Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TV or not TV

By Bill Kraus

As we lurch into another multiple election season--there will be at least 4, maybe 5 in Wisconsin this year--one thing is sure. We will be bombarded by TV commercials extolling the virtues and deploring the sins of the several candidates for the several offices in play.

There will be personal contacts, there will be radio commercials, there will be direct mail, there will be phone calls, some by live human beings, there will be billboards, there may even be a few newspaper ads, but TV will be the main medium of information and persuasion.

How did it come to this?


I have been a witness to, a victim of, even a perpetrator in the whole TV era and saga.

My first campaign experience was in 1952, the year that television became a presence everywhere in Wisconsin.

TV was a minor player in political campaigns then. Most of us who were involved in campaigns didn’t really know what to do with it. TV was for selling soap. It was not appropriate for something as important as politics. The candidates shied away from using it aggressively. Most TV ads put the candidate, the candidate’s family, the candidate’s pets on a couch in their living room. The candidate then spoke about the importance of voting. This ran on TV on the Sunday night before the Tuesday election. It was usually scheduled after the late local news.

Sometime in the next several years a man named George Henman, who was an adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, convinced political operatives everywhere that TV was not demeaning, that they should not think of their candidates as tubes of toothpaste but as Buicks.

TV became a campaign staple in the '60s. Mostly it was more an animated brochure about the candidates, very positive, a moving colorful resume if you will. Cinema verite was popular during this period until everybody figured out it was more cinema than verite.

What brought TV to the top of the media steeple was the presidential campaign of 1964 when Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach, a creative NY ad agency, made a series of ads for Lyndon Johnson to use against poor, outgunned, not-ready-for-prime-time Barry Goldwater. These ads suggested that Barry would drop the atomic bomb, wanted to cut the whole northeastern U.S. adrift into the Atlantic Ocean, and had social security on his hit list.

That campaign, those ads, that overwhelming Johnson election victory propelled TV ads to the top of the political media list for every campaign where buying this expensive message delivery system was not absurd for geographical reasons. Within a few years, newspaper ads, which had been the mainstay of political campaigns, were pushed aside. Too long, too expository, not emotional enough, and the mantra became: spend everything on TV, and if you have anything left over, spend that on TV too.

In one respect 2012 is our best hope that because of the length and number of campaigns, of wretched excess of exposure, of message overkill and of over simplification instead of amplification, a browbeaten voting public might just turn it off.

Enough, already? It could happen. Certainly there is going to come a day when TV ads don't work in elections.



Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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