Why Food Matters in Political Advertising: Candidates at the Barbecue
Food and politics - speaking in the common tongue
Food and politics make the world go ‘round. Without food, life ends. Snarky pundits might cheer a world minus politics, but without some form of government, we wouldn’t be able to organize society. Indeed, food and politics are inextricably linked to life as we know it. But can we say food is political? Since we are not isolated hunters and gatherers, it’s safe to say that food may be the most fundamental currency of civilization; therefore, it must be political. In order to take a closer look at this relationship, though, let’s zoom our lens way in to consider one specific link. Food is one of the many ways we understand our politicians, and it can convey powerful messages. Let’s examine a campaign staple, the barbecue.
Democratic society might look a lot different if we elected our leaders based on logical and sensible concepts like their voting record, their academic pedigree or even the fact that they are bona fide policy masters. While all of this matters in fact, the truth is that they’re not very electable if we don’t like them. Thus it falls to the pollsters and political marketing gurus to package their candidates in such a way that these folks who may have justifiably spent most of their career hard at work (read: a little dull) to also seem accessible and likeable while still looking like leaders. This may seem like a tall order, but then, that’s the magic of branding. Of the many powerful ways to brand politicians, marketeers have widely used food and the rituals around it, including the barbecue.
How do the concepts connect and why does it matter? Over the last few decades, most notably beginning with the campaign of Bill Clinton, populist appeal has been a strong indicator of success in an election. This means that we want to vote for someone who feels likeable and more like us rather than someone whom we see as elitist, having been “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” The logic is that the former candidate can understand us, while the latter one simply cannot. If he can’t relate to us, it follows, he won’t look out for our interests when governing. It was no coincidence that we saw news footage of Clinton jogging into McDonalds (ironic). Generally speaking, images like that that (some good, some not so good!) endure in the public eye much more indelibly than our thoughts of the man as a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar. No doubt, viewing a politician in a familiar setting resonates more clearly than seeing him in one that seems more abstract to many people. If we associate him with a place or event from our own daily lives, presumably a pleasurable experience, we are more likely to build a positive emotional connection to the candidate.
During Clinton’s election, for example, “pollsters” and “focus groups” were used as dirty words by his opponents, (never mind that all sides use those techniques). Because Clinton’s team was going for the populist appeal, some felt that this was egregious manipulation of the public. Nevertheless, it worked. If we look inside the much-maligned focus group, we see a laboratory for understanding the connections between how people feel about something and the way those associations affect their impressions and decisions. Indeed, voters seem less persuaded by hard facts than by more “right brained” associations, and many of the types of events that we see in campaigns are designed to appeal to voters on this more emotional level.
A well-used and effective line of discussion for researching impressions about a candidate includes questions like this: “If you were to invite the candidate to a barbecue at your house, would he come? What would he do there? Would he offer to cook, or would he sit and wait to be served? What would he talk about? What would he drink?” Focus group participants, by the act of reaching into their imaginations, begin to make much deeper associations than if they were just asked, “So do you like the guy?” (You may note that I do not refer to the barbecuing politician in gender-neutral language. This was an intentional choice, as this is truly a male-dominated practice in our culture.) The technique of using a multi-sensorial experience such as a barbecue as a projective can evoke very deep responses. The food imagery allows participants to fall back into a less defended way of thinking about the candidate and, by drawing on familiar and likely pleasant images, to give a more uncensored opinion. In my imagination, if I am comfortable enough around the candidate to hand him a beer and chat while waiting on the ribs, chances are I’m probably feeling pretty good about him. I can see him in my world; he “gets” me. Just as the barbecue is an effective setting for conversation in qualitative research, if the campaign feels the event works well for a candidate, they’ll be sure the public sees him in that setting, as well.
If we look out onto the campaign trails and the itineraries of recent Presidents, we will see numerous barbecues. This may not seem so significant at first, since most people barbecue. But given the political public forum where these events occurred, we can reasonably assume that nothing (controllable) happened by chance. No doubt image-makers chose the clothing, the location, the attendees, the positioning of their candidate and probably every detail possible. What may appear casual and happenstance to the uninitiated, is really anything but.
What does the barbecue bring to political image-building that, say, a picnic by the lake may not? Plenty. In the words of Robert Crampton writing for London’s Sunday Times, “The outside grill is a phenomenon of the newly affluent working class.” (June 16, 2009) Bingo! The middle class is the grail of every politician, and the barbecue fits. To have a home barbecue, one must have a backyard, a grill, money to buy the meat, (though if we’re going to slather it with sauce, it won’t be the most expensive cuts, so not too much money) and a man (yes, a man in this iconic vision) to cook it. Rounding out this pleasant every-man portrait, we can add friends, good weather, kids running around and even a dog or two. Smiles and laughter abound. Therefore, if we put our politician smack in the middle of this view, it would seem that there is a lot to feel good about. Said politician fits right into our perfect Saturday afternoon, and right into this target demographic. While we’re feeling good about our backyard scene, it’s quite possible that some of the warm fuzzies will spread to our sentiments about the guest of honor. The cuisine is centerpiece to this vision as the ritual that brings it all together and, on a deeper level, presents us with all the other positive associations that we have with barbecuing.
Men barbecue. In fact, in extensive searching through images of presidential candidates barbecuing, (which are abundant), I could not find one from Hillary Clinton’s run at the office. (Although I did find several barbecue aprons with her portrait saying, “Just say no!”, “I miss Bill!”, and “Democrat guys rule BBQ”, ) In Crampton’s article, he commented, “The second point about barbecues is that men are in charge. … Given the chance to set something on fire, even the most cuisine-averse man must step forward.” Men run the barbecue; we want our political leaders to lead. This fits perfectly. We don’t want someone simply telling us that so and so is a leader. We want to see it happening on a deeper level than just taking in a fact, and food helps us transcend to an emotional place where that works. A smiling man behind a Weber flipping burgers: he’s in charge and we like him! Not only will he get the job done, but we will be well fed.
Now before we get too down home and cozy with our grilling candidate, we should also note that he does not arrive at the event dressed like a schlump in a tee-shirt and shorts. Interestingly, of our last three presidents, each seems to have had a slightly different approach to wardrobe for these events. Based on a review of Google images, it appears that Clinton preferred a jacket and dress shirt, Bush a dress shirt with sleeves rolled up, and Obama wears his shirt with a tie, often covered by an apron. While it might be fun to speculate about the meaning behind these variances, (again, assuming every detail is intentional), one fact remains consistent. In order to appear presidential, (and perhaps respectful to their hosts), these men did not completely dress down for the events. Depending on how you look at it, a vision of leaders or potential leaders grilling while outfitted in business attire presents either a perfect demonstration of “I am in charge” or else is a little bit silly. Nevertheless, as the practice persists as a public relations staple, it is safe to assume that it works. The man doesn’t need to dress the part to make the event a public relations event a success; the fact that he is at the barbecue gets the job done!
One detail that I found particularly intriguing in my review of images is that I could not find a single photo involving any of these three Presidents where his wife was in the frame. Surely if it were a state dinner at the White House, each President would have an elegantly-coiffed First Lady by his side. But the barbecue is different. Not only is it, as suggested earlier, traditionally “man’s work,” but it is also man-can-do-it-himself work. This conveys independence, another quality many find appealing. Perhaps it may seem risky in this politically-correct day and age to presume that moving the wife out of the picture would be effective, but, in fact, there are many voters, male and female, who still prefer to think of male politicians as pack leaders.
Food is political, politicians barbecue. But the question remains, must the image building include food? We see politicians golfing, fishing, playing with kids, kissing babies, shaking hands, and on and on, and much of it with nary a crumb in sight. Nevertheless, food and food rituals bring so much more to our understanding of a situation than calories. We think of setting, personal relationships, economic status, happiness, camaraderie and so much more … all of which food associations evoke. Thus, by including a food event in the politician’s public relations arsenal, we can bring a whole array of (presumably) good associations to bear on an effective but primal level. Not every voter will relate to the image of a president flipping burgers; but for a very strategic demographic, this is hot stuff!