Monday, November 7, 2011


Have you ever wondered what campaign season would have been like back in the 1950s if the candidates had their P.R. gurus producing TV commercials? How would the public have perceived the not-so-television-ready Harry Truman in candid shots from the campaign trail mixed with slickly produced sound bites from his speeches? Truman was the guy who once said, “All my life, whenever it comes time to make a decision, I make it and forget about it.” You can just see the campaign marketing team going pale and starting to sweat.

If there is one thing that the creative team on a campaign doesn’t want the public to see it is anything authentic to the candidate’s persona. Come on. Do you think even one person on the Rick Perry campaign would have authorized release of the video of his recent dinner speech? You know, the one where he was evidently either drunk or high. One could posit that in that video we voters saw the real Rick Perry for the first time. Reality can be so humiliating sometimes, right? Oh…you didn’t see it? Watch:

We are in the early stages of a year long, fully-produced deluge of campaign propaganda films and sharply-edited television ads. All are aimed at convincing us of the integrity, ethical stability and approachable gravitas of the presidential hopefuls. Couple that with some scripted, coached charisma and some hyper-patriotic background music and there you have it – the U.S. version of political campaigning. It is the political version of musical theatre – it has all the elements – except maybe dancing. But think about it: political campaign TV ads and musical theatre compel you to pay attention by appealing to your emotions, your passion and your love of a happy ending. Is a Herman Cain campaign ad really all that different than your typical Broadway protagonist – the age-old story of an unknown everyman who comes from behind and steps into the spotlight? Remember Ruby Keeler in “42nd Street?” Get the parallels? And yes, I just went there – I compared Herman Cain to Ruby Keeler.

Well, maybe not. I mean that last web-only ad with the campaign manager smoking the cigarette and Cain smiling that sort of shit eating grin for a few seconds too long at the end? If ever somebody needed a Mike Nichols – or even a Mel Brooks – it’s poor Herman Cain. Cain may be the one candidate most in need of producing and directing assistance of any candidate in recent history. When confronted by aggressive media reporters about his alleged sexual harassment struggles in the late 1990s, Cain scolded the reporters and told them he was not going to discuss it. Watch:

Oh Herman. Don’t you know? Hasn’t the guy with the cigarette told you? The more you piss off the press the more predatory it becomes. And the next thing you know, Herman, the stories of your peccadillos trump policies in your media coverage.

Somebody seriously forgot to tell people like Cain and Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum that running for president in the 21st century is all about packaging. Anything you try to hide behind the package -- like a husband of questionable sexuality who runs a clinic that tries to pray the gay away (Bachmann)—will find a headline somewhere, which will go viral in about two seconds, which can undo all the hard work you’ve done so far to put forth a squeaky clean image. And any history you have of spreading extreme rhetoric that runs counter to majority thinking – like Santorum’s crazy rantings about homosexuality being akin to adultery and incest – will find the wrong kind of headlines and fully unravel your meticulously crafted all-American, family man image.

This is the first presidential election in the history of the U.S. that has this much media and technology chronicling its every millisecond. This current crop of GOP would-be-chief execs appears to be trying to play the presidential campaign game by old media rules. What none of them seem to grasp is that these days if you say something truly stupid or ill-conceived or wildly inaccurate at dinner in Palm Beach, everybody in Palm Springs will know about it by dessert.

That leads to two trends that work directly against us voters: First, it means that the smartest image-makers among the campaigns will script everything so tightly that we will not ever have an opportunity to truly know who the candidate is or where he or she stands on the most divisive issues; and second, it will further cause the candidates to speak in made-for-TV/web sound bites intended for viral dissemination. In short, we get less reality than ever before because of the mass paranoia among the campaigners that their words will be mis-interpreted or worse – fully understood by the masses.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that extremists like Bachmann, Santorum and a couple of others will be voted off the island any minute now. Cain may linger for a while. After all, his antics are entertaining, if not exactly presidential material. Hard to say. And Perry? Maybe fewer cocktails before the next after-dinner speech may be
in order for him. The GOP hopeful who becomes the nominee this time is the one who understands the pervasiveness and power of traditional and new media. This time the one who Tweets right, Facebooks compellingly and who understands the real impact of inevitable and constant visibility will be the one who survives and takes center stage at the GOP convention August 27 in Tampa, FL. Along the way, the winning candidate will probably have to succumb to photo ops with the likes of Snooki, interviews with reporters with their own agendas and late night repartee with the Leno/Letterman/Fallon/Kimmel types.

Is it simple show biz or is it a race to see who will be the next leader of the free world? You be the judge.

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