It was a toss-up between posting this or my short fiction story â€œJohn Key goes to prisonâ€. I will post the story some other time.
While doing research for a few upcoming KP posts on Asia I was distracted on the weekend by Vernon Smallâ€™s article about John Key and the outcome of the Broadcasting Standards Authority investigation into a complaint about his prison rape/soap joke while on the Radio station the Rock last year and rapidly spiraled off into what you are reading now.
But it was Smallâ€™s specific comment about Key â€œtrading prime ministerial dignity for a populist hitâ€ that really started me thinking about what exactly is going on with our Dear Leader and his carefully crafted media image.
Because while there have been recent articles claiming that Key is â€œplummetingâ€ in the polls as preferred PM the reality is that he remains well head of the rest by a significant factor and while not at the Trump level of being able to kill someone in the street itâ€™s clear that John Key can say and do things other could not get away with, PM or not.
So yes Keys popularity is the lowest itâ€™s ever been and there is definite wisdom in what Small was saying but that level of analysis is not enough, right now we have only four of the journalistic five Wâ€™s (who, what, where and when) while what we really need is the why.
And itâ€™s an area which has been examined before, the why of â€œwhy is John Key so popular?â€ question that NZ political reporters have been asking for a long time now. And with more than a few shots at it, the best of the bunch are Bryce Edwards piece in the NBR from 2011 and Tracy Watkinâ€™s recent look at having Key around for a fourth term but neither really dig into Brand Key.
Watkins focuses on the Key playbook while Edwards notes the apolitical nature of Key and these are both valid approaches but Brand Key needs an actual breakdown of the brand and both pieces remain rooted in pure politics rather than from John Key being commodified in exactly the same way a bar of soap is or how a pop star marketed to their fans.
So with this in mind I aim to have a deeper look into John â€œyou have a pretty mouthâ€ Key through the lens of advertising rather than politics.
Now full disclosure, while not an expert on advertising, I worked in the industry for a short period (creative, copywriter and catalog model*) and I have always had an interest in advertising itself as in many ways it is the lingua franca of capitalism and the true art of our age. So while I may scramble the terminology at times I am looking at Key in the same way as I looked at creating an ad when I was employed to do such.
To begin with we need to look at the key principles behind Brand Key which are: brand awareness; brand loyalty; brand strategy; brand definition; brand equity; synergy and brand momentum. These are the key (no pun intended) principles behind Brand Key. Of course these terms are the language of marketing but, in this case,Â underneathÂ there is a creepy layer of politics that we will get to that a bitÂ later.
First up is brand awareness or how aware are they of Brand Key. For Key its pretty good, he is the PM after all and he regularly appears in the media both politically and at times non-politically in tabloid/gossip publications like those found at supermarket checkouts. He also gets named on blogs like this (oh the irony) and his face is recognizable as the PM of NZ. Most of us know who he is and would recognize him if he stepped out onto the street (as he did one time in Wellington as I was walking to work). So say his name (try it five times while facing a mirror) and people will know who you are talking about. Thatâ€™s a high level of awareness.
Next is brand loyalty or how loyal are people to his lizardness. This can be measured by the fact that Key has remained popular in the polls as preferred PM for almost a decade now, that not aÂ bad achievement despite him making rape jokes, pulling pigtails, sending in his lawyer to lobby for tax havens and all the rest of grubby little things he has been linked to. It is worth pointing out though that loyalty in public and loyalty in the party may not be the same thing asÂ Judith Collins previous coup attempt shows that the art of backstabbing leaders remains alive and well in the National party (but they donâ€™t call John Key the â€œsmiling assassinâ€ for nothing so he lived though that one).
Another point to note is that loyalty for Brand Key may not translate into loyalty to the National Party as its current position in the polls exists by virtue of Key capturing the all-important (at least for the time being) middle voter demographic on their behalf. Few if any would vote for National if it was not for Brand Key (something I noted in my previous post on the party).
From brand loyalty to brand strategy (what strategy is being used to manipulate the image of Key in such a way as to appeal to voters), we now start to get into the subtle and often unspoken nuances of Brand Key which is a combination of being apolitical (as Bryce Edwards noted in his 2011 article) and that blokey, matey, kiwi every-man quality that all male politicians in NZ, and a few female ones as well, desperately want to tap into.
Well in Keyâ€™s case he has nailed it and this is reflected in loyalty to Brand Key, he is perceived as being an authentic kiwi male (likes rugby, drinks beer etc) which resonates with kiwi voters in that he is a male figure that they can identify with and which also appeals to female voters in the same mold as the fresh faced, suit wearing, middle aged white men first made popular by Tony â€œpoodleâ€ Blair but later co-opted by conservatives everywhere has appeal.
Brand Key as an image is incredibly strong and resonates in much the same way any popular brand does and through a variety of media formats (image, sound, word etc) which makes the strategy of billing him as an apolitical middle man perfect for appealing to middle ground voters unhappy with the perceived failures of partisan politics and wishing only for a simple message and action orientated leader (if only in image rather than actual action) an easy task.
The fact that Key has kept hidden his deep ideological background to the vampire squid and all that it entails from Godzone voters is proof that this strategy has worked wonders and remains viable today.
Following on is brand equity (or capital) which is the measure of how much good will a brand has banked away for a rainy day. Again in this area Brand Key has been very successful and while things have had a bit of a downturn of late (as with the rape joke not going quite as well as planned) itÂ remains in credit with the mainstream voting public.
Brand equity is built primarily through a successful brand strategy and as we have seen the strategy has been so successful that it has led to a windfall of equity to which Brand key has used to offset moments like a backfiring rape skit on a brain dead radio show.
Then there is brand definition (the positive, open articulation of the brand though positioning it within a particular idea or framework) which is the opposite of brand strategy (which is primarily subliminal in its articulation to people). Brand Key has been defined by words like â€œpragmaticâ€ or â€œhumanâ€ or photos of him doing human things (like having a pizza delivered to his house)Â which all lead to John Key often being set apart from other politicians.
Brand Key is defined as a kiwi guy, popular and the kind of person you could run up and take a selfie with, the kind you would want to take a selfie with and to which we would like to know more of his life, just like we do when we hanker for more info about our favorite celebrity, a Kardashian like politician if you will (the spawn family from Hollywood not the aggressive alien spawn from Star Trek) for the political public to consume through vicarious means.
If Brand Key could be defined in the languageÂ of soft drinks then John Key is the politician that refreshes, with no addedÂ political baggage (like ideology and such) that Labour and the Greens have (well maybe the Greens) and focused on the things that matter, like having an economic surplus and lower taxes (i.e. getting wealthy). He is the politician you vote for when you want the classic taste of economic conservatism but none of the ideological aftertaste you get with ACT.
AfterÂ brand definition isÂ synergy, a king among buzzwords, even in marketing and now in government. Synergy in this sense means the magic of bringing it all together with that extra something special that gives things mojo where they themselves had none. Its the X Factor for politicians and Key is racking up the votes while the accordion player and albinoÂ dancers languish off stage. There is no denying Key has the X factor when it comes to politics.
And finally there is brand momentum, the movement or energy of a brand. The easiest way to picture brand momentum is to imagine a brand as a shark swimming, if its stops it sinks and it dies therefore itâ€™s imperative for there to be continual movement and in marketing “movement” means exposure, new advertising campaigns (not necessarily any new products) to keep the brand in the mind of the public and keep it oxygenated and alive because there are always other predators/brands out there which will pounce on a weak brand and usurp its position as apex predator.
In the case of Brand Key there is no possible momentum outside politics. One could not imagine John Key helming the NZ version of Celebrity Political Apprentice (although I do like the idea of such a show) uttering some immortal line (â€œyouâ€™re a tree hugging liberal!â€ for example) at the end of each episode as another unfortunate contestant is hauled off to some distressing little room in the Beehive basement for another session on the rack before being returned to the backbenches to mutter â€œI love John Keyâ€ slowly and repeatedly during sitting days in parliament.
No, with no politics there is no Brand Key, it is only within those waters does such a creature swim and out of all the principles discussed this is the one area where Brand Key has a real problem because it is here that the limitations of Brand Key become evidently clear and where the veil on BrandÂ Key is pulled away to reveal another layer; a dirty grimy layer, coating the surface like some sticky, amorphous and unidentifiable substance stuck to oneâ€™s finger that is difficultÂ to remove and smells funnyÂ as it comes off.
And it is not the fault of any of the principles of advertising which fail when applied to Brand Key but the concept itself of applying marketing techniques and ideologies to something such as politics. Sure it shows the pervasiveness of late stage capitalism in penetrating all aspects of society but that does not mean that they will work as intended to even work well. The commonality of the public and community that politics is supposed to represent does not fit well with the highly individualized act of consumerism in the 21st century.
Branding in politics, as in any form of branding, is style over substance, it is artificially building up something which does not exists or has not yet had the time to reach such a state naturally before delivering it to an eager consumer to be consumed and in the case of John Key few if any would consider him a genuine statesman when compared to his ongoing image as Prime Minister. Key at best is a manager, a middle manager, following the orders from higher up and implementing their agenda rather than formulating any real policy or ideas of his own.
In his past career as a market speculator he may have shown some brilliance in manipulating the small variances of the market to make his vampire squid bosses rich but that was the extent of it (although there is no doubting that Key, unlike many in Nationals cabinet, is a genuinely intelligent person). His miracle advance through the ranks of National in the early 2000s has all the hallmarks of a heavily stage managed career path, not one of his own making or design (he had the talent but a bit of promotion never hurt). John Key is a cypher, of no importance himself but useful in the grand scheme which is why he is so apolitical because making money needsÂ no real political allegiance and as PM he himself is just an actor playing a role.
Therefore the building and maintaining of Brand Key has been essential to hide this simple fact. Brands tap into the subconscious, bypass the rational and distract the mind (like a meme or a virus) with easily repeatable images and wordsâ€™ all of which are to hide from view the true fact that product A is exactly the same as product B.
The shaping and molding of John Key into Brand Key has been an unqualified success in the last decade but this has not been at the behest of John Key. He may have allowed himself to go under the spin doctorâ€™s knife in order to enhance his image (much like Helen Clark did with her makeover while PM, to appear more human and less like a Quentin Blake drawing) but this was in the service of his â€œroleâ€ as PM and not a conscious or natural evolution.
And its those spin doctors sitting in such close proximity to the PMs office that are likelyÂ the same individuals who brought about the Dirty Politics scandal which exposed the National party agenda for winning the 2014 election as one less focused on winning the vote or enacting any actual policy changes and more about smearing the opposition; using attack blogs, rumors and manipulation of the political discourse to such an extent that all other voices are drowned out and the only thing one can hear is the mind numbing buzz of the Brand Key jingle burrowingÂ its way into your head like some brain controlling worm.
So what happens to Brand Key when John Key loses anÂ election or decides to retire from politics, what happens to old brands when they go off to die?
Most brands donâ€™t age well, think of all those pro-smoking adds from the 1940’s or other lame and nauseous adverts from the 1950’s onward (like coke or Macdonaldâ€™s) with their artificial realities, happy families and smiling faces hiding the grim realities (such asÂ lung cancer or type two diabetes) which come after the product has been bought and consumed.
The chances of John Key turning out to be a classic or iconic brand are low. Brand Key has been more a series of flash in the pan media moments with its strobe light effect smashingÂ again and again in the victims eyes, blinding them to the generic product wrapped up in marketing hype; rather than a NZ trusted brand which radiates appeal to kiwis.
The likely legacy that Brand Key will leave behind is as the Fred Dagg of his generation, a caricature of a politician with his endless media moments rather than genuine Kiwi political figures who left behind real legacies (such as Norm Kirk, Keith Holyoake, Robert Muldoon or David Lange); a smooth talking city boy with a bland soul rather than an authentic political individual that enacted real positive political change**.
I end here with a quote from a hero of mine which fits this post rather well; it came to me by chance as so many things in my life do. Take it away Bruce!
“Those who distrust the life-giving force within them, or who have none, are driven to compensate through such substitutes as money. When a man has confidence in himself, when all he wants in the world is to live out his destiny in freedom and purity, he comes to regard all those vastly overestimated and far too costly possessions as mere accessories, pleasant perhaps to have and make use of, but never essential.” Bruce Lee.
*-because when you are a short, skinny dark hair guy in Asia you can work as a photo model. And yes I have a schizophrenic CV, that’s my life.
**-That does not mean the john Key as the actual human being may not turn out to be a genuinely interesting person but this post is looking at the political context only.