Monday, April 6, 2009

How campaigns and television devolved together

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 5, 2009

By Bill Kraus

In the beginning we didn’t know what to do with television advertising. The medium was new, the reach was questionable, and, worse yet, TV ads were thought to be, if you can believe this, sort of beneath the dignity of politicians.

Then George Henman (I think I have the name right), who created great print advertising for Nelson Rockefeller’s gubernatorial campaigns, legitimatized TV by telling us that we should think of our candidates as Buicks instead of as tubes of toothpaste. And TV ads for candidates were off to the races.

The stuff we were doing in Wisconsin was still pretty amateurish until the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency produced ads for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. The famous nuclear countdown ad (which ran only once) was what everyone remembers, but the series included ridiculing Goldwater’s social security ideas and his wish to cut off the northeastern states and set them adrift in the Atlantic Ocean.

These ads were not why Johnson won, but they may have turned a flood into a tsunami, and they surely set a new quality standard for political ads which made the making of the ads a lot more expensive.

No more talking heads. Now the candidate commercials had to look as good as those Coca Cola and and Miller Beer were producing.

I dodged this bullet in Warren Knowles's 1966 campaign for governor by hiring the documentary geniuses the Maysles brothers to do cinema verite commercials. They followed the governor around for a week with a camera, showing who Knowles was and what he did as governor.

The good thing about these commercials was they mostly informed, were wholly positive, and they were cheap. Others used the technique in other places, but the cinema verite phase fell out of favor for many reasons, one of which was that it was pretty obvious that they were a lot more cinema than verite.

As campaign consultants came into politics in waves, campaigns got more expensive, more glitzy, and more one-dimensional. The consultants' advice was to spend everything you’ve got on TV, and if there’s anything left over spend that on TV, too.

Inevitably the ads got more aggressive. Candidates talked less about their virtues and more about their opponents' faults, which, of course, led to counterattacks and defensiveness.

A more disturbing trend was the drift to irrelevance, a kind of orchestrated deception.

This political advertising addressed issues that the polls said were important to the voters whether whoever won the office being sought had anything to do with those issues or not.

The appalling thing was these kinds of ads--which are designed to evoke not inform--worked, and political consultants, who are the biggest imitators since football coaches, expanded their use exponentially.

What was not apparent is that irrelevant political advertising is based on several unflattering assumptions: The voters are uninformed, respond to emotional appeals, are uncritical, uninterested, even stupid.

Are you mad yet?

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