Take this simple test. Keep a recent photograph of yourself in one hand while you take a look at your reflection in the mirror. There’s a difference and though it’s a very small one, the person in the mirror may be a little more appealing than the photograph in your hand. Or the other way around. And it all goes down to this – the way you part your hair!
The way we perceive our public self is actually the inverse version of how others see us in real life. If that seems crazy, listen to this fascinating episode from Radiolab. On the page, there is a photograph of Abraham Lincoln – the way he appeared in public. Click on the photograph and it flips to its inverse version – and somehow, it looks much less inspiring – or trustworthy. That’s the way Lincoln saw himself in the mirror all through his life and it is a sobering thought. So, did Lincoln maintain this consciously – knowing fully well that the less attractive version in the mirror was not what people were seeing, but the more attractive one. There were no spin doctors those days, or public relations masters, so it must have been more instinctive – or just plain coincidence.
In these highly televised and image conscious political times, what matters is not just what you say. Every gesture, every pause, every little colour coding and prop in the frame is carefully placed in order to stay on message. The laws of branding and advertising are far more demanding than the laws of the land – especially when you are in the public eye and every single word you pronounce is analysed, discussed, debated and deconstructed by an army of political analysts on prime time television.
The more we learn about how to build a brand and influence public opinion, the more we restrict spontaneity and reality. Actors in movies speak very differently from the way we converse. They speak perfectly, every word formed and delivered at a perfect pitch and tone. The actual shooting, recording and editing of these sequences may require several ‘takes’ or repeats to be perfect, but that is not something that the general public sees. They see a final product made by professionals with no flaws or hesitation – unless it is intentional and part of the script. Record a session with friends and you will see how most normal conversations are rambling, incoherent and take place in fits and starts depending on the interest in the topic and the participants. There is no seamless sense of flow, unless some speakers are particularly gifted.
One of the prime requirements of being a brand is to never deviate from a message unless it is part of the overall strategy to change. Brands get ‘relaunched’ and the new, improved versions appear because the sales graph of the old one has begun to stagnate and requires an infusion of freshness. That could mean a change in the packaging and the graphics and the tone of advertising. Sounds familiar? It’s what happens when the world of advertising and branding converges with something far more explosive – politics. Even something as trivial as the parting of the hair has an effect – and once we have the knowledge, there is no stopping its use.