COMMENT: Len Brown and the value proposition theory of political scandal

Marketing has a few useful concepts. But one is the notion of the value proposition: what a product offers the purchaser. So, too, with politicians.

Marketing has a few useful concepts.

Not many, it is true. But one is the notion of the value proposition: what a product offers the purchaser.

This generally goes beyond the utility of the product itself: it is also tied up with the branding: not just the explicit but also – and this is partciularly important – the implicit things this product seems to represent.

Apple Computer, for example, built a brand on being a bit alternative and funky as well as being good. And it charges a premium to do so.

So, too, with politicians.

And voters, by and large, get this – often rather better than the political media.

Voters don't, by and large, elect policies. They elect human beings, who, it is then hoped with varying degrees of enthusiasm and certitude, will implement the policies they were elected on.

And those human beings do, of course, stand under recognisable political brands, known as parties. Or, in the case of much local body politics, they try to fudge that issue a lot of the time, although this is a side issue in this particular case.

Put crudely, elections boil down to the question, “what’s on offer here?"  A question that involves assessment of the person standing for office and then of their policies.

And the choice is made in that order of precedence.

Which is one reason (though not the only one) why some politicians can get through scandals, particularly sex scandals,  and some cannot.

At its crudest – and we see this a lot in the US and in Queensland, the part of Australia most like the US – survival is difficult when a politician is elected on a stern family values/Bible thumping message and is then caught in a trouserless situation with a member of the opposite or, in some cases, the same sex while being married to someone else.

The question of hypocrisy though is only really applies to that rare bunch.

More broadly there is the question of what a politician's value proposition is:  not so much what they brand themselves as but what voters think they are getting when they vote for that person.

And here things get a bit more subtle.

Take former US President Bill Clinton. Arkansas’ first commander in chief of the US Republic had more sex scandals than you could shake a stick at.

He also put on pretensions of piety at times, even with church appearances and the like.

Yet he survived.

And I suspect a big reason he did so was because voters knew he was a bit of a sleazeball when they voted him in.

Now, few would have actually voted for him for that reason but it was just accepted as part of the package when you opted for Clinton.

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is a similar case. So, although less so in recent times, has been Italian sleazebag-in-chief Sergio Berlusconi.

It is more than a matter of these rather dodgy characters not preaching about morality (although that is certainly a factor).

All had other things on offer that were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as cancelling out the obvious character flaws, at least in comparison to whatever else was on offer from their opposition.

Voters are often more shrewd than they are given credit for. It has been said politicians are sold like soap powder or other supermarket items. But this claim, often made by political scientists, devalues and demeans the intelligence of voters.

We do not live in a pure world and in an impure world politicians have no shortage of impurities.

Rather than soap powder, a better analogy is those tins of mixed biscuits the likes of Aulsebrooks used to put out at Christmas.

People know, when voting for Candidate X, there will be the odd tacky wafer bikkie along with the Toffee Pops. So long as they know this – explicitly or implicitly – they will accept it as part of an imperfect world with flawed human beings.

Up to a point.

If it turns out Mr Brown has been over-doing the bible thumping to his more conservative churchgoing constituents; if it emerges there are more scandals as yet uncovered, and – especially – if there is misuse of council funds involved, he is toast.

He will also have to (a) show a degree of competence;  and (b) not insult people's intelligence with too much glib emotionalism or, worse, overdo the self-dramatising sentimentality. 

Despite the way Mr Brown was treated by Cambell Live on Tuesday night, Mr Brown is not the victim. One of the illnesses of our age is people doing something they know is morally wrong and then trying to beg for sympathy because of the consequences of their own actions.

If Mr Brown avoids all that, he may be able to ride this through – with a certain degree of penitence. 

Voters don’t expect perfection. Just a bit of competence and a reasonable level of probity.

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