Marketing is similarly aimed at capturing a youth market in order to lock in a new generation of consumers by manipulating their feelings of attachment toward a brand. In 2008 it was done with a candidate, rather than a soft drink, but the principle was the same. The new approach stripped away most of the formal aspects of the campaign, focusing instead on creating a brand that people would want to incorporate into their own self-image. What they were being asked to do, was not to decide who should run the country, but whose sign would look best in their yard, which candidate could they feel good about being associated with.
Smearing Hillary Clinton, McCain and Palin poisoned the well. They retained a die hard demographic, but made those voters who watched the news, instead of doing their own research, who were casual consumers of politics and didn’t really understand the practical differences between both parties too well, uncomfortable with the McCain\Palin ticket. Not for substantial reasons, but insubstantial ones.
The iconization of Obama on the other hand, the proliferation of appearances, merchandising and photo and video made many Americans feel as if they knew him, when in reality they knew next to nothing about him. This technique is commonly used by celebrities to create the veneer of familiarity, without the substance. Massive media exposure creates the sense that you know someone, even when in reality you don’t. That false intimacy is exploited as a one-way connection. Charismatic politicians do it all the time, but there was something unique here because Obama was a complete unknown. He had come out of nowhere and made the leap from State Senate to Senate to the White House in an absurdly short amount of time. His omnipresence made him familiar, which disguised how much of a chimera he really was. And is.
The iconization of the self is the key element of the social media age. Social media bestows the celebrity’s illusion of intimacy on everyone, allowing them to share without sharing and interact through a one way mirror. To focus attention on themselves while remaining apart isolated and apart from other people. The face in the camera that a hundred million people see but are unseen in turn. The message sent to a million people that seems as personal as if it were intended for only one. The illusion of an interaction that is not actually taking place.
This best describes Obama’s public image. A brand that is as familiar as it is unreal. Like Ronald McDonald or Mr Clean, we are familiar with him, yet unable to go beyond the smooth surface. He is everywhere and yet nowhere. He constantly wants our attention, but has nothing to tell us. There is a real physical Barack Hussein Obama walking about somewhere, but there needn’t be. He would be just as real, if he didn’t exist. If he were nothing more than a poster, a logo, a few books, some computer graphics and a slogan. He would be no less real, because he isn’t real. He’s a brand.
The man beneath that brand is another question. Like all pitchmen and actors, there is something of him in the image we see, but it is mostly a convincing simplification. And what is startling about his brand is just how little of it is really human. Toss away the merchandise and the art, and very little is left. Probably because what’s underneath was never meant for public consumption. The Obamas constant oversharing is as much a defense as an offense, an obsessive need to control their own narrative and tell their own story over and over again. Even when there’s no story and nothing to tell. The last time we saw it this bad was in the JFK administration, when the tours of the White House and the stream of photographs concealed an uglier reality lurking outside the frame of the camera. And that’s almost certainly the case here.
Those most eager to play a role are looking to leave themselves behind, to escape and run away from something. People like that make some of the best actors and the splashiest celebrities. But underneath their mask of charisma is a towering pile of human wreckage. They are so eager to be something they are not, that they are convincing. And because they need us to believe in the illusion so badly, they are omnipresent. Always hungry for attention and adoration, getting high on it and crashing down when the attention is withdrawn. Incapable of any real empathy, they mimic it brilliantly. So well that they seem more empathetic than actual working human beings. So perfectly compassionate that it’s almost inhuman. But it’s never other people they cry for, only themselves.