Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Back to the future (please)

By Bill Kraus

In 1964 a Canadian Philosopher named Marshall McLuhan wrote a book entitled Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and coined the phrase, "the medium is the message." At the time I had no idea what he was talking about. I do now. And as I look back across my last 62 years I see how dramatically that idea has played out in my life in political campaigns.

When I was getting my start in the early 1950s, political communications was in what I like to think of as the Plunkitt of Tammany Hall era.

This small book was a biography of a young New York man named George Plunkitt who wanted to become politically active and found the route to whatever fame and fortune he achieved in that trade was about him and the thousands like him.

They were the medium. They wrote and delivered the pamphlets. They made the telephone calls. They organized the precincts. They delivered the votes and the voters to the polls for their candidates.

There were speeches of course and rallies and lots of long expository newspaper ads on the candidates and the issues of the day.

But campaigns were won in the trenches, and the trenches were occupied by legions of Plunkitts. It worked, but it was ridiculously labor intensive and as it went forward the supply of volunteers began to dwindle as did their position as the lead medium.

This part of politics hasn’t gone away and was a major part of top of the ticket campaigns when the Doyle Dane and Bernbach era took the lead role in politics in the 60s. What that advertising agency did was create television ads for Lyndon Johnson which destroyed the slim hopes that Barry Goldwater had of winning the presidency in 1964. They were short. They were pithy. They were brilliant. They became the icon for all the campaigns that were well-funded enough to use television from that day forward.

Television became and still is the leading political medium, but it’s not going to hold that place forever. As persuasive and pervasive as it is, it is enormously wasteful and expensive even for an age which is so awash in money that it can tolerate a lot of waste and expense. It was never cheap even when there were only a handful of television broadcasters and programming was comparatively clutter free, and it was nowhere near as efficient as the targeted Plunkett area communications were.

What we seem to be in now is a chaotic interregnum waiting for someone to figure out what is the next medium for political communication and campaigning.

A lot of professionals are being paid a lot of money to do ads, to make robo calls, to poll, to focus, to mail literature, to do everything and anything to find and convince and exasperate the over-communicated, less-informed and less-interested average voter to vote for the presumed beneficiaries of all this spending.

The era, however, is still looking for a definitive dominant medium to match the preceding eras.

The uses of the Internet have been mostly cheerleading and money grubbing. The real potential of this “medium” is virtually untapped.

I predict it will be visual and individualized and as face to face as politics was in Plunkett’s time. The technology is in place and in the hands of most of the people who vote. What is missing is the viral video idea that uses the opportunities presented by the technology to inform and persuade voters quietly and privately and effectively.

I’m looking for a return to Plunkett’s kind of communicating and an end to the 30-second, fist-in-the-face television dominated era that is overdone and overrated.


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