Over the history of the American consumer marketplace, marketers have sought to differentiate their products in order to gain a competitive advantage. This pursuit of differentiation both in products and the marketing communications used to sell them has led companies to adopt an intense customer focus on each of their individual customers. Similarly, campaigns have leveraged so-called “microtargeting” techniques to focus their campaign messaging on individual voters. Meanwhile, technology has changed the nature of media consumption and interpersonal communications among citizens. This trend in toward the increased individualization of products, product marketing communications, political communications, and news media has combined with geographic sorting in housing to produce a highly individualistic society. There exists a fundamental tension between the high degree of individualism in much of American society and the electoral system for the selection of publicly elected government officials, including the president.
A Society of Individuals
In the early days of the American consumer marketplace, commodities dominated the market. Flour was flour. Sugar was sugar. Milk was milk. Marketers focused on one general marketplace. More often than not, they competed on price rather product differentiation.
Over time, this began to change. In an effort to boost assembly speeds and cut costs, Ford produced his Model T in just one color—black. This leaves us with the famous Fordism that customers could “have any color as long as it’s black.” However, Ford soon lost dominance in the marketplace. Alfred Sloan, who held various roles within General Motors, realized that GM could not compete with Ford on price. Instead, they would need another way to differentiate their products. Sloan’s strategy was to “produce a dazzling variety of brightly colored models.”
This pattern of switching from competing on price to other features of products has occurred with more than just automobiles and with good reason. Peter Thiel, writing for the Wall Street Journal, argues that “monopoly is the condition of every successful business.” Companies that engage in competition on price are competitors in a mutual race to the bottom. However, if companies make their products truly different then they have an opportunity for a truly sustainable strategy. This explains the endless variety of ketchup in the grocery store.
As companies differentiated their products, they began to market their products not just to the mass market but segments of the market. For example, Ford has its Lincoln brand to appeal to wealthier customers. In essence, Ford is breaking the mass market into several smaller markets by separating its Ford and Lincoln brands. By breaking the mass market into smaller markets through segmentation, Ford has made each market marginally less competitive. In other words, Ford has brought each market closer to a state of monopoly.
Companies have not stopped at segmentation. They have taken it to the extreme. Through so-called “microtargeting” companies strive to focus on a market smaller than ever before—the individual. According to TechTarget, microtargeting is “a marketing strategy that uses consumer data and demographics to identify the interests of specific individuals or very small groups of like-minded individuals and influence their thoughts or actions.”
Microtargeting, at its best, helps both companies and consumers. Microtargeting helps companies avoid wasting valuable marketing communications dollars on advertisements shown to customers who have no interest in what they are selling. Microtargeting helps consumers see fewer advertisements for products that are not of interest to them. It also helps customers find products and services that they genuinely could benefit from. Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook’s ad targeting to become so sophisticated that users will enjoy ads as much as content posted by their friends.
Target was able to leverage its consumer data so well that it was able to target pregnant women with ads for products such as prenatal vitamins, often even before the women knew they were pregnant.
Microtargeting, however, is not the end of the road for marketers. In their journey from the mass market to microtargeting, companies have become more customer-centric. According to Peter Fader at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School:
“Customer centricity means that you’re going to be friendly, provide good service and develop new products and services for the special focal customers — the ones who provide a lot of value for you — but not necessarily for the other ones.”
For businesses, customer-centricity means putting the customer at the center of their universe. As businesses have evolved from focusing on the mass market to segments of the mass market and, more recently, to focusing on individual customers, they have become more customer-centric. However, microtargeting is not completely customer-centric. There is room for businesses to improve.
Within the next decade, the top global companies will reach a state of nearly complete customer-centricity. Companies will improve upon microtargeting by not only targeting the right customer with the right products at the right time, but also with the right language. Companies will leverage artificial intelligence to write copy for marketing materials with the optimal reading level, length, and type of humor for each individual customer. No two emails or flyers in the mail will be identical. They will automatically be completely individualized for each consumer. I shall label this state of the consumer marketplace “customer-centric.”
On the slide below, I have included a visual summary of the transformation of the American consumer marketplace over time.
The difference between marketers and campaign staffers is relatively small. Marketers need to sell enough products for their companies to be profitable. Campaign staffers need to win over enough voters for their candidates to win. Marketers convince consumers to spend their money on products. Campaign staffers convince voters to spend their time on voting.
The modern political campaign uses many of the same tools as Fortune 500 companies—TV ads, celebrity endorsements, and, perhaps more importantly, large databases of people to target. Writing for the MIT Technology Review, Sarah Issenberg provides a compelling account of how the 2012 Obama campaign successfully used microtargeting to focus their campaign efforts on individual voters. Instead of using GRPs (gross rating points, a measure of many television viewers an advertisement reaches) and tracking polls to run their campaign experiments, the 2012 Obama campaign was able to track how individually targeted campaign materials affected the individuals who were targeted. Issenberg writes:
“An experimental program would use those steps to develop a range of prospective messages that could be subjected to empirical testing in the real world. Experimenters would randomly assign voters to receive varied sequences of direct mail—four pieces on the same policy theme, each making a slightly different case for Obama—and then use ongoing survey calls to isolate the attributes of those whose opinions changed as a result.”
The 2012 Obama campaign was able to use these findings to optimize which issues were highlighted on mailers sent to individual voters, which voters were targeted with phone calls, and whose doors would be knocked on as election day approached.
Similar to businesses in the consumer marketplace, there is more room for campaigns to become voter-centric. Campaigns will improve upon microtargeting by not only targeting the right voter with the right issues at the right time, but also with the right language. Campaigns will leverage artificial intelligence to write copy for campaign materials with the optimal reading level, length, and images for each individual voter. No two emails or flyers in the mail will be identical. They will automatically be completely individualized for each voter. I shall label this state of the campaign universe “voter-centric.”
On the slide below, I have included a visual summary of campaign communications strategy over time to show how the evolution of political campaign strategy has mirrored the evolution of marketing in the consumer marketplace.
This high level of individualism in American society is not limited to the consumer marketplace for goods and services or political campaigns. It exists in the news media as well as in interpersonal communications.
Over time, Americans have enjoyed an increase in the number of news sources to choose from. Intuition suggests that this has widened the gap between conservatives and liberals, as each group is able to choose the news sources they enjoy most, thus making it harder for each group to empathize with the other. The story of conservatives watching Fox News and liberals choosing MSNBC is frequently reported. However, it is also important to consider how an increase in the number of channels available on the nation’s televisions has affected Americans’ knowledge of politics. Markus Prior of Princeton University found that an increase in the number of channels available widens the gaps in political knowledge and voter turnout. The increase in the number of channels has given citizens who are not interested in politics the opportunity to change the channel when the news comes on each evening to a program about something other than the most important issues of the day.
But the increase in the amount of content available to voters is only part of the equation. The delivery of the content is of nearly equal importance. The advent of blogs and podcasts has lowered barriers to entry for content-producers. These lower barriers of entry have increased the amount of content available. A higher volume of content in on a variety of platforms has allowed citizens to choose exactly when they consume content and how they consume it. Most importantly, the vast number of blogs, smaller news websites, and podcasts allows voters to only choose the news and analysis they want, when they want it. If voters only want to consume the news they enjoy consuming they can do so with relative ease. If voters want to avoid the news altogether, they are able to do that as well.
The individualization of news consumption is amplified by the incentives of social media companies to deliver their users content that they will enjoy. Facebook has the incentive for users to engage with their platform as much as possible. Serving users content they enjoy and avoiding serving them content they may dislike increases the probability that current users will continue to use Facebook in the future. Therefore, Facebook has a financial interest in serving liberals news with a liberal slant and conservatives news with a conservative slant. Sure, users often pick which news outlets will end up in their newsfeeds through their “likes,” but Facebook controls the algorithm that determines which content appears near the top of their newsfeed.
The Wall Street Journal has put together a feature called “Blue Feed, Red Feed” which shows the stark differences between what liberals and conservatives may see in their Facebook newsfeeds. For example, here is what content about Hillary Clinton liberal and conservative Facebook users may see in their newsfeeds the day after Pres. Trump’s inauguration.
Liberals and conservatives seeing different content in their newsfeeds is the tip of the iceberg. Facebook can drill down by issue. For example, among Republicans there are differing views on abortion. When there is a major legal or political victory for the pro-choice camp, Facebook may opt to prioritize other news stories from the same news sources in the newsfeeds of pro-life Republicans. For pro-choice Republicans, Facebook may choose to prioritize news about that particular victory over other news stories in their newsfeeds.
It is much of the same technology that has increased the individualization of the news media that has transformed the nature of interpersonal communication and relationships in contemporary America. Today, smartphone users are able to avoid conversation with strangers by tucking away into the comfort of their phones. Rather than talking with people they have never before met, smartphone users have the option of pulling up their messaging application of choice and starting a conversation with the friends that they already have. Rather than saying hello to the inhabitants of their neighborhood as they stroll down the street, they are able to retreat to the comfort of their earbuds.
In modern America, a large segment of individuals enjoy a life where companies bend over backward to tailor their products and marketing materials specifically for them. Political campaigns bend over backward to tailor the issues they choose to raise and communications methods specifically for them. These individuals enjoy only the news stories and analysis they want at the time they want them. These citizens are largely able to avoid conversation—especially of an extended nature—with those they do not wish to speak. In today’s America, the individual reigns supreme.
A Society of Tribes
But, of course, not everything in society can be tailored to the individual. But it can get pretty close. Take housing, for example. Unless someone lives in an extremely rural area, he or she must live near someone else. In suburban areas and cities, where employment opportunities are more plentiful, people live in relatively close proximity to one another. Holding income and wealth constant, more often than not people will choose to live around people with similar values and interests, politics included. That idea is the subject of Bill Bishop‘s book The Big Sort. He and his co-author, Robert Cushing, write:
“Ways of life now have a distinct politics and a distinct geography. Feminist synchronized swimmers belong to one political party and live over here, and calf ropers belong to another party and live over there. As people seek out the social settings they prefer—as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable—the nation grows more politically segregated—and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogenous groups.”
As I have previously written, this residential sorting also occurs on college campuses.
Similarly, while an increasing number of people are working as freelancers, most people work in the same organization as other people. Much has been written in recent years about the importance of cultural “fit” for employees in the workplace, particularly in terms of talent acquisition and retention. When companies like Starbucks and Chik-fil-A take stances on political issues, it affects which job seekers may apply to their open positions. Imagine an accountant is in the market for a new job. If she has progressive political views, she may be more likely to apply for and accept a role with Starbucks. However, if she has conservative political views, she may be more likely to apply for and accept a role with Chik-fil-A. Progressive companies have a habit of attracting and retaining progressive employees. The same can be said for conservative companies.
Through the neighborhoods in which they live and workplaces where they earn a living, Americans are members of tribes. Tribes can be organized a single interest, hobby, or profession. Author Seth Godin gives us the example that people who dress up as mascots for sporting events are part of a tribe. A unique profession binds them together. Tribes can also be political. The Atlantic defines political tribes as voters with common “values, behaviors, and religious affiliation.”
What’s important to note about tribes is that they are smaller than the two major political parties. Political scientists have proposed a theory “of political parties in which interest groups and activists are the key actors, and coalitions of groups develop common agendas and screen candidates for party nominations based on loyalty to their agendas.” In other words, political parties can be viewed as coalitions of tribes.
The Tension in the Voting Booth
In a society so focused on individuals as well as small tribes, there exists a tremendous tension in the voting both. For individuals who have become familiar with companies and campaigns bending over backward to fulfill their needs, the limited choices on the ballot present them with a decision with far fewer options than they are accustomed to in other parts of their lives.
At the grocery store, consumers have an endless variety of yogurt to choose from. On the ballot, there are usually but two viable candidates. In their inboxes, there are messages from political campaigns with the issues they care about. In the voting booth, the voter must decide whether Candidate A, whose campaign communications materials highlighted how she matches the voter’s position on Issue X, is worthy of their vote over Candidate B, whose campaign communications materials highlighted how he matches the voter’s position on Issue Y.
On Netflix, this voter is able to pick her favorite show from NBC and her favorite show from CBS. She does not need to watch NBC or CBS shows exclusively. Netflix makes the customer experience all about her. Netflix is highly customer-centric. However, in the voting booth she must choose whether Issue X is more important to her than Issue Y. Netflix does not make her compromise. Our electoral system does. This is the tension in the voting booth.
This idea of tension in the voting booth is closely related to Alan Wolfe’s observation that middle class America “will never be able to resolve the problem of how to be an autonomous person and be tied together at the same time.”
In contemporary America, voters, acting as consumers, can choose from a multitude of products, often customizing their products to fulfill their specific desires. However, voters must choose from the limited options presented to them. By choosing to vote, a citizen agrees to be “tied together,” but loses his ability to be a fully “autonomous person” in his selection of a president. In the 2016 presidential election, this meant voters choosing between two candidates who had unfavorability ratings above 60% for at least some part of the campaign. A truly autonomous person would have chosen better candidates to make it to the general election. However, the crowd had seemingly chosen the candidates they wanted most.
What Dating and Presidential Primaries Have in Common
The presidential primary system in the United States can be described using dating behavior among Millenials. Millennials optimizing for an LTR (long-term relationship) may have problems doing so because they are looking for their OTL (one true love). In their quest to find someone to enjoy being in a relationship with, they cast aside anyone who does not meet their expectations for being the love of their life. Their desire to meet their OTL prevents them from being in an LTR, even if they are optimizing to be in an LTR. This mirrors the Republican primary rather well.
As Mr. Trump rose in the polls, Republicans who could not imagine voting for him urged fellow “never Trump” Republicans to get behind their candidate of choice. One problem, among others, was that Republican primary voters had fallen in love with their preferred candidate already. While they certainly did not want Trump to win the primary, they had already found their OTL for the race—even if achieving an LTR with them (winning the primary and going to the general) was improbable. The last thing most Republican voters wanted for much of the primary was to get in an LTR with Trump and have him represent their party in the general election. However, not enough Republicans were able to drop their OTL candidate and get behind a single Trump alternative. In other words, their desire for their OTL to win prevented them being in an LTR they would be happy with. They got Trump instead.
In a primary with as many candidates as the 2016 Republican primary, how do voters resolve their individual preferences for candidates with the preferences of others? In the consumer marketplace, consumers can buy whichever variety of ketchup they wish, usually without affecting the ketchup choices of others. In the voting booth, voters must find a way to resolve their individual preferences with the preferences of fellow voters.
Grains of Salt
All of this, of course, must be taken with a grain of salt. This piece is merely meant to contrast how Americans live and make decisions outside of the voting booth to how they make decisions inside of it.
On the subject of product differentiation and individualization, it is true that many people do not have a choice when it comes to what products they purchase because they are constrained by price. However, it is also worth considering how price can be a differentiating factor if other brands are not competing on price, but other characteristics instead.
I understand that this is a rather harsh take on political life in America. In the future, I plan to compose an essay examining the institutions, organizations, and people relieving the tension presented in this piece. Their work is central to the health of American democracy.