Euro RSCG PR's Marian Salzman (@mariansalzman) is your North America ThinkTank commentator. She will be responding to events in the region on a weekly basis, offering a provocative view of the PR issues at stake. You can reach Marian at [email protected]
I’ve been talking a lot about our upcoming U.S. presidential election, I know, but this year there are so many interesting brand- and image-related themes. And by “interesting” I mean Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, aka 2012’s Sarah Palin (although Sarah Palin could also be 2012’s Sarah Palin; Karl Rove hasn’t counted her out yet, anyway). If you’ve been watching the melee surrounding her Bachmannisms (including her very own Waterloo), it’s hard not to notice not only how extreme her views are on everything from gay marriage to Obama, but also how attractive she is. (No, really. She is. Admit it.) Am I the only one completely disturbed by her eating a corn dog in a sleeveless black sheath and blown-out hair, with a hint of a smoky eye? It’s unsettling, to say the least.
It makes me wonder how much equity a female politician has when she is good-looking. Does it help her or hurt her? I give you Golda Meir, an amazing politician and defender of country and man and woman alike: Would she have had the same credibility if she had looked like, say, Natalie Portman?
It has been proved that attractive people are more successful and go further (a study conducted by University of Texas shows that they seem to be happier and financially better-off than their unattractive counterparts). But are fashionable and attractive female politicians out of step, especially in such a morbid American climate? Aren’t we more in need of someone who will roll up her sleeves, regardless of dress size or facial symmetry?
As I sit here paging through September’s Harper’s Bazaar, I’m taken aback by a fashion spread called “Iron Lady” that features the spawn of Mick and Jerry (Georgia May Jagger) cast in the role of Margaret Thatcher. Yes, you read that correctly. The sexy gap-toothed, lithe rock royal wears ladylike attire from all the top designers, sports a blond bouffant and does 10 Downing in high style. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t recall Maggie’s ever really being a style icon (not that she didn’t dress smartly) or particularly fetching in the looks department. But she was indisputably an ironclad politician with quite admirable diplomacy skills.
Of course, there are glamorous and attractive women who are successful in politics. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of our New York senators, springs to mind (she was profiled in Vogue some months ago), and nobody wears clothes on the Hill like Nancy Pelosi. These are two women who manage to look great and wield some considerable power and influence.
Which brings me to Hillary Clinton, she of the power pantsuits. Hillary is one tough cookie, and she has never used her feminine wiles to get her point across—unlike Sarah Palin, who seemed to be flirting and winking and “you betcha’ing” with that updo and designer glasses. Palin might have been a reluctant sex symbol (not sure how reluctant, really), but the endless bloopers did not help her, no matter how much her looks did. In the end, her brand image was tarnished and mocked all over the media, and by smart female comedians like Kathy Griffin and Tina Fey.
It’s a superficial discussion, for sure, because what’s at the heart of the matter has nothing to do with a fit body or pretty face. For like today’s brands (and as PR/marketing types, we know that all these candidates are brands nowadays), it’s not enough to just look good. The most successful brands around have style and substance—and a deep point of view. Sure, you love your Mac because it looks cool, but it represents creativity and innovation beyond lap candy. Consumers connect to brands such as Apple not just because its products fit the high style and design quota, but also because Apple’s brand promise is all about creativity (and smarts and a solid product…the deep stuff), and everyone who has one or wants one knows that. That’s how today’s candidates need to be. What’s important is what’s on the inside.
Great brands are relatable and speak to who we are and where we’re going, so when are we going to have a female candidate for the top spot to whom women can relate? To me, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann alienate most women, and not because of their tea-drenched views. Most women like me who have worked in big cities, had cocktails with their favorite gay friends and carved their own path look at Bachmann and Palin as aliens, symbols of the tearing down of everything we have fought so hard to build. Hillary, on the other hand, was one candidate we could get behind: well educated, hyperintelligent and a force to be reckoned with. She just didn’t have as much mo’ as O.
I don’t much care if our first female president looks like she just stepped off Planet of the Apes or like Gisele Bündchen; I do care about whether she can get the job done and whether as a woman I’m proud to support her and can relate to her POV, attractive or not. In other words, as brands, female politicians need to put their money where their Chanel lipstick—or drugstore brand, if they’re really trying to relate to today’s American woman—is.