Bob Garfield’s ad reviews may be sometimes out of whack, but this week he was spot on. In a column in Advertising Age (November 1st, 2004) that’s much longer than his regular weekly staple,
Garfield deconstructs a broad range of campaign tactics as seen through the lens of Bush and Kerry’s ads. His conclusion: the uber negative campaign has a toxic effect on America, and not just on our politics.
Interestingly, his column was penned before the results, so he sides with an Annenberg study that found how attack ads reduce voter turnout. Bush’s ability to get the popular vote, despite many predictions to the contrary–especially after 2000— is an indication of something else that neither advertising nor academic theory could explain. Maybe, just maybe, attack ads actually work, and all our nice ideas about brand image and consistency, and brand equity are irrelevant. Maybe politicians, not being boxes of detergent, do appeal to people because of something that works at a more visceral level. Speaking of brand equity, Bush yesterday spoke of the ‘political capital’ he has earned, and intends to ‘spend.’ Maybe the inarticulate one has a smarter understanding of his ‘brand’ than we think!
Both campaigns –and I refer to ads, speeches, debates, Web sites etc– made one thing clear: they didn’t give a hoot about traditional branding. They waged their campaigns, not as a cola war, or a beauty pageant, but as something more basic. We may have been appalled and made to feel queasy, whether it was the ‘wolves’ ad or the cheap shot about Mary Cheney, but the net effect was that we were spending less time thinking if the candidate was the fixit man for the economyhealthcarewaroutsourcingterrorism problem and more time wondering if he was on our wavelength. My personal stance was I was angry at both, and longed for someone with more common sense — like John McCain.
After listening to several Republicans and Democrats friends, and the respective media in the post-result whining/gloating phase (Hannity and Air America radio ) I got the feeling that both Bushies and Kerry huggers were struggling with the same queasiness because the two candidates were so unlike them, and their values. So, IMHO, the attack ads served the purpose of one thing alone: to ‘prove’ (with lies, damned lies and statistics) just how off base the opponent was, and what a terrible thing it would be to vote for him. Which explains the big ‘undecided voter’ phenomenon. Or, to put it another way, the attack ads were effective in giving the undecided voter a reason to vote with his/her gut –rather than heart. So, yes, I abhorred Kerry’s position/non-position on abortion, and gay marriage, and yes, I was appalled at Bush insisting on spending an insane amount of money on bringing democracy to a country that never asked us to deliver it. Neither was on my wavelength!
Thomas Friedman, in his November 4th column, seems to say it best, always drawing on an analogy that everyone can relate to when making a political comment.
"This was not an election. This was station identification. I’d bet anything that if the election ballots hadn’t had the names Bush and Kerry on them but simply asked instead, "Do you watch Fox TV or read The New York Times?" the Electoral College would have broken the exact same way."
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