The Reagan Brand

Curator's Note


There’s no business like show business.—Irving Berlin

Ronald Reagan first appeared at the 1984 Republican National Convention on a screen above a stage.  From that stage, astride a podium flanked by two American flags, Nancy Reagan raised her eyes to greet the image that dwarfed her.   As she turned her notorious gaze upon his celebrated image she extended both her arms upwards towards the screen. Rising to their feet beneath and behind her his delegates held his portrait aloft. Trimmed in the colors of the flag the convention hall reverberated with their adoration.

As political theater, the performance embodied an intricate network of connections between statecraft and stagecraft, culture and capital, media and mimesis, the devil and the deep blue sea. Renowned as the first actor to serve as president of the United States, Ronald Reagan was, more significantly, the product of an exhaustive education in the performance techniques and technologies spawned by radio, film, and television, and a ubiquitous performer on the electronically mediated performance circuit that has transformed American politics.

Reagan’s image on the giant video screen served as a “promo spot” for the eighteen-minute film homage to his first term that premiered later at the convention to usher him onto the stage for his speech accepting the nomination for re-election. The cinematic homage was itself a “teaser” for an expanded thirty-minute “documentary” version broadcast by all three networks. Then there were the “Morning Again in America” and “America is Back” campaign commercials—condensed mythic visions of what it felt like to live in Reagan’s America—that began airing shortly thereafter.

During his presidency, performances featuring Reagan saturated the airwaves in fifteen-second sound bites, thirty-second and minute-long campaign commercials, thirty-minute promo reels and hour-long news “documentaries.” Spin the dial and he was on CNN and the network news, performing roles in old movies or plugging the new James Bond film, emceeing all-star galas and celebrity roasts, speaking at a press conference, with Charlton Heston at a tribute to Jimmy Stewart, or with Vin Scully as guest commentator at a Dodger’s game.

As these moving images of Reagan-as-America circulated through the mass communications networks that delivered them to us their autonomy as images congealed into one continuous serial broadcast: “America in the Age of Reagan.” As in other long-running serial melodramas of the period (I am thinking especially of Dallas and Dynasty), the Reagan narrative carried these promises: that Americans’ image of both nation and self was, at the root, an aesthetic one—a matter of “lifestyle”; that seemingly intractable social and economic problems could be addressed by stimulating desires that could only be achieved through unbridled consumption; that a government dedicated to promoting access to greater goods rather than the greater good could manufacture consent where no consensus existed; that the incompatible yearnings for progress and nostalgia—a desire to live at once in the future and the past—could be reconciled; that with compelling enough story lines, the right casting, and creative cross-marketing anything was possible.

But back to the image on the screen above the stage, a stock image from a distinctively American theatrical line-of-business enacted by the “somnipractor”—Garry Wills’ term for all the product salesmen who serve as “the arrangers of other’s dreams.” Reagan’s re-nomination was a foregone conclusion. The production number to kick-off the re-election campaign was more a product launch than a coronation—evoking Debord’s insight that the image has become the final form of commodity reification. The convention was a trade show, an opportunity for Reagan and his fellow somnipractors to dazzle the gathered delegates and consumers watching on TV with the new media campaign to position the revamped product line that would be marketed through the Reagan brand. 

The Reagan revolution was coterminous with a new theory of corporate management that held that the primary focus of an increasingly post-industrial capitalism was no longer the production of material goods but images of their brands. Naomi Klein identifies the final year of the Reagan presidency as the defining moment in this shift in the core business of corporations, when Philip Morris purchased Kraft for $12.6 billion—six times Kraft’s paper value. The premium Phillip Morris paid to acquire Kraft’s brand was not a function of its use value but the cost of the word “Kraft.” For tobacco-tainted Phillip Morris, the symbolic value of Kraft’s brand image, it appeared, had a significantly higher value than all of Kraft’s fungible assets put together! The disparity between Kraft’s net worth and the price it fetched at market—like the persistent disparity between public support for Reagan and disapproval for his policies—was a function of the mimetic value of the brand; a value predicated on the magical capacity of the brand image to increase the commercial worth of any product to which it was attached. Addressing the U.S. Association of National Advertisers that same year, the chairman of the global advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mather preached the new gospel: Competing in a commodity marketplace “solely on price, promotion, and trade deals, all of which can easily be duplicated by competition” was a sucker’s game. The most effective means of increasing corporate value was branding. In the new calculus of the society of the spectacle, brand promotion was no longer simply a sales strategy—it had become an equity investment.

Images of brands were ubiquitous in the 1980s. Brand logos emerged from the inside of clothing to advertise the wearer’s status and the company’s image. Corporate sponsorship branded the built environment from cityscapes to sports stadiums, cultural venues to schools. In the music industry, concert tours were opportunities for what the somnipractors termed “live action advertising,” and MTV became the paradigm for fully branded media integration. In the movie business, product placement in films was the tip of the iceberg in an industry that increasingly conceptualized the films themselves as branded media properties. Disney, the original “superbrand,” launched the first brand superstore, branded holidays, and the ultimate in brand penetration, Celebration, Florida, the first branded town. In sports, Michael Jordan established himself as the first celebrity brand. And in politics there was Ronald Reagan. By the time he became president there were only a handful of people whose image had circulated for as long as or as widely through the communications media, and the Reagan brand was an unparalleled political asset. In the new branded marketplace of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was the uber-brand.



 I had not seen the "What's My Line" clip before, but it's fantastic!

Thanks for the great post, Tim.  Throughout so much of the 2008 election cycle, it seemed like many Republicans still yearned for the Reagan brand to be the face of American conservatism.  Interestingly, immediately after the election, someone in either The National Review or The Weekly Standard wrote that rather than needing to find the next Reagan, Republicans should be looking for a conservative Obama.  Your post has gotten me thinking about the significance of this observation, the degree to which the Reagan brand emerged from its longstanding and continuous dispersion across "old media," and the way that the Obama campaign in 2008, following the trajectory mapped by Dean in 2004, emphasized the importance of "new media" to political branding strategies.  


In many ways Obama is already "the next Reagan"--Obama made more than one gesture of appreciation for Reagan during the campaign and his support in part relies on a combination of 'good sense' and 'optimism' that is distinct from but not unrelated to Reagan. Will Bunch's book on Reagan's legacy is pretty good on the role Reagan plays in politics today and has a chapter on the 08 election

There are two other big media images that I think are crucial to the Reagan brand, as you say,though in different ways.

The first is the media image of Reagan that was elided in the runup to the 1980 election--that of the rabid anti-communist of the Goldwater campaign, and the governor who denounced Berkeley as 'haven of communists and sex deviants'. In the 60s Reagan was more Glenn Beck than Great Communicator, but by the time he was campaigning in the 80s his imagery had been oriented around the concept of 'return' rather than 'rejection'. (More toward the 'Train' ad than spectres of atom bombs)

The second was of the assassination attempt which threw the country's support behind him (I think his approval went up something like 25 points), and allowed Reagan to literally embody the resiliency and recovery that his presidency promised the country.

It's also interesting how the Reagan image has been defined in retrospect--I'm remembering the controversy over the Reagan television miniseries that was to air on CBS in 2004, and the "Reagan ended the Cold War" myth.

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