A winning presidential character

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 November, 2004, 12:00am

As usual, the American presidential election was a battle between competing truths, starting with a struggle over exactly what to fight about. Each camp naturally promoted the issues on which their man was more likely to score points. However, the 'character' factor invariably rises to the surface, and with particular buoyancy in a time of crisis. President George W. Bush, in this case, was on to a winner because the Marlboro Man persona he adopted trumps all others in the American psyche, coming in states ahead of the dithering sophisticate type that, by dint of contrast alone, so often adhered to John Kerry.

The Marlboro Man is a sort of John Wayne character, especially dear to America's heart, a cowboy rounding up stampeding cattle against a backdrop of natural beauty. He exudes pride and insularity; a man most Americans identify with, aspire to or admire; the type associated with the idealised early immigrants.

The particular potency of this individualistic American ideal was noted in a cross-cultural study by researchers at the universities of Stanford and Michigan in the US, and Pompeu Fabra in Spain. They were interested to find out exactly what traits Americans tend to ascribe to the 'personalities' of successful brands and how these compare with the views of people from other cultures, in this case Japan and Spain. They discovered that some characteristics appear to have the same meaning in very different cultures; others not.

The Marlboro Man ideal encompasses sincerity, excitement, competence and ruggedness, according to the study. Only sophistication was missing from the traits Americans most associate with brand 'personalities'. However, although Japanese consumers are also drawn to brand 'personalities' with the traits of sincerity, excitement, competence and sophistication, they do not share the American interest in ruggedness. Nor do Americans have an instinctive attraction to peacefulness, as do Japanese. When compared to Spanish, a culture arguably closer to the American one, the difference is even greater. Americans do not share the Spanish interest in passion or peacefulness, a penchant the Spanish share with Japanese. Nor were the Spanish particularly seduced by the notions of competence or ruggedness.

All this confirms the culture-specific status of ruggedness in the North American psyche, along with the institutionalised values of manliness, self-assertion and personal achievement. The American man in the street seeks to control his social world, in much the way he seeks to dominate and manipulate his physical environment.

Mr Bush has successfully aligned himself with the egoistic ideal of the Marlboro Man: independent, master of his destiny - of America's - and beyond.

In a pre-election poll published in the International Herald Tribune, 47 per cent of (officially pro-war) Britons would have voted for Senator Kerry and only 16 per cent for Mr Bush. Out of the 35 countries polled, only Nigeria, Poland and the Philippines preferred Mr Bush.

The result reconfirms the prime importance of individualism and mastery in America's value system. One could have once said that this was because America had yet to encounter an enemy it could not wrestle to the ground single-handedly. Today, the vote probably partly reflects a nostalgic desire to hang on to that belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, most of the less powerful, disillusioned old and third world would, understandably, more readily seek co-operation and harmony.

Jean Nicol is a psychologist specialising in issues of cultural identity and change in an era of globalisation