He may have been trying to parlay his turn at giving the State of the Union response into the start of a presidential campaign, but Marco Rubio chalked up an accomplishment last Tuesday night that few Republican politicians — or activists, for that matter — can lay claim to: creating, and embracing, a moment in culture.
After he took that dastardly, ostensibly “career-killing” sip of water on air, you could almost smell the avalanche of media coverage as it slowly wound its way across the landscape. They were honing in on a public foible like Kardashians to a camera. But instead of crying foul and whining to a friendly outlet about the persistent victimization of conservatives, Rubio and his staff saw an opportunity to inject themselves seamlessly into the cultural conversation. Within hours, they had responded with creative tweets, morning talk show appearances and a branded water bottle campaign that netted $100,000 for his super PAC.
And despite the 200 separate thirst-for-power puns churned out by MSNBC, Rubio’s chances at stardom were not lost. In fact, if anything, his sense of humor came across as a deliberate attempt at humanization, and a step in the right direction.
Since that fateful election day in November, Republicans have been struggling with their apparent obsolescence in the face of voters empowered by the Obama campaign to cast a ballot while reserving their critical thinking for other matters, like Justin Bieber. It’s become obvious that failing to embrace a rapidly changing culture is one of the key problems of the conservative message. And judging by the civil war now taking place inside conservative structures, no one really has a clue how to address the problem, other than to assume those darned kids will all just have to grow up sometime, or to continue the effort of putting khaki-pants-and-blue-blazer-
These ideas have, to put it in marketing terms, a slim return on investment, unless you’re happy to preach to the converted, as, of course, GOP movers, shakers and, most importantly, donors seem to be. The key, instead, seems to be following Marco Rubio’s lead, and in the footsteps of the most successful “liberal” cultural endeavors: injecting humor, self-parody and subtle themes into material that is genuinely entertaining, permeating the collective consciousness by embracing trends, using them and taking to heart that entertainment is now a core consumer value. Cultural consumers and “low-information voters,” as they’ve come to be known, now see political elections the same way they see any contest played out on reality television — as something to be viewed, enjoyed and participated in on their own terms — where personal brands and relationships matter.
Right now, the face of the GOP is less “Beautiful Creatures” and more “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” sans the dead household pets: a wrinkled visage in denial about the passage of time, trying to relive the glory days of the 1980s and ’90s by smearing itself in lipstick and think tank white papers. The need for cultural connectivity is ignored by the GOP, as easily as its cultural commentary is farmed out to 60-year-old white men writing essays about how Hollywood should get off their lawn, and its artistic spirit to ham-fisted musicians and filmmakers whose products are nothing short of horrendous.
Conservatives and libertarians cannot avoid culture, nor can they afford to pounce on every perceived slight with church lady outrage, the way they did when audiences were limited and voter outreach was an unnecessary expenditure. Conservatives may never be recognized or revered for their efforts, but like Marco Rubio, they will be able to exercise more control over the media cycle and spread their message across demographic boundaries while minimizing the effects of the left’s well-honed demonization efforts.
In short, Republicans, it’s time we stop making excuses and start making great entertainment.
Emily Zanotti is the principal of Iconoclast Media & Message, a mission-driven creative agency designed to help conservatives and libertarians engage with a modern market.