Bonnie Fuller on Team Obama's Tabloid Strategy

Portraying Barack and Michelle as Brangelina Is Working

By Published on .

Bonnie Fuller
Bonnie Fuller
It's official. The Obamas are just like us. With their latest PR move -- being photographed as a family for this week's People magazine cover story titled "The Obamas At Home" -- it's apparent that Team Obama has a clear and clever presidential marketing strategy: present Michelle and Barack as the beloved Brangelina of the political world.

Like every in-demand A-list couple who concedes to allowing a peek behind the curtain, the Obamas insist this will be the "first and last" up-close and personal look at them as a family. What they don't admit to is that this was a carefully orchestrated, well-thought-out brand presentation. And it isn't actually the first highly personal look at the photogenic family. No, it's the culmination of a publicity campaign designed to take advantage of the couple's charisma and Hollywood-worthy good looks. Team Obama is using popular mass-media vehicles such as People, Us Weekly, "The View," "Access Hollywood" and "The Colbert Report" to familiarize the American public with the candidate and his wife, and to dispel myths about the couple, in a far more aggressive way than has ever been done before in a presidential election.

The Obama handlers clearly feel that their actions on this front are imperative. And it's essential that they carry out these maneuvers as quickly as possible.

"We still have at this late date in the campaign a lot of voters who don't know a lot about Obama in terms of his values and background," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told The Wall Street Journal in a story on July 24.
The Obamas on the cover of People magazine.
The Obamas on the cover of People magazine.

What he didn't say was the rumors that Obama is Muslim or refuses to salute the flag are still running wild on the internet.

"And Michelle Obama has been demonized as a 'radical black bitch,'" points out Joe Dolce, partner in the media strategy of DolceGoldin, and the former editor in chief of Star magazine.

Plus the same Wall Street Journal story reported on a WSJ/NBC poll in which 43% of the population feels that Obama doesn't represent their values.

In the face of these challenges, I'm convinced that the marketing and PR experts surrounding the Obamas clued in to the enormous influence that "celebrities" have had on the American public, particularly women, over the past seven years since the emergence of Us Weekly, Star and other celebrity newsweeklies and the subsequent explosion of celebrity news. And they want to take advantage of the deep affection that Americans have developed for celebrities.

What women want
Women come to feel so close to celebrities, they almost consider them part of their circle of friends. More than 60 million women a week now read the enormously influential glossies, and one of their biggest appeals are the "Stars Are Just Like Us"-style features -- those regularly featured photographs of stars going about their everyday lives

Celebrity weeklies have successfully enhanced the appeal of Hollywood stars, not only by glamorizing them but by humanizing them as well.

The fact that they shop at the supermarket, pick up their own dry cleaning and play with their kids in the park just makes Brad, Angie, Jen Garner, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson and the rest of the cast of A-list characters all the more likable.

If humanizing celebrities sells magazines and movie tickets, why wouldn't some "Obamas are just like us" stories help make voters feel more familiar and comfortable with the Obamas? After all, it's widely believed that George Bush managed to beat out Al Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign because Americans thought he'd be more fun to share a beer with than with "elitist" Al.

"More than most presidential candidates, the Obamas have to introduce themselves and make sure the American public is comfortable with them. They haven't been on the national stage that long," points out Michael Ferrara, senior VP-marketing for Coty. "And they need to go in short-lead publications like People and Us Weekly -- they can't wait another month or two for monthly magazine interviews. They want the American public to understand who they are and who they are as a family immediately."

Already working
A recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll of more than 1,700 adults reported that 52% of Americans would like to invite Barack Obama to their summer barbecue vs. the 45% who would extend the invite to John McCain. So you can argue that the PR/marketing strategy is beginning to work. You could also argue that the strategy is necessary for Obama to win the White House. The same poll reports that as of June, 40% of Americans would elect Obama vs. 39% for McCain if the election were held then.

The McCains have made little attempt to cast themselves as regular folks whom you could talk over the fence with. And they would have a more difficult time in carrying off this strategy. For one thing, it's hard for the McCains to honestly claim that they are just like us when Cindy McCain is the multi-multimillionaire chair of the board for her family's beer brewing empire, Hensley & Co. Plus she is the much younger, second trophyesque wife of John. That she is smart, attractive and hugely philanthropic still doesn't counter that she is dressed to the nines by top designers and is photographed in Vogue looking beautiful but unapproachable.

Contrast that with Michelle and Barack Obama cooperatively appearing on the cover of Us Weekly, embracing beneath the headline "Why Barack Loves Her."

"They wanted to say that they are a sweet, loving couple, just like us," points out Dolce. The inside feature story discusses the couple's romance and relationship and showcases photos of the family at play with their adorable young daughters, Sasha and Malia.
Michelle Obama on 'The View.'
Michelle Obama on 'The View.' Credit: Steve Fenn

I guess People wasn't the "first" look at the family's home life, after all.

The softer side of Michelle
A subsequent visit by Michelle to "The View" in a $148 sundress helped enhance her image as an everyday wife and mom. Something that Team Obama clearly needed desperately to do after she was deemed insufficiently and belatedly proud of her country. That AP-Yahoo News poll added urgency to a Michelle perception makeover after it reported that only 30% of Americans viewed her favorably and 35% had an unfavorable viewpoint.

"Having Michelle on 'The View' allowed women to see her softer side. They could see she's going through the same balancing efforts with family and other priorities as other women. We were able to see her sense of humor, not just her polished side," says Aaron Walton, a partner in Walton/Isaacson, a brand-building firm.

Now I also ask you: Is it really a coincidence that the ultra-warm Barack family People portrait appeared on newsstands just a week after a controversial New Yorker cover that satirized the Obamas as fist-jabbing Muslim militants?

Is it also coincidental that Michelle confides to People that one of the sundresses she's wearing in their photos just happened to have been purchased at budget-conscious fashion mecca H&M? The message for these harsh economic times is that she's not shopping at Oscar de la Renta, like Cindy McCain. "You won't see Michelle in an evening gown. She's never going to be dressed up like the Queen of England," predicts PR king Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates. "That wouldn't be relatable."

In fact, successful career-woman Michelle hasn't been sighted in a high-powered suit in weeks. In People's spread, it's two simple sundresses, with a basic white cardigan tied around her neck.

Seven-year-old Sasha sports a peace sign T-shirt (how's that for a subliminal message?), Barack's in jeans and an open-neck shirt. They couldn't look more "normal" (vs. "not normal," as Star would say). And yet they are still so naturally attractive and downright glamorous. They just can't help looking ready for their close-ups.

"His team will never admit it but they've turned the Obamas into super-celebrity stars who bridge the gap between formality and informality," asserts Rubenstein, who professes admiration for the strategy.
Bonnie Fuller has been editor in chief of magazines including Glamour and Us Weekly and was VP-chief editorial director of American Media. You can reach Bonnie Fuller at [email protected].

He also points out that like Barack's celebrity endorser, Oprah, and other mega-stars like Brad, Angelina, Jen, Tom and Katie, Obama is now simply known by a one name moniker -- Obama.

Photo portraits are a powerful message conveyor for Hollywood stars. Example: Whether she denies it or not, Miley Cyrus certainly appears to have used her controversial semi-nude Annie Leibovitz photo in Vanity Fair to convey that she's no little girl and is ready for a grownup career. Obama is deftly using his People cover story to promote one of his most important messages -- that a stable family life is all-important within black communities and, indeed, all American communities.

He and his wife are telegraphing in a brilliant marketing move that like Brangelina -- with their ubiquitous kids in their arms -- they are hands-on loving parents and devoted partners who live in a traditional all-American-style house, and yet are deeply concerned with the serious issues that affect you, the American voter.

Now who wouldn't vote for that!
Most Popular