Once upon a time in America, an advertising executive had an unenviable task: how to make customers feel enthusiastic about or ever remember what was, basically, watered-down beer. In a stroke of genius, the ad executive came up with a solution: have a heated showdown between two hyper-partisan groups arguing over differing attributes of the product. "Tastes great!" one side would holler. "Less filling!" the other side retort. And so it would go on, louder and louder -- "Tastes great!" "Less filling!" "Tastes great!" -- without resolution.
While nonsensical -- two sides coming nearly to blows over a product they both liked -- the campaign created an immense brand awareness. It furthermore bored into the brains of those watching the ads that there was something in this product worth the fighting for.
In Japan right now, we are seeing an echo of this strategy in the contest for leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan. The two antagonists are between Prime Minister Kan Naoto and Ozawa Ichiro, the two candidates for the party leadership. The product is the DPJ itself, with the antagonists each yelling out at each other differing aspects of the DPJ's main political and philosophical elements. "We will not lie to you!" yells one. "We will not pass the bill for our actions on to future generations!" shouts the other. "We will push decision making down to the local level!" chuffs one. "We will create a central control mechanism for coordinated national planning!" screams the other.
Normally when you have two politicians haranguing in this manner, the pair are from two different parties, each of them flinging at the public what is distinctive about his or her party's platform. However, both Kan and Ozawa are from the same party and what they are arguing over -- if you want to call it that -- is differing aspects of the DPJ.
The first element of genius of this passionate display of party disunity is that in the high-volume dispute between the two men the voices or even the existence of Japan's other parties -- the actual, real opposition -- are being smothered. No one can recall the last time anyone has asked Tanigaki Sadakazu, president of the Liberal Democratic Party -- which won big time in the July elections, thank you very much -- his opinion of anything except the exciting Kan-Ozawa battle. When was the last time anyone saw the leader of the New Komeito, the party that supposedly holds the key to the passage of legislation in the Diet, appearing on television?
The second and crucial bit of genius displayed by this campaign -- which, when one considers the amount of coordination between the schedules of the two men that is allowing them to appear together on television and in public, must be a decidedly less-than-totally-antagonistic affair -- is how deeply the policies of the DPJ are being drilled into the brains of the Japanese people. Whether it is Kan or Ozawa who prevails, the voters are going to be fully briefed on what the party hopes to achieve in the upcoming year, both in the extraordinary fall session and the regular winter-spring sessions of the Diet. With the various proposals very much in the public's mind due to this intense campaign, opposition parties may find it very difficult to oppose what the DPJ proposes, this despite opposition control of the House of Councillors. The public will be looking for action on employment, on the transfer of control from bureaucrats to politicians, on reworking the relationship between the central government and the local governments -- and largely within the binomial framework being outlined by Kan and Ozawa in their debates. For the most part, opposition will be forced to deal with the hands that the DPJ has dealt them, rather than being able to bring their own ideas to the table.
So the battle rages, with paradoxically but quite reasonably, the DPJ the big winner.