Much of the Republican National Committee’s Growth & Opportunity Project report is dominated by concerns with demographics. But throughout the report there are concerns about how Republicans can better engage with media and popular culture, from the suggestion that Republicans be more willing to go on programs like The Daily Show, to questioning how the party can better use its celebrity surrogates, to arguing for better use of data in determining ad buys. But wishing for these things to be done doesn’t make it so, and the Republican party faces some fundamental challenges trying to rebrand itself, among them these problems:
1. Republican celebrities are less appealing than Democratic celebrities: One of the first suggestions in the report is to “Establish an RNC Celebrity Task Force of personalities in the entertainment industry to host events for the RNC and allow donors to participate in entertainment events as a way to attract younger voters.” The problem is that the most visible conservative celebrities aren’t particularly engaging one on a broad scale. Ted Nugent is useful for firing up a small base of gun owners. Hank Williams Jr. appeals to conspiracy theorists who think that President Obama is secretly Muslim. But I can’t think of anyone with the Q score of a Jay-Z or a Meryl Streep who’s solidly identified with Republican values. The party may have to figure out its platform before it can even begin to recruit the kinds of celebrities who would be a draw.
2. Self-deprecation is a difficult skill to instill in politics: The report says that “Republican leaders should participate in and actively prepare for interviews with The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, MTV and magazines such as People, UsWeekly, etc., as well as radio stations that are popular with the youth demographic.” The idea of “radio stations that are popular with the youth demographic” is kind of funny given the state of commercial radio. But beyond that, the structures of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are set up in a way that makes it easier for liberals to succeed in those venues than Republicans. How do you respond when the person interviewing you is a parody of your own values, or when the person interviewing you is regularly outraged by the kinds of thing you’re trying to sell them? Are you prepared for the kinds of mass reactions liberals get when they venture into conservative media? It’s not just about being willing to accept invitations. It’s about doing the right kind of preparation, both for the interview, and for the news cycle after it.
3. Matching television spots to the most popular television content isn’t easy: The report notes that “On television, Obama ran at least four separate media schedules, each with a different series of creative executions. Pollsters, ad producers, and media buyers working together can determine the right mix of creative executions and media weight.” The ambition to run different ads for different settings is a good idea, of course, but that means you’ve got to have arguments, first, and find content where it might be a good fit. It’s one thing to roll out a traditional message about, say, opposition to gun control during Duck Dynasty, but what’s the pitch during NCIS, a show that’s succeeded in part by being somewhat politically neutral? Or how about 2 Broke Girls—are you going to pitch self-reliance for people in debt at the same time party leaders are attacking federal student loans? Are you going to be able to make fun of yourself, rather than simply trying to mock Democrats, given that self-referentiality and self-deprecation are often valuable tones in advertising, particularly to younger viewers?
4. The voters the Republican party most wants to attract aren’t watching as much television: The report recognizes this, acknowledging that “TV is important and is still proven to be one of the best ways to drive a message; however, it is becoming less important to reaching many voters.” That doesn’t mean that you can’t buy ads on Hulu—in fact, if I were the Republican party, I’d be getting issue spots into the Hulu mix as soon as possible and buying access to what kind of viewers say the ads are relevant to them. But it’s absolutely hard to meet your viewers where they’re at if you don’t actually know where they are. The Republicans may not like the fact that they’re going to have to spend a lot of money upgrading their data and advertising operations. But there’s no getting around the fact that they, like the entertainment industry, are going to have to throw some good money after bad in trying to figure out what the new dominant business model is in televised entertainment before that new model actually arrives.
5. “Cool” is organic, rather than something you can manufacture: This is probably the biggest indication of the Republican party’s cart before the horse problem. Straw poll results aside, Ron Paul isn’t going to sell as cool to the rest of the country unless he starts taking lessons from Betty White. Marco Rubio’s hip-hop affectations are two election cycles old. The party’s brand and the culture are misaligned at the moment, at every level from the larger message to the Republican surrogates. And that realignment’s going to require a lot more than cursory mentions in a report that’s about the things the Party genuinely has to do first.