Campaign commercials lame


IT seems our most tangible encounter with politics is not at a campaign rally, debate or even on the evening news, but by being subjected to televised political advertisements during election periods.

Election seasons flood the airwaves with advertisements. By a wide margin, campaigns are now spending more on advertising than on anything else, and with each cycle the amount they spend grows dramatically.

Being on the receiving end of all this can feel more like punishment than politics. Not only do these ads arrive at an unrelenting pace, but they are nearly indistinguishable from one another.

Every election, like clockwork, the same shopworn phrases are intoned against a flow of stock footage in identical shoddily produced attacks “my opponent says he’s against government spending so why is he increasing the cabinet?” and counterattacks “we need progress, not divisive attacks” all narrated with the same portent of doom voice over implying that a miscast vote for first selectman could imperil the republic.

Most people would agreed that televised political ads, almost without exception are remorselessly terrible.

This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that commerce for consumer products actually tends to be quite good and the TV viewing public is exceptionally savvy about advertising.

Consumer ads regularly warrant their own prime time in specials and have become such a staple of our popular culture. So it is strange that the commercials that seek to influence the most important “brand choice” any of us can make: For the leader of a country so consistently lag in quality and imagination behind those intended to influence our choice of snack.

There is a stifling sameness to political commercials unlike consumer ad makers, political campaigns are inherently cautious. The fault lies with the consultant culture that has infected modern campaigning, wherein pollsters, campaign managers and very often the candidates themselves demand to have creative input.

Design by committee, stifles creativity and produces lousy ads. Less is often more in a visual medium like television but polisters and campaign managers seem blind to that they try to cram as many issues into an ad as they can.

If someone throws five tennis balls at you, it is tough to catch any of them. However, with a single ball it is easy. The effectiveness of ads lies in their simplicity.

Ad makers have developed a kind of visual shorthand to communicate with viewers at a level of minimal consciousness. For example when you want to signify that your candidate is good on jobs, you shoot him in a hard hat pointing at a steel beam. When you want to reach seniors, you shoot him in a nursing home, smiling gently at older folks.

To link him with education, multiracial kindergartners are the norm. The universal signifier for strength and patriotism has been flags.

In 2002 one political consulting firm. Politically dispensed with any illusion of originality and offered pretaped political commercials that campaigns could buy and tailor to the candidate, like off-the rack suits.

It is like fast food, cooked up and served the same way every time and it leaves you unsatisfied and probably with a bit of indigestion.

In 2003 William Benoit, a professor of communications at the University of Missouri, US, published a paper in the journal Advertising and Society in which he traced the emergence of the major themes in political advertising.

After enduring some 2027 presidential campaign spots dating back to their earliest use, in the 1952 race, Benoit established that most of the formats used by today’s campaigns originated in the 1950s. Even the aide tone that is now dragueur dates back in the 1950s.

The early ads used familiar techniques such as the biographical ads, a the negative attack and the practice of using an opponent’s words against him. Most of these are time-honoured formats and there has not been much innovation.

Indeed political ads have remained strikingly similar since the 1950s even as consumer ads have evolved dramatically. The difference seems to be that consumer advertisers prize originality whereas political advertisers prize conformity.

In that regard political ads function as a microcosm of politics generally characterised by frequent and dramatic hyperbole but resistant to all but the most incremental change.

Scholar have devoted considerable attention to this subject and from their work one can piece together a scientific rationale for why most ads are so lam .It has been discovered that there is a functional theory of political campaign discourse.

Which argues that a candidate can do only three things to make himself look better in voter’s eyes, praise himself, attack his opponent or defend himself from attack.

One of the most frequent complaints about political advertising is the negativity (a criticism campaign professionals privately dismiss).

There is ample scientific evidence that, despite widespread public distaste for them, negative ads are the most effective kind because people are more apt to remember negative information than positive information. There is another reason campaigns are so quick to employ and often abuse, negative ads.

Political campaigns can afford to alleviate the more sensitive members of the electorate and are perfectly happy to drive down turnout, as long as they win votes from a plurality of those who do show up.

In fact, one reason campaigns bother running positive ads when a race turns nasty is to ensure that their negative ads remain effective.

This is known in the trade as “running a positive and a negative track”. If people feel some what good about you, they are more likely to believe the accusations you make against the other side.

It is no surprise then, that campaigns are willing to go for blood. Rather than come up with ads that are more memorable, more like consumer ads, campaigns have decided to pound viewers into distracted submission with the same mediocre product.