Made for TV

As Monty Python used to say, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. And that’s why it makes such good television.

Consider, for example, the very public arrests last week of ex-Adelphia executives John J. Rigas, 78, and his two sons. The three men, who are accused of bilking investors by stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the nation’s sixth-largest cable company, were carted off in handcuffs by federal agents in full view of hungry cameras. Draconian treatment? Perhaps, considering the Rigases reportedly wanted to surrender voluntarily. But proof, too, that George Bush and Co. have learned a little something about marketing.

With its declarations about getting tough on corporate wrongdoers apparently falling on deaf ears, the Bush administration appears to have turned to manipulating images in its quest to give the stock market a boost—and itself a little positive brand reinforcement. Indeed, if this were an actual marketing campaign, the Bushies would get high marks for a successful launch.

First came the focus group research. As the Dow dipped steadily downward and the 401(k) reports reflected the carnage, consumers spoke up. They wanted action.

“Actions count more than words, which is always the case,” says Bob Chlopak, a Washington, D.C., image consultant who specializes in crisis management. “The fear, the concerns, the panic in some circles means people want assurance, and they want to see their government responding.”

Clear about its target market’s desires, the government was able to develop a viable strategy of taking aim at the corporate offenders.

Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times on July 6, gave the administration the creative brief it needed to execute the strategy. “The sight of a corporate crook being led away in handcuffs, Giuliani-style, would do far more to restore confidence in Wall Street than any more presidential blather,” he wrote.

Was the resulting creative work effective? The day the Rigases were paraded before the cameras, the Dow gained 488 points—its biggest one-day rally since 1987.

There’s even a tagline of sorts. William Kezer, who heads the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in New York, which made the arrests, told reporters that “handcuffs and a jail cell await those who violate the trust placed in them.” “Handcuffs and a jail cell” neatly connects the harsh images with equally tough words.

What’s more, while the Rigas arrests give consumers what they want (at least in the short term), they help deflect attention from such pesky matters as the president’s own dealings with Harken Energy and Dick Cheney’s with Halliburton.

Looking forward, the brand promise is clear. “This government will investigate, will arrest and will prosecute corporate executives who break the law,” Bush said last week. That’s a relief. But there’s one big marketing strategy the Bushies have yet to learn. Consumers have to believe your message. The campaign’s next execution probably needs to focus on a different image: orange prison jumpsuits.

Otherwise, we’re just watching another episode of Monty Python.