Saturday, September 6, 2008

Why We See FUD At Election Time

I recently wrote on FUD as a de-marketing technique aimed at confusing comprehension and
preventing customer conviction (a late stage of positive marketing response). By engineering a micro-environment characterized by Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, marketers prevent potential customers from committing themselves through action (entering long-term service contracts, creating valuable content in proprietary file formats ... or mailing in an absentee ballot) to a competitor's offering. My examples involved the tech industry, and included the technique of vaporware. (Incidentally, you can search"vaporware" at Wired to find the annual Vaporware Awards, an entertaining read. Vaporware is the announcement of a non-existent product for upcoming release -- especially an announcement full of ambitious features that put existing alternatives to shame -- when there's no hope the announced product will make the release date ... vaporware is at its best when there's no product at all, and no-one working to build it. The purpose of vaporware is FUD: it seeks to convince would-be buyers of competing products that the existing alternative is about to be rendered obsolete by something that will, in fact, not be brought to market within the useful life of the existing alternative. Wired's list isn't all true vaporware, some of it is just entertaining entries of highly-anticipated products, like games or tech accessories, that just took forever to get off the ground.)

Now, think about candidates' marketing right around election time. Every plausible voter will know the names and party-affiliation of the likely victors. Naming your opponent in a primary election, in which name recognition goes a long way toward victory, doesn't raise the same risk in the general election. Awareness of the marketers' candidates and their opponents isn't really in question by the time one is able to cast a ballot for an office as high-profile as the President of the United States.

Comprehension isn't really a deep part of American buzzword political marketing; the folks who think they want comprehension will be reading about the candidates, or their positions on the issues that they personally believe to be game-critical issues. On the other hand, maybe they'll be asking their opinion leaders about those issues, and the candidates, because they don't value deep comprehension and will accept conclusions secondhand from people they trust. Generally, deep understanding of candidates' positions and their implications and likely results doesn't come from candidates' stump speeches. The best you can expect from candidates' marketing is comprehension of the candidates sound-bite on the topic, for or against gay marriage, abortion rights, nuclear power, domestic petroleum drilling in various hot-button locations, firearms policy, etc. Comprehending these "positions" puts voters in a mind to believe they can tell whether a candidate "believes as I do" or "doesn't believe as I do."

But the easy sells are already done. The remainder is a bunch of folks too unexcited to be certain they will vote, or unconvinced by what they've heard even though they are likely to fill out a ballot

The only game in town is thus the fight for conviction. The problem is that the folks who respond to a candidate's claims have probably already been convinced, and the ones who by election-time remain undecided are just not readily moved by the things that create conviction in the parties' main camps.

On the other hand, people do often vote for the lesser of two evils, and it's not hard to imagine ways to make opponents worry about the risks posed by an opposing candidate. Negative campaigning and blatant fact-free FUD appears for the cold and logical reason that it is effective in preventing opposing votes, because it interferes with opponents' conviction-building exercise, and it can create wanted votes if it leads to lesser-of-evils votes for the candidate spinning out the FUD.

Just so nobody misses it, I expect both candidates to lay big whoppers on us this election season. I expect both to pretend that they have well-reasoned strategies to address socially and logistically complex issues involving trillions of dollars, like those raised by the employment-based health coverage system operating in the United States, when each has equal likelihood (zero) of fixing from the Oval Office the problems the next Congress and President will inherit, changed only for the worse, from Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and stuck American health coverage where we now find it, without the benefit of state-level health coverage innovation repeatedly thwarted by federal law. We'd have fixed this years ago but for Congress' disinterest in fixing the problem, and it's ironic to hear officials, who are trying to leave Congress for a position that cannot pass legislation, promise to correct problems originating in badly-worded or merely misapplied Federal law from the Presidential Mansion. McCain and Obama are basically trying to sell you a fake Good News page in advance. This would be an example of Vaporware in action, and vaporware is always good FUD.

I expect both candidates to make wild claims about their likely future achievements and about the risks posed by their opponents. It'll be FUD at its best, from vaporware to specious bug reports.

Bring popcorn.

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