It’s an election year. From the bowels of the earth, the roaring media machine known as the political campaign traverses the width and breadth of the country, pampering the populace and lambasting the enemy – be it bleeding-heart liberals, war-hawk Republicans or those fringe candidates with wild-eyed notions of “free health-care”, or “immediate peace in Iraq.” One is supposed to take a side, because, inevitably, there will be one of these moments: someone brings up a potent political argument – whether it be economic policy, health-care reform, even the war in Iraq – and there you are, with nothing to say. It isn’t enough to have a mild inclination, or some sort of moral inner compass that steers one toward one side of an argument without a firm basis, or even any basis at all. Especially in an election year, when each person will be responsible for elevating another mere human being to the presidency, a position that holds the ability to affect the future of the entire country. In these times – four months until November by my count – it is almost dangerous to merely follow your inclinations.
Follow your heart. It’s a common enough message, portrayed in enough movies and novels that it’s almost a given in today’s world. The underdog, trapped by an unforgiving society, chooses happiness over safety – these choices are allowed us by our freedoms and democracy, no matter the risk or price. But who are we to say that one’s heart is able to choose blindly, and make the right decision? In reality, no one does. You would want to make sure your dream guy or girl doesn’t rate violence and alcoholism high on their list of priorities; similarly, you wouldn’t want to marry someone who would not care a whit about the future – ostensibly, this would adversely affect you and your potential family, psychologically and financially. You would, in other words, educate yourself on all aspects of the person and not just on how they look.
So why shouldn’t this be so with your political choice? Unfortunately, most people have taken it on themselves to be a media-educated population. Television, radio and print news keep us up-to-date without effort, and though we complain of the bias of the liberal media, there is not much drive to find things out for ourselves – what else would we be paying reporters and journalists for? So, we listen to what the media has to offer, and for better or worse, we let that rule the way we feel.
Advertising executives are well aware that the average consumer thinks with his heart and not with his head. In an April NPR round-table discussion on presidential campaign ads, Linda Kaplan of The Kaplan Thaler Group remarked that “the problem is that [candidates] think it is about what they think, when it’s really all about who they are.”
That’s probably why radical propaganda is so effective – right-wing Limbaugh paints Democrats as impractical and unpatriotic and still has the highest-rated talk radio show; ultra-liberal Michael Moore preaches the corruption and incompetence of the reigning Republicans and still came up with the highest-grossing documentary on its first week of release; and cult Democrat Lyndon LaRouche can weave Republican conspiracy theories and still come up on primary ballots for an eighth presidential campaign. Though it’s arguable that their message only further persuades the converted, they rely mostly on well-developed and consistent character smears that actually does answer the all-important question: who are these people?
On the same token, it also explains why political television ads are so ineffective in comparison to consumer ads and propaganda. While ad makers understand the consumer logic that underlies any media posturing, political media campaigns are stifled by the very nature of politics. Caution is key, as is appeasing the greatest number of voters. To do so, they utilize polls. In an article by Joshua Green in the July 2004 Atlantic Monthly, Republican media consultant John Brabender notes that in most political ads, “every candidate is basically saying the same four poll-tested things.” As polls also reveal weak issues for each candidate, many campaigns misunderstand the medium, and “try to cram as many issues into an ad as they can,” according to Brabender.
This ends up confusing the voter and obscuring the issues, which should really count for more than any character flaw the candidate might have. To make up for these lapses (which I believe raises voter apathy), candidates usually end up using personal attacks, particularly in the few weeks just prior to the election. During the campaigns of 1988 and 1992, George Bush Sr. raised the bar on negative campaigning toward both Dukakis and Clinton. Clinton himself endured two campaigns worth of allegations of sexual misconduct and later, perjury. Most memorably, the 2000 campaign had stark representations of a dumb Bush Jr. and a lying Gore.
As for this campaign? It seems as if those old negative ads – here we draw a line between comparative discourse and attack rhetoric – are back again, in full force. It’s probably the most expensive campaign in American history. In an advertising frenzy during one month, the Bush campaign paid out $85 million to broadcasters nationwide. Kerry and related Democratic groups trailed behind with only $65 million. Funny enough, the states which aired the most virulent Bush ads saw drops in positive ratings for Bush, though there wasn’t always an equal rise in Kerry’s stats. The furious attacks are probably counterweight to the “free” advertising put out from the Democratic side, especially with the films “Unconstitutional”, “Fahrenheit 9/11”, “Outfoxed”, and the other documentaries captured from all over the world to display what the world sees as the international face of stubbornness. Just as Bush did with the Swift Boat Veterans, Kerry did not deny the “truths” espoused by these extra-political sources. By not saying anything, there was a tacit acceptance of sometimes outrageous methods and conclusions. In several cases, both campaigns utilized images of Hitler to emphasize the righteousness of their campaigns (and the wrongness of the other side).
As they design the various ads that will persuade us to vote for their candidate, campaign managers seem to take it for granted that we are a nation of media addicts. We are addicts, of course; common knowledge imparts to us the fact that our children watch the most television in the world. After all, we didn’t believe the Vietnam War was over until Walter Cronkite told us so. We didn’t quite believe in Monica Lewinsky’s innocent-girl act until Barbara Walters told us so. We didn’t quite believe that Gore was president until Brokaw told us so – but of course, he was wrong. And advertising? There’s a reason why it earns the majority of the profits for broadcasting companies.
But it is important to note the context of the political campaign assumption: that they feel they can educate us enough to make the right choice – their choice – by their use of media. In their case, “media” largely refers to 30 to 60 second television ads that attempt to broadcast an entire position in the blink of an eye.
Here we pass on the argument from campaign media to news media. The public understands the bias present in advertising, whereas they are suspicious of bias in news media: a 1996 poll revealed 77% of Americans mistrust the accuracy of journalism. This is probably related to the media propensity for flashy sensationalistic stories; according to Jack Fuller in his book News Values, “the thought that news reports should be true dawned on journalists only recently.” In the not-too-distant past, journalism was almost totally propagandized. But unlike the flashy sensationalism inherent in advertising, American viewers actually prefer their news to be unlike it, even if it’s not quite as interesting.
In the end, the public is still made more educated by news than by advertising. Take television news. It is presumed to contain political posturing (the “liberal media”) and its viewer-ship runs in the millions, even making the Nielsen Top 20 during certain weeks. Though we complain about the bias, we seem to be educated and made up-to-date by merely paying a short bit of attention. We don’t have to exert much effort: what else would we be paying reporters and journalists for, if not to do the drudge work for us? So why then are we so suspicious of news sources? Maybe for good reason. It is remarkably similar to advertising in other respect; it aims to educate, it is biased (albeit to a less debatable degree), has millions of viewers, and earns millions of dollars for their media sponsors. However, nobody
But even as I wax negative on the intellectual laziness of the populace and the effects of the media, it would seem that we aren’t entirely image-driven and careless – because, in some fashion, we do worry about the issues which shape our lives in this country. According to a study in Communication Quarterly by Benoit and Lee, South Korean presidential election winners have tended to emphasize character over policy, reflecting the attitude of the voting population. The United States, on the other hand, show the reverse.
Policy over character, policy over character. Sounds good. But we still want our candidates to be like us, a profoundly “heart” attitude to take. After all, the old myth that opposites attract was finally proven untrue by Cornell researchers early last year. So what do we have now? You’re innately biased. The media’s biased. So go out there. Do some reading. Think about it. And probably the best advice you can take with you this election year (or any other time for that matter): don’t believe everything we tell you.