retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Interesting piece the other day in the New York Times about how “the political advisers to the presidential candidates are … looking closely at consumer behavior, including how people eat, as a way to scavenge for votes. The practice is called microtargeting, as much political discipline as buzzword. The idea is that in the brand driven United States, what we buy and how we spend our free time is a good predictor of our politics.

“Political strategists slice and dice the electorate into small segments, starting with traditional demographics like age and income, then mixing consumer information like whether you prefer casinos or cruises, hunting or cooking, a Prius or a pickup.

“Once they find small groups of like-minded people, campaigns can efficiently send customized phone, e-mail or direct mail messages to potential supporters, avoiding inefficient one-size-fits-all mailings. Pockets of support that might have gone unnoticed can be ferreted out … Although gender, religion and other basic personal data are much more valuable for pollsters, information about eating - along with travel and hobbies - are in the second tier of data used to predict how someone might vote.”

Among the examples cited: Republicans like Dr Pepper, brown liquors like bourbon or scotch, red wine and Fiji water, and prefer their chicken from Chick-fil-A, Democrats like Pepsi Cola and Sprite, clear liquors such as gin and vodka, white wine and Evian water, prefer their chicken from Popeye’s and also like Whole Foods.

Even the folks who support this approach to voter targeting say that one has to keep it within context, and that it is hardly an approach without faults, since an awful lot of people will have consumption habits that go across traditional lines.

James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, says that it is irrelevant. He tells the Times, “Suppose I found out people who drink cappuccinos are Democrats and black coffee drinkers are likely to vote Republican? So what? All kinds of other things are more predictive and less expensive to find out.” Besides, he says, of far greater importance to voters these days is the fast-rising cost of food (which he clearly thinks will be a Democratic issue come the fall).

Ironically, Carville is a Hilly Clinton supporter – and the man who until last week as Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, actually wrote the book on microtargeting and once coined the phrase “soccer moms.”

The Times writes that although Barack Obama’s team “is also using consumer data to target voters, the campaign is focusing more on what one adviser called macrotargeting,” which is defined as building “a unified, all-encompassing Obama brand that works well across all kinds of media platforms.”

KC's View:
It is interesting, though not entirely reassuring, that some of the experts behind these campaigns are thinking of their efforts in terms of building a brand. (Fast Company had a piece recently on “Brand Obama,” and what its strength – regardless of whether he wins anything – means to American marketers in the long term.)

As a voter, I must admit to be somewhat resentful of being slotted in this way…especially because my consumption habits reflect elements of both political parties. And I would hate the idea that microtargeting would customize the message based on what I eat, since this sort of sounds like telling me what I want to hear based on what I eat.

I actually respect the candidate who tells me what I don't want to hear. The candidate who looks me in the eye and says, “This is a position you are not going to agree with. But here is my reasoned, reasonable approach to the issue, and I hope you’ll at least agree that I am a thoughtful and disciplined person in arriving at this conclusion, and principled enough not to pander for your vote.” That’s the candidate I want to vote for.