Who Will Ape McCain Brand Suicide With Embrace of Palin?

Now That Even Fox News Is Bashing Her, Alaska Gov's Supposed Future as a Media Star Looks Suddenly Iffy

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In the aftermath of John McCain's defeat, there has been, inevitably, plenty of talk about when, exactly, the wheels came off the bus (er, the Straight Talk Express) -- what really did him in. Over at Slate, for instance, Daniel Gross, in a piece titled "The Day McCain Lost the Election," zeroed in three gross media miscalculations: McCain's clueless Sept. 15 "fundamentals of our economy are strong" declaration; his faux "I'm suspending my campaign" announcement of Sept. 24; and, beginning on Oct. 15, during the third presidential debate, his decision to fixate on the boneheaded (and factually incorrect) economic insight of Joe the Plumber (even as Barack Obama was soberly huddling with the likes of Paul Volcker and Warren Buffett).
Tarnished: McCain campaign insiders came to see Palin as toxic to their brand.
Tarnished: McCain campaign insiders came to see Palin as toxic to their brand. Credit: Qi Heng

In hindsight, yep, those were flawed, self-destructive calls (as were other major and minor screw-ups, like lying to David Letterman), but surely we'll see increasing consensus that McCain's real moment of ruin was his impulsive selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Aligning with Palin was, simply, brand suicide for McCain -- to the point that McCain campaign operatives were, in their waning days, barely choking back their bile for her. On Election Day itself, as Jonathan Martin wrote on Politico, even McCain campaign chief strategist Steve Schmidt (who was involved in the pick in the first place!) couldn't disguise his disgust with the Alaska governor. When asked if he was happy with the selection of Palin, Schmidt said, "You know, we'll uh, I'm not going to do ... there'll be a time for all the postmortem parts of it." And the day after the election, Newsweek was reporting that "McCain's top advisers privately fumed at what they regarded as Palin's outrageous profligacy" in compulsively snatching up pricey campaign-trail duds not only for herself but for her family -- a shopping spree "more extensive than previously reported" -- in what one aide reportedly called "Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast."

Now, I'm fascinated with the notion of brand suicide because, as a media writer, that's often what I write about: brands that are seemingly almost doing themselves in on purpose. In 2006, for instance, angry that The New York Times was only just then contracting its stock tables (a cost-saving decision that should have been made years earlier), I wrote a column titled "Is the Times trying to commit slow-mo suicide?" The newspaper of record, of course, is hardly alone among inky brands that have been slow to reinvent themselves -- and given the recent carnage in the magazine industry (magazine shutdowns and layoffs that have eliminated something close to 1,000 jobs in a matter of weeks), it's clear that the glossy world too has been fatally clueless about not only bracing itself for an inevitable economic downturn, but for a leaner digital future. As much as newspapers, a lot of magazines have been insanely inefficient and wasteful (to turn a phrase, outrageously profligate), not to mention tone deaf about consumers' real needs and desires.

But looking back at all the instances of media-brand suicide I've witnessed, one instance really stands out. In 2003, in a column titled "Why AOL Time Warner Must Die" -- this was back before the humiliated company snipped the "AOL" off of its name -- I wrote about the doomed corporate marriage, and how the groom (Time Warner) was badly duped by the bride (AOL) after a whirlwind courtship. "His true love -- who once seemed to glow with youthful charisma and boundless promise -- turned out to be ... STUPID! Oh, she was such a beautiful bride -- until she opened her mouth!" I wrote about how, as media consumers were growing more and more savvy, AOL continued to wallow in its own aggressively lowest-common-denominator, retrograde dumbness.

Um, sound familiar? A once-respectable, time-honored brand becomes infatuated with a seemingly appealing -- but actually shockingly lame -- flash-in-a-pan?

Now, Sarah Palin certainly still has fierce defenders but it's safe to say that most Americans who endured her clueless blithering during her Katie Couric interview or her air-headed schoolgirl giggling and mortifying gullibility during that unfortunate prank call with "President Sarkozy" came to regard her as a dissembling idiot. Which is why, in the final weeks of the election, polls revealed an astonishing rise in the number of Americans who came to have a negative opinion of the governor -- more than half of likely voters by late October.

And here we come full circle: Sarah Palin is somehow regarded as either the future of the Republican Party or as a future media star -- a shoo-in for, say, a talk-show-host gig once she wraps up her stay in the Alaska governor's mansion.

So we're looking at either more brand suicide for the GOP, or the embrace of a badly outdated, dumbed-down worldview -- one based on race-baiting, xenophobia and the politics of fear -- by whatever media conglomerate tries to put Gov. Palin on the payroll.

Of course, there are growing signs that the GOP actually realizes Palin is poison; witness the spectacle, by late last week, of even formerly Palin-lovin' Fox News serving as a mouthpiece for disgruntled McCain operatives eager to throw Palin under the bus by revealing further details about her ignorance (e.g., not knowing Africa is a continent). So if she still craves a national forum, she might just have to settle for becoming part of ... the evil media!

But on the bright side for Ms. Palin, if she does become a TV star, her media-conglomerate bosses surely won't bat an eye at her clothing budget.
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