Guest Column: Candidates as Brands | Adweek Guest Column: Candidates as Brands | Adweek
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Guest Column: Candidates as Brands

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NEW YORK Though it ran for only three seasons, Gilligan's Island has become part of pop culture lore thanks to decades of syndication and its seven memorable castaways.

Each character, microcosms of white America in the late '60s, shaped the storyline, although none emerged as the clear leader—not even the Skipper, who is described as "brave and sure" in the iconic theme song, yet managed to land the crew on an uninhabited island.

One could say the same of the current crop of presidential candidates: They're colorful personalities, some with more clearly defined attributes than others. There are front-runners to be sure, but no one leader has yet risen head and shoulders above the rest.

Forty years after Gilligan's final episode, JWT had America recast the sitcom with the six top presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. This was a part of an initiative to better understand the perceived personalities of the candidates. In a random online survey conducted between June 14-19, we asked 681 Americans 18 or older: "Which character from the TV show would each political candidate best fit?"

Hands down, Clinton was cast as Eunice "Lovey" Wentworth Howell, the rich, spoiled socialite defined almost exclusively as the wife of the millionaire, Thurston Howell III. It doesn't take deep analysis to conclude that for better or worse, Clinton cannot get out from under her husband's shadow. But that's not all bad: While some consider Bill a liability, others see him as an asset. Read into this what you will, but Thurston once noted that his and Mrs. Howell's brilliance together was exceeded only by their greed.

Given the casting, it comes as no surprise that many Americans perceive Hillary "Lovey" Clinton as decadent, condescending and pretentious. The Democratic front-runner scored well above average on these traits compared with the other top candidates in the survey. (The respondents broke down into 237 Republicans, 256 Democrats, 149 independents and 39 who said they were "other" or none of these.)

On the other hand, the survey found that Clinton comes across as persevering and persuasive—likely positives for a commander-in-chief candidate, especially when it comes to securing bipartisan and international support.

Just as people have personalities, so do brands. JWT sought to see what car, restaurant or retail brand each candidate would be. When asked to compare the candidates with brands, respondents saw Clinton's personality attributes as closer to those of Lexus and Jaguar than Chevy and Jeep, according to the survey. Respondents perceived her as more Morton's Steakhouse (and to a degree Olive Garden) than Subway and McDonald's, more Nordstrom than Gap or Wal-Mart.

It seems, then, that Clinton is more high than low, more the coasts than Middle America. And like Mrs. Howell and some of the aforementioned brands, she is not relatable to many, as illustrated by her below-average scores on traits such as "approachable," "engaging," "humorous" and "fun."

The question is, does the nation want a president who's the life of the party? When W. was elected to his first term, supporters said they liked his approachability—he was the kind of guy you could have a beer with, they said (the non-alcoholic variety for Dubya, of course). Now, with Bush's approval rating plummeting, Americans may be less interested in a presidential pub crawl.

These days, wouldn't a candidate choose respect over relatability? And is it possible to attain both?

Enter Rudy Giuliani. The Republican front-runner is perceived as possessing the softer personality traits ("approachable," "engaging," "humorous" and "fun") that Clinton lacks, but he's also seen as being a leader, persistent and persuasive. Giuliani is the Skipper on Gilligan's Island, according to the survey; to a lesser extent, so is McCain.

As for the other characters, Obama is the Professor, and Romney is tending toward Thurston. (Not too surprisingly, no one is clearly cast as Mary Ann or Ginger.) And Gilligan? Edwards is in the running to reprise the role of the bumbling, accident-prone SS Minnow crewman made famous by Bob Denver.

Much longer than a three-hour tour, this election may turn out to be more Survivor than Gilligan's Island. And you can be sure that personality—or perceptions of personality—will be a prevailing force in determining who's the last person standing after America has spoken.

Ann M. Mack is director of trendspotting at JWT. She can be reached at ann.mack@jwt.com