tax holiday and got away with it unscathed.
His unorthodox strategy is most visible in his handling of his greatest storm: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama faced the Wright crisis with a speech on race at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. He began the now-legendary speech with a two-minute summary of America’s story, including our revolution and the debate over slavery that continued “through a civil war and civil disobedience.” Tying himself to the American story, he said one high purpose of his presidential campaign is “to continue the long march of those who came before us…for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”
Obama then declared that we can have “a more perfect union,” adding, “This belief comes from…my own story.” And he re-told the now-familiar tale in which he becomes all of America’s dreams and factions: black and white by birth, Asian by experience, upwardly mobile by dint of hard work, and filled with hope. As we all know now, and as the Pew Research Center certifies, the story worked. (The Pew Research Center recently conducted detailed surveys that found “the Wright controversy does not appear to have undermined support for Obama’s candidacy….”)
Al Gore, Susan Jacoby and others have been writing lately about the absence of “reason” or “rationalism” from our public conversations, citing ignorance and anti-intellectualism as the culprits. Both are talking about a profound change in our culture’s strategy of persuasion. And while I share their grief over the passing of The Federalist Papers as the model of persuasive discourse in America, I don’t find my mourning (or theirs) very useful.
What is more useful is to recognize that, like it or not, we have entered what could be called the post-argument or the post-logical age. I choose to call it the post-advertising age. And I propose its first hero should be Barack Obama—the first truly post-advertising presidential candidate.
I’m not interested in some traditional look at the amount or kinds of political advertising (although this season is notable, despite record ad spending, for having produced only one traditional ad—Hillary Clinton’s red phone—that created any buzz at all, most of it negative). Rather, let’s look at the persuasive strategies that appear to be at work in our culture. And let’s use advertising as our pop-cultural benchmark.
Back in the golden age of advertising, the tactics that became cultural icons were the blunt one-line arguments: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Now, however, it’s LonelyGirl15’s miserable tale of woe, which turns out to be a promotion for and a precursor to the launch of LG15 Studios, a new media company. Or it’s Dove’s short film “Evolution,” which tells the story of how culture manufactures what we believe to be beautiful.
The common strategy here: They use narrative, not logic. They don’t argue or sell. They tell an attractive and engaging tale. They’re not out to convince. They’re out to find fans with whom they can associate. They are pieces of media that audiences actually want to see and hear; not traditional advertising messages that, increasingly, people simply ignore.
Welcome to the post-advertising age and the end of persuasion as we used to know it.
In the introduction to his 1995 book Dreams from My Father, Obama begins, “I originally intended a very different book,” explaining that he set out to write a series of rational arguments, including “an essay on the limits of civil rights litigation…thoughts on the meaning of community…” and more. He notes that, “the list of topics filled an entire page.”
Instead, he recounts, stories triumphed over arguments when he actually began to write. “I remembered the stories that my mother and her parents told me as a child…I listened to my grandmother, sitting under a mango tree as she braided my sister’s hair, describing the father I had never truly known.” So, at age 33, he produced an autobiography about a barely started life instead of the rational tome he had intended. And, of course, as a piece of custom media aimed at capturing popular support, it worked like a charm.
Politicians have always used stories to promote themselves and their ideas. But Obama has achieved victory despite his lackluster ability as a debater, his complete lack of executive experience and his almost total agreement with Hillary Clinton’s policies. Obama’s power as a political figure is his story and his storytelling ability.
Obama understands that his pathway to political success lies in the creation of attractive media and the careful narration of a compelling story—one that will attract and engage the audience he is seeking to sell himself to. That story, told in his own words, has been more powerful than any ad aired by any candidate in this long, tiresome political season.
So attractive and clearly powerful has Obama’s narrative strategy been that John McCain embarked on his own story tour this month, searching to add something other than war hero to his personal tale. At this stage, it remains unclear whether he found a compelling story, but at least he’s looking. Hillary Clinton isn’t even attempting such a feat.
Obama deserves the Democratic nomination for the same reason another untested politician, John F. Kennedy, deserved it nearly 50 years ago. Kennedy, it was said, was the master of the advertising age—the first candidate to understand television, to perform flawlessly as a TV debater and to present powerful and convincing arguments. Obama is the first candidate to understand that the arguing is over. No one will listen. Winning requires spinning the story of the future.
Welcome to the post-advertising age.