When Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue Merge: A Review of "Political Brands"

By Eric Segall

If you are worried about the state of our political system in the age of Facebook advertising, Russian interference in our elections, dark money in politics, and President Trump’s Twitter account, among many other disturbing trends, Professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy’s wonderful new book “Political Brands” is unlikely to make you feel any better. However, it will make you much better informed regarding the many threats facing American democracy. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in how Madison Avenue and political movements have merged to present new and unique risks to our representative, constitutional democracy.

Professor Torres-Spelliscy is a law professor whose legal expertise no doubt informed her readable and accessible analysis of the role branding plays in our political system. The major contribution of the book, however, is not law-centered but rather the laying out in great detail the many dangers posed by politicians, interest groups, political parties, and even foreign countries who use branding to “influence public opinion…even if what is getting branded is the truth, a lie, a myth, or a conspiracy.” (p.1). 

According to Torres-Spelliscy, “branding” is “the process of purposefully repeating a word, concept, or logo until it gets stuck in the minds of the public.” (p.1). Just think about “lock her up,” “make America great again,” and MAGA hats and you instantly understand the power of branding in the political world.
The Introduction to Political Brands presents a quick summary of how important branding is to profit-seeking corporations, but the book quickly moves on to the dangers branding presents to our system of government. Quoting pollster Celinda Lake, Professor Torres-Spelliscy reminds the reader that “whether you’re Pepsi or Obama you have to run a campaign to get your brand out.”
Political Brands itself is no exception to the need for people to brand their products. One underlying and recurring theme of the book is the unique dangers Donald Trump’s brands pose for the American people. Early on in the book, the author quotes Michael Cohen, Trump’s now imprisoned personal lawyer, saying the following: 
Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great. He had no desire or intention to lead the nation--only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. Mr. Trump would often say, this campaign was going to be the ‘greatest infomercial in political history.’ He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election. The campaign for him was always a marketing opportunity. (p.13).
After the introductory and first chapters which define branding broadly across many dimensions, Political Brands takes the reader through a tour of the many ways branding affects our politics. Part II provides a compelling and to this reader persuasive account of how the Supreme Court has wrongly and dangerously reduced the evils of money in politics to actual quid pro quo corruption, allowing wealthy corporations and billionaires to deluge elections with money and branding. These chapters weave legal doctrine with political and social events seamlessly. They paint a distressing picture of a free-for-all political system where those with the most money and best experts can dominate politics through masterful use of social media, television, and political rallies designed to bombard the American people with catchy one-liners and propaganda, not truthful information or helpful debate.
Part III, appropriately titled “When Branding Gets Pernicious,” discusses, among other things, the 2016 election and how branding by many different entities, including Russia, helped get Donald Trump elected. The author’s discussion of how Russia engaged in a massive campaign to convince African American voters to stay home and not vote in the election is particularly chilling. Using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Russian propagandists “pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election and focus on  other issues….This often happened through the use of repetitive slogans …[such as] ‘Not Voting is a way to exercise our rights.’” (pp. 237-238). 

Whether this disinformation campaign was effective or not is somewhat beside the point. In her conclusion to Part III, Professor Torres-Spelliscy makes the compelling observation that “the Russian government’s use of racial tropes to interfere in the 2016 election demonstrated vividly that American racial divisions…raise a national security issue.” (p.241). American racism, whether overt or latent, is another theme that runs through Political Brands, which is appropriate given how Trump has successfully manipulated his brand to energize white nationalists.

Part IV of the book discusses the branding of  "greed," "boycotts," and "tragedy." In the chapter on greed, Professor Torres-Spelliscy tackles, among many fascinating topics, the branding of Trump's wealth,  his foundation's abuses, and the Emoluments litigation. The boycotts chapter details the ability of people to come together and boycott companies that engage in political behavior the groups find offensive both in present-day and all the way back to the Boston Tea Party. And the section on tragedy tells the inspiring story of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who, after a terrible school shooting, engaged in concerted action and political behavior to try and do something meaningful regarding gun reform. These chapters present branding in many different forms, for good and for bad, and in ways that are enlightening and original.
In her Epilogue, Professor Torres-Spelliscy lists dozens of reforms relating to elections, voting, corporate reform, and numerous other public policy issues. Most of these reforms make sense and are persuasive at least to me but I'm skeptical (and I'm guessing so is the author) that many will be adopted. Perhaps reflecting that pessimism, and the overall tenor of the book, Professor Torres-Spelliscy ends her foray into the world of branding with a simple, "let me say: good luck to us all." She has that right.

Of course, I have a few quibbles about the book. The author is a progressive who at times fails to give serious consideration to opposing arguments. This omission is most evident in her chapters on money in politics and Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United v. FEC. Also, and this may be peculiar to me, I would have been interested in how she thinks the Supreme Court as an institution has branded itself over the course of American history--a subject missing from the book. 

But these are minor objections. Our democracy is in serious trouble due to many different stresses revolving around the branding of politics and the impact of social media on our lives. Professor Torres-Spelliscy has written a haunting, informative, and provocative narrative tying together many of these threats. You may not sleep quite as well after you read this important book, but you will be substantially smarter for it, and in today's United States, that's about all we can ask of an author trying to describe and analyze contemporary American politics.