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The product election

A screenshot from a recent Tostidos ad that makes the most of the campaign season.

Picture it: A sober presidential debate. One politician accuses the other of flip-flopping and then - a bag of tortilla chips dances in, accompanied by two dips. Lively music starts up, the audience jumps up and starts dancing and now has to decide between cheesy queso dip and chunky salsa.

That is a new ad from Tostitos.

Why would Tostidos use the presidential debates as the subject for an ad?

"To try and ride the coattails of the focus of attention at the moment," explains Andrew Frank, research vice president at Gartner.  Frank says companies are hoping consumers will ride those coattails to new places, like social media.  

"Social media is certainly an area where you see a lot of campaign money flowing," Frank says.  "I think you also see a lot of attempts by brands to coopt campaign attention in the social channel."

Take Boston Market.  If customers a vote online in the race of chicken versus turkey, they get a free entree.  There’s 7-11’s 7-election, where you vote by choosing a red or blue coffee cup.  You can check the results on their website (currently Obama is beating Romney in the coffee poll, 60 percent to 40 percent). 

But there's more at work here than dancing chips and free food, says Marissa Gluck, managing partner at Radar Research. Gluck says political beliefs are emotional and personal--strong parts of our identity.  If brands can become part of the way we express our identity, that's very powerful.  

"I think most people do want to engage with politics and with other people," Gluck says.  "By walking around with a Romney coffee cup or an Obama coffee cup, it very quickly communicates what their political affiliation is.  If you can display your political affiliation through that corporation, it's actually pretty smart."

And it's not like tying products to politicians is much of a stretch, says Larry Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.  

"A long time ago, Adlai Stevenson objected to the selling of the candidates as soap powder and cereal," says Sabato. "And here we are selling candidates like soap powder and cereal.  So, I suppose it’s inevitable that cereal companies and soap powder companies will use the election for their own purposes."  

Now you just have to decide: Are you a cheese dip person or a salsa person?  No waffling.

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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