The Politics of a Public Persona By: Joshua Chamberlain Posted: February 8, 2012
Is there a difference between self-awareness and self-promotion? If so, where can that line be drawn?
I was having a political discussion with my mother recently, and she was disappointed with my analysis of the political realm. Specifically, I stated frankly when asked about the various candidates for office that, “They're all assholes.”
I do not fault my mother for expecting a more nuanced explanation of my position, so I took it upon myself to provide a bit more insight into my analysis. Basically, it comes down to the fact that being a politician has, in the eyes of most Americans, become more about getting elected than about doing the job once in office. Simply getting elected requires extravagant sums of money and directs every move a politician makes and every word a politician says.
The vast majority of us have absolutely no idea who these people are because they are too focused on being candidates to actually be people. In short, we are being sold a product. We are being sold the Mitt Romney/Barack Obama/Newt Gingrich/etc. brand.
Not surprisingly, voters don’t actually want a product. They don’t want to accept that they are just following a brand. They want to follow people. Once voters realize what they are being fed and watch their elected officials act like insolent teenagers while in office, they recognize that those elected officials are, in fact, assholes. Hence, my analysis. Still, I wonder if my mother’s disappointment in my position is a function of her being from a different generation that grew up with different expectations.
The question of who is actually real and believable when in the public eye does not just pertain to politics, however, and is just as relevant in the sports and entertainment worlds. Players and coaches alike present themselves a certain way for public consumption, but can we really know for sure if they are real? Let’s look at a few examples.
Woods is the gold standard of someone whose real-life persona did not match up with his carefully cultivated public persona. His is a cautionary tale of what can happen when the public’s expectations of an individual move far beyond what that person is capable of. Everyone wanted to believe that Woods was a symbol of virtue and that his avoidance of the public eye was due to his being a family man. Events proved differently, however, and I believe the public's desire to tear Woods down is largely a result of public disappointment that he did not live up to expectations. The public wants their celebrities, especially sports celebrities, to be heroes, and thus the public acted like a jilted lover when Woods did not live up to their hopes and dreams. Maybe we should just look at him as a pretty good golfer. There is nothing wrong with that.
While many athletes are so prideful when it comes to their last names that they are willing to fight anyone who questions where they came from, Ochocinco went the other direction, instead choosing to change his last name in a marketing ploy. It no doubt worked, and Ochocinco has the jersey sales to prove it. Though it did not necessarily start a trend, Ochocinco’s name change did inspire at least one other athlete to follow suit.
Ochocinco has also cultivated a very public image via Twitter. Unlike that of Woods, Ochocinco’s public/Twitter persona is based on giving people a glance of who he really is. At least, that is what we are led to believe. It is up to the public to decide. Don't forget, however, that a "real" version of yourself is still just a version. Has the line between real and cultivated blurred for people like Ochocinco? I certainly think so.
Snooki has also gone a different direction from Woods, as her approach has been based on lowering people’s expectations of her. When she is in full “Snooki” mode, she plays off the public’s view of her as a simplistic party girl and is basically allowed to do whatever she wants. While I, like millions of people across the country, might cringe when I think that there are folks who actually view her “Snooki” persona as something to live up to, there is no questioning the success of her marketing ploy.
We don’t know for sure whether Polizzi became “Snooki” intentionally or whether the persona developed slowly, but we were given a hint during a recent episode when, after Snooki’s boyfriend became upset with her antics, one of her roommates commented that she was in “Snooki Mode” and her boyfriend was not used to seeing it. I don’t think anyone was surprised at her boyfriend’s reaction to her behavior, but we all wondered how he didn’t see it coming. After all, we as a public love watching the Snooki antics and she knows it.
I use Kill as an example because he is widely considered to be as genuine a person as there is. His former players all tell the same tale, and the Minnesota fans have bought in. I have to admit that I, too, have been chugging the Kill kool-aid, based mostly on the results we have seen at his previous coaching stops. Much like Woods, Kill is someone I want to trust and want to believe.
That being said, I have to wonder how aware Kill is of his public persona. My guess is more than a little. His brand is down-home, aww-shucks, get-to-the-point, old-schoolness. He owns it, and he sells it well. Fans and players gobble it up. As a Gopher fan, I am hoping he keeps it up. Kill seems genuine, and might even want to be genuine. Let's hope he is.
The thing is, I can’t fault any of these people for cultivating these different personas. While there was a time, perhaps when my mother was growing up, that politicians were viewed in a different light than athletes and entertainers, it is no longer the case. I wish that I could look at Mitt Romney the same way I look at Jerry Kill, but I can’t. Maybe all that means is that Kill has done a better job cultivating his persona than Romney. If so, kudos to him.
I wonder still if we all have a public persona. We are told from a young age that being self-aware is important and should be lauded, but when we start marketing ourselves, I can't help but wonder where the line between self-awareness and self-promotion lies. We all like to think that the people we meet are genuine, but are they? Further, we all like to think that we, ourselves, are genuine, but are we?
As we dive headlong into an election year, I hope people will look at the candidates and see a little bit of themselves. If we see a Mitt/Newt/Barack/Rick/Ron speech and think that it just doesn't seem genuine, maybe we should recognize that same approach in our own life. If we watch a press conference after a football game or golf tournament and think that these guys are too good to be true, maybe we should think about their approach to cultivating an image. We could all use some helpful tips.