As the ugliness and emptiness of campaign ads does a final 2008 ramp-up, it’s time to re-run a favorite post:
Do you remember when candidates used to appear in their own commercials? Many of them seemed a little stiff wearing a sober suit and white shirt framed by an American flag, a bust of Lincoln and family pictures as they made obvious, irreconcilable and insupportable promises.
“I will improve schools, hire more police, teachers and trash workers and lower taxes, create jobs, and get snow, guns and homeless people off the street by being tough, fair, generous and stingy to all of our citizens , regardless of race, creed or hair color, the number of toes they have or whether they were ever stupid enough to vote for my opponent. I welcome your support.”
I miss those ads. At least they gave you a glimpse of the candidate talking about issues, even in hilarious non sequiturs. These days candidates hire consultants to publicize the names of their opponents just so they can splash mud and slime on them. It’s as if Coca Cola bought ads just to show people taking a swig of Pepsi Cola and spitting it into a gutter.
The candidate used to at least risk rejection by asking, sometimes pleading “vote for me” in his commercials. Now they hide behind hired voices who ask “you aren’t really going to vote for that guy, are you?” Then have the candidate mutter at the end like some nine-year-old being forced to admit that he hit the baseball through the window “I approved this message.”
There’s an old Madison Avenue adage: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Many current campaign commercials don’t even try to sell sizzle, they just hurl sleaze. People who create them are using the expensive power of articulation to produce messages that are just about as mature as kids razzing each other on the playground.
Look, I’m from Chicago, I love covering politics there and still follow it like a contact sport. I know, as the old Chicago columnist Findley Peter Dunn wrote in 1898, “politics ain’t beanbag.” It has always been rough because the stakes are high. I am not one of those people who says “I wish we had a high-minded political system like they have in Canada.”
The sad fact is that candidates and soft money groups run vicious ads because the evidence is, they work. We might be appalled but we often follow through.
When ads become so personal, intense and insulting it’s difficult for the candidate who survives, I won’t even say “wins,” to climb atop the ooze and act like a human being, much less a statesman. And difficult for voters to respect or trust who they’ve elected, in spite of what they’ve been told. These ads may help candidates win the game, but they also risk tearing up the field and burning down the stadium.
By the way, my name is Scott Simon and I approved this message.