More Than Words: The Power of Political Content Marketing

July 4, 2017

Thomas Paine Statue

Content marketing is not a term that’s been around for all that long. As a concept, though, it traces back centuries. People have been using words, stories, and anecdotes to convey purposeful points and to persuade audiences since time immemorial.

The most compelling examples of this strategy’s application throughout history tie to the realm of politics. Of course, every political campaign is driven by influential content to some degree, but even more striking are the instances where authoritative figures used texts and writings to lay the groundwork for a movement or ideology.

Or even a revolution.

In the spirit of the Fourth of July, let’s start with the example of Thomas Paine, whose savvy usage of content marketing more than two centuries ago helped pave the way for America’s independence. Paine, a political activist and philosopher, wrote Common Sense in 1775. Using uncommonly clear and plain language, his pamphlet laid out moral and practical arguments for the Colonies to revolt and win independence from tyrannical British oppression.

To borrow from modern terminology, Paine’s work went viral. Though debate swirls even today around the actual sales and circulation numbers for Common Sense, there is no doubting its widespread penetration at the time, and it remains one of the best-selling titles in American history. There is also no doubting its profound cultural impact in helping move Colonists at large from a sentiment of reconciliation to one of rebellion.

Why did the pamphlet resonate as it did? Because it followed the core principles of content marketing. It spoke directly to a targeted audience, in terms they understood and found relatable. It established a deep connection with readers and caused them to reconsider conventions.

Common Sense did not directly incite action; instead, it planted the seeds that ultimately led individuals to reach that point on their own accord.

Let us consider five other (more contemporary) instances of political content marketing through the written word, with a focus on takeaways we can all apply today.

Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy (1957)

This series of short stories details acts of bravery from eight United States Senators, spanning back to John Quincy Adams and his role in dissolving the Federalist Party. The volume was written and published in the mid-1950s, amidst Kennedy’s rise from unknown congressman to US President, and set the stage for what would become the defining stance of his time in office. JFK’s Civil Rights Address in 1963 was itself a profile in courage, proving to be a pivotal speech in American history and an enduring component of his legacy.

The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan (1963)

Unlike the others on this list, Friedan was no politician. But she was an activist and there’s no doubt that The Feminine Mystique was profoundly impactful. Many credit it with precipitating the second wave of American feminism in the United States, in which matters of gender equality were broadened and brought back into the public spotlight. Like many great pieces of content marketing, her book was founded on data; it was inspired by a survey she conducted showing many women to be unhappy with their roles as housewives. A few years later she would become first president of the National Organization of Women, and she also played significant roles in numerous strikes and reforms.

The Art of the Deal, by Donald J. Trump (1987)

Love him or hate him, Trump is always on brand. His consistent adherence to the qualities that carried his celebrity to unprecedented heights is remarkable. The splashy billionaire stays true to himself, for better or worse. Trump as president is not much different, optically, from the version that hosted “The Apprentice” on TV for 14 seasons, nor the one that wrote Art of the Deal in the mid-80s: a confident, self-aggrandizing, tough-as-nails negotiator. Almost 30 years after publication, as he mounted his improbable bid for the presidency, Trump’s name rang synonymous with the title of his first book, lending credibility to his positioning as an expert businessman who gets things done.  

Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, by Al Franken (1997)

If Trump’s victory proved one thing, it is that in today’s environment, the ability to market oneself supersedes experience and traditional qualifications. The same was true for Franken, another entertainer who broke into the world of politics despite a sparse track record in the arena. His 1997 book, with its provocative title and humorous yarns, helped build momentum in his transformation from Saturday Night Live comedian to US Senator, as he attacked heavy issues with the playful yet serious tact that has become his signature. Recently, Franken published a new hardcover, Giant of the Senate, in which he takes on the modern political climate more forcefully. Perhaps it is a content strategy aimed at setting up his next move: a run at the White House?

The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama (2006)

Forty-five years after Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address and Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama was sworn in as the first black president in American history. A couple years earlier, with Audacity, he had implanted a message that would become the heart of his successful campaign: the impenetrable resilience of hope, and its ability to galvanize millions. His earlier book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, helped launch Obama’s initial political career on the state level in Illinois.

They’re Just Words, Right?

It is easy to get caught up in that mindset as we spend our days shuffling keywords, counting characters, and A/B testing ad copy. But the pioneering voices above, and countless others, have proven the power of the written word — and the impact of a cogently expressed idea — can move minds and alter the status quo.

As marketers, we of course are not going to match these epic examples in magnitude. But it might be helpful to keep them in your back pocket as guiding lessons the next time you sit down to bang out that blog post or eBook.

We leave you with this quote from one of history’s most legendary orators and content marketers, Pulitzer Prize winner Winston Churchill:

“It has been said words are the only things which last forever.”

Then we had better make each one count.

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