Opinion: Daily Journal

You Get What You LIke

RALEIGH – Political campaigns are marketing campaigns.

As someone who appreciates the social and economic value of advertising and marketing, I don’t mean the comparison as a slight. Politics is the means by which human societies confer and legitimate the power of force. It is – or at least ought to be – a serious endeavor, conducted by people who seek such power for legitimate ends, rather than to enrich themselves or oppress others.

Just because people market useless diet pills and tedious rap “music” through advertising, public relations, social media, and other modern techniques doesn’t mean that they aren’t well suited to more serious causes. Effective marketing is simply effective mass communication. And the alternative to seeking political power through marketing campaigns is to seek it through corrupt or forceful means.

So thank goodness politics is about marketing.

As the technologies and tools of marketing have changed, so has our politics. In the early American republic, when true mass communication was impossible and the voting franchise was limited anyway, political campaigns consisted of letters, meetings, personal appearances, and grassroots organization. As mass media proliferated through the 19th and early 20th centuries, political campaigns increasingly focused their attention on securing favorable press coverage and producing high-quality display and broadcast ads.

In today’s social-media world, political mass communication has become mass customization. Business Week covered the trend in a recent piece on campaigns using Facebook to target messages to potential primary voters based on their stated interests and preferences.

For example, those Facebook members who list church, community service, and social causes among their interests will get a very different advertising message than members who list hunting, sports, or playing the stock market. All these members may be Republican-leaning voters, and they may all end up voting for the same presidential candidate. But their reasons and motivations likely differ – which is why candidates differentiate the messages accordingly.

There are at least two major concerns I’ve seen expressed about the onset of political mass customization. Both deserve serious consideration.

The first is that by using Facebook preferences, magazine subscriptions, and other consumer information to personalize their messages, political parties and candidates are violating the privacy of potential voters and donors.

In a free society, people ought to be able to protect their privacy from unwanted intrusion, be it by government or by private parties violating their contractual responsibilities. For the most part, however, the information that political actors use to customize their messages is either freely disclosed (as with personal Facebook pages with privacy screens off) or obtained legally through agreements between companies and customers (as with many subscription and mailing lists).

If I thought there was gross, widespread intrusions of privacy here, I’d be worried about it. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Remember that targeted advertising is good for consumers – it serves to inform potentially interested individuals of something they may value, be it a consumer good or a politician, while sparing those unlikely to be interested from having to see or hear the ad in the first place.

The second concern is about the loss of shared experience. While Americans have often found political ads and other campaign messages annoying, they have helped to create a common body of knowledge. Think about the Helms-Hunt Senate race in 1984. While many North Carolinians were annoyed by the TV ads they saw from each side, the most-despicable material was relegated to small-circulation newspapers aimed at rural audiences – messages that many urban and suburban voters never saw.

Of course, the difference is that even if you customize your message in 2012, that doesn’t mean it won’t quickly leak into the mass media if it is libelous, ridiculous, or shameful. A couple of clicks and a “targeted” message with a potential to upend a campaign will go viral.

My sense is that customization of electoral marketing will bring more upsides than downsides for most voters, and for the political process as a whole. Social media offers the promise of persuading and motivating voters at a cost many cash-poor candidates can afford. Sounds good to me.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.