Morris: Gov. Holcomb and ‘Brand X’

August 19, 2019

by Leo Morris

Gov. Eric Holcomb always looks so comfortably stern, like an accountant at tax time waiting for his client’s big gulp of ulcer medicine to kick in.

He needs a good nickname to lighten his image. Something like “Fuzzy,” the sidekick for one of those singing cowboys, there mostly for comic relief but always ready guide the posse to the rescue when the chips are down.

His current image, you see, is tarnished, we are informed by no less an authority than the Evansville Courier & Press.

At least that’s what we are led to infer when told that while in Evansville, the governor “polished his brand while visiting the area Friday, dazzling a supportive business audience with his fluency on issues, publicly tipping his hat to a local political ally and helping raise barrels of cash for his party.”

What better way to put a shine on the battered old brand than by “dazzling” a “supportive” audience? Surely, he wouldn’t want to bore an antagonistic one. And if he’s going to tip his hat to an ally, he really wouldn’t want to do it in the privacy of a back room.

Naturally there are a few requisite steps in the polishing process.

He had to field a series of “not-so-tough questions” from the friendly mayor while “looking very gubernatorial.”

But too much of that kind of staging would look suspicious, so he’d also need to reel off enough statistics to bring a skeptical county commissioner, “not a politician prone to dispensing empty praise,” to the point where she is “nodding her head in apparent support.”

On the other hand, she may have been merely nodding off to sleep. We have only the reporter’s impressions of what went on and what it all meant, in an article that, I must say, was very subjective, full of judgmental observations and snide asides.

Once upon a time, such journalism was frowned upon, if not outright forbidden, outside of editorial pages. Articles on the news pages were, at least in the papers’ intentions and the readers’ expectations, objective accounts of mutually agreed upon reality. Just the facts, Ma’am.

Of course, that was back when we took the measure of people, including politicians, by meaningful standards. Governors were rated by their promises and their performance, by priorities set and legislation supported or vetoed.

Today, every enterprise has a brand or is desperately trying to develop one, an image projected by a flashy logo and catchy slogan that magically and instantly communicates trustworthiness and value. It’s not enough to provide a needed service or product and to do it with competence and integrity. It’s all about selling the sizzle, never mind whether there is actually any steak involved.

This can all be traced back to the start of the end of civilization as we know it, when company advertising departments morphed into marketing divisions and “personnel” became “human resources.” Style overtook substance, and illusion, couched in ever more convoluted language, supplanted reality.

I’m so cynical that when I hear somebody babbling about “branding” (as I did, alas, at even the newspaper where I toiled for more than 30 years), my immediate reaction is, “Well, looks like someone has lost track of the basic mission.” The only option becomes to keep the customers from figuring that out.

I blame television, where advertisers – excuse me, marketers – had just 30 seconds to get bored viewers’ attention, pound the name of the product home and paint a picture that would stay in the mind longer than the 12 minutes until the next commercial.

The crusade today is carried on by social media, which exists almost exclusively to catch and release unfiltered emotional reactions with no intellectual heft. What do you suppose President Trump is doing with all those tweets? He’s selling his brand – the combative, defiant champion of the deplorables – in a marketing campaign so brilliant that he has left a litter of befuddled buffoons in the wreckage of the ruling class.

Did you know that in the early days of TV, the Federal Communications Commission frowned upon advertisers denigrating their competitors by name? That’s why there were so many commercials slamming the shoddy offerings of Brand X.

Everyone knew who was being bashed and trashed, of course. Ford was panning Chevy, Miller was knocking Budweiser, Heinz was blasting Campbell’s. But poor, old Brand X took the hits and civilization marched on. There was a certain pretend civility about the whole thing.

We could use some Brand X today, a stand-in for the punching bags we have made of each other in our fractured nation. We could use a little more civility, even if it is pretend. Especially in politics.

I’m too old and cynical to expect a return to substance, but at least the style can be more appealing. I hope Gov. Holcomb gets his image all shiny and new and decides to flaunt it without feeling the need to verbally terrorize whichever Democrat runs against him. I trust that whoever survives the field of would-be Trump contenders will be smart enough not to try to go one-on-with him in a battle of the brands.

It occurs to me that this screed might make me appear to be a hateful old coot spewing bile. I need a brand, so think of me as the friendly curmudgeon of comic relief, ready to lead a posse of Brand X constituents.

Just don’t call me Fuzzy.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.



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