Time for a New Tack
Wednesday, November 08, 2006 :::
John Ellis writes in today's Journal that the political parties could learn from the private sector when it comes to messaging:
Look through the list of the major advertisers in the U.S. and what strikes you is that all of them spend vast sums of money building and strengthening brands. The nation's leading advertiser, Procter & Gamble, spends over $4.5 billion annually doing just that. P&G spends not one dime on negative advertising because they understand that it is ultimately self-destructive.
What makes our politics so sensationally awful is not just the amount of money spent denigrating the category and the profession, but the equally stunning amount of energy that is expended by party apparatchiks to amplify the negative in news-media coverage of politics. And the news media are only to happy to comply. The truth is they can't get enough of it.
The net effect of this constant and unrelenting assault on politicians and the political process is voter resignation and ultimately a kind of doomed acceptance. It must be true. They must all be hypocrites, fools, thieves and scoundrels. They're talking about themselves, after all. It's $1 billion of self-portraiture.
We've seen plenty of this right here. And if anything, the campaigns set lows that have not been reached in decades. While the accepted wisdom is that negative ads work, any advertising person who retains a scrap of a soul will tell you that negatives don't sell products. And if we accept the proposition that politicians are salesmen for a certain product -- whether it's a 10-point platform, a set of personal beliefs or even something as amorphous as change -- the best way to get people to buy (or vote YES) is to make the message positive. The Contract with America was a positive platform. Of course, it was positioned as an antidote to a series of negatives -- corruption, indifference, arrogance -- but it told people what the GOP was for. And more than that, it told voters specifically what the party would do to change things in Washington. Granted, it covered only the first 100 days. And 12 years later, those 10 points seem rather remote, or even quaint. But the overarching theme was positive.
Has there been anything like this put into the public eye during this election? No. We were told to "stay the course," but not in so many words. We were fed a steady diet of fear and loathing (with the occasional deer head tossed in for good measure). We were told there were other solutions to the greatest problems of the day, but the specifics were so threadbare as to be nonexistent. Ellis says that the eventual reaction may be one that neither party will like:
Ultimately, the reaction to this ceaseless negative barrage, if it continues unchecked, will be the rejection of both major political parties. As more and more people are repulsed by the political process, their number will at some point reach a critical mass. Americans share two overriding beliefs: Tomorrow will be a better day and the idea of America is fundamentally important. That critical mass will eventually embrace a party of hope and mission. A new political party that speaks to those beliefs will emerge. The alternative, after all, is a new record every two years -- $2 billion of negative advertising, then $4 billion, then $8 billion. All slander all the time eventually collapses of its own foul weight.
The ironic thing is that all of this nastiness seems to have driven turnout to comparatively high levels for a mid-term election. So for now, the barrage of microtargeting, robo-calls, push polls "72 hour campaigns" and other tactics seems to be the gold standard.
But if Ellis is correct, then these same tactics may eventually lead to a backlash that reshapes the political landscape.
And I suggest it begin in Virginia with the 2007 elections.
::: posted by Norman Leahy at 11/08/2006