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Category Archives: Political Campaigns

Being Obscure, clearly. Why ‘Romnesia’ and ‘Obummer’ distort elections

They are funny, memorable, and provide plenty of water-cooler conversations.

The campaigns know it. They must have gag writers on staff to supplement their communications and marketing people. The unfortunate thing is that they work.

Not the lines, but the distraction. They provide a sidebar to the main event that eventually drowns the real issue.

When Obama, fresh from his speech in New York this week (the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial dinner, where both Obama and Romney delivered great one-liners, a tradition of that white tie event) fired up a crowd using a coined word ‘Romnesia‘ it supposedly lit up social media. Sure, it gave the president a stick to poke at his challenger, who has been gaining ground.

But in the last few weeks to the election, it is a huge distraction from what Obama and Romney should be doing: telling voters, especially those uneasy about both candidates, what they stand for. It may have pricked the bubble about the self-created entrepreneur, but it also treats an important election as a referendum on who citizens don’t like, as opposed to what they really want. Bumper stickers are all about this. Bumper-sticker campaigning just feeds this mentality that we don’t really need to know  (or read) the candidate’s policies, so long as we keep up with the tweets, and let the one-liner define our choice.

Locally, in Phoenix, we have one of the most intellectually embarrassing senate races, by Jeff Flake and Richard Carmona. Going by their ads, I personally don’t want any of them representing me.

Like both major parties, they spend millions on tarring each other’s reputation instead of telling us why we should pay their salary. Worse, they hide behind shady organizations that pretend to represent us, who pay for these spiteful spats.

Take a guess: who might ‘Americans For Responsible Leadership’ and the ‘Committee for Justice and Fairness’ represent? They are quite opaque –by design. These political action committees (PACs) poison the waters of democracy. Why?

  • They are still stuck in the mass media mindset, imagining that he who shouts the loudest will win our vote.
  • These nattering nabobs of negativism account for 75% of negative advertisements (a tar bucket that’s worth $507,240,744.99 according to the Sunlight Foundation)
  • Their ‘message’ –a mess of pottage, really– is clear. Don’t think, just vote! Their goal is simple, as in E.B. White’s words: “be obscure, clearly”!

To think we as a country spend billions trying to introduce democracy to other parts of the world!

 

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Hungry for zingers? We citizens get what we deserve*

The cynical side of me wanted to skip the presidential debate this Wednesday. But with so much build-up and punditry surrounding this made-for-TV event that pretends to be a way a democracy decides on its leader, I gave in.

Truth be told, I am one of those decidedly ‘undecideds.’ I had decided to not be influenced by this stylized boxing match.

I happen to teach Language Arts, so I wanted to watch it from the perspective of rhetoric. I often I ask young people to pay attention to turns of phrase, juxtaposition, and tone-of-voice. It’s how writers and speakers hold –or lose– an audience. So in this debate I was less concerned with facts and half-truths (we have to expect plenty of the latter, in this setting) and more with how the idea was packaged and delivered.

My three observations:

1. Trickle-Down Twist: Many of you are all familiar with trickle-down economics, a term often associated with president Reagan, but really refers to supply-side economics. I liked how Romney added a twist to it, by introducing the term trickle-down Government.

“The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more — if you will, trickle-down government — would work.”

Note how he forced Obama into a corner, by starting out the sentence saying his view coupling it with loaded keywords such as big government, regulation, spending

Obama’s come-back?  None. His limp attempt to punch a hole in this branch of macro-economics later, was a painfully professorial argument that was lost in the weeds:

“Now, that’s not my analysis. That’s the analysis of economists who have looked at this. And — and that kind of top — top-down economics, where folks at the top are doing well, so the average person making $3 million is getting a $250,000 tax break, while middle-class families are burdened further, that’s not what I believe is a recipe for economic growth.”

Got that? A 48-word summary of an analysis may have had its place at some dull economic summit, but not here, with a debate divided into tight ‘pods’ by the moderator.

2. Tax Cuts Vs Tax Offset. Obama  tried to clarify his position versus Romney’s as being based on tax cuts.

“And this is where there’s a difference, because Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut — on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts — that’s another trillion dollars …”

But Romney’s pushed back calling it tax offset, and attacking it thus: “Mr. President, Mr. President, you’re entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts.” In effect, he was pushing the president into a corner, saying “liar, liar, presidential pants on fire.”

Romney may have been, as numerous fact-checkers very quickly pointed out, tiptoeing with his numbers himself. FactCheck.org called him “a serial exaggerator.”  Romney’s website does state clearly he plans to “Make permanent, across-the-board 20 percent cut in marginal rates” and “Eliminate taxes for taxpayers with AGI below $200,000..”  But who reads campaign websites? It’s too much work; much easier to watch the debate pod!  Romney’s zinger about the airplane +White House +facts was perfect for the Twitterverse.

3. Birdseed For Social Media. Speaking of Twitter, you have to imagine that Romney’s attack on Big Bird was a well planned sidebar. It is a silly piece if information, since PBS accounts for such a minuscule amount of government money (the govt spends $0.223 billion on PBS vs $4 billion subsidizing oil companies). But it adds color to a dull fight between two men in suits on a dark stage.

I believe Big Bird was seeded by those the Romney campaign who knew social media users would love something not-so-boring to tweet about. The yellow bird generated 135,000 tweets per minute while the debate was on! One of the many insta-Twitter accounts that ensued, @FeedTheBird, has tens of thousands of followers.

Will social media, or even the ‘verdict’ of who won, matter in whom the country chooses? My optimistic side believes it will not. But we cannot discount how TV debates have indeed swayed elections. If you are cynical, you will want to believe that we citizens feed this machine that produces a televised horse race. We are ready to scan past the deeper arguments and remember the zingers, and the candidates feed our appetite.

 

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Cartoonists ought to thank Weiner, Lee et al

Social media is a gift to cartoonists and talk-show hosts. But the cherry on top is when a politician is caught using a communication tool such as Twitter in thoughtless, irresponsible ways. Such as this one of Democrat, Anthony Weiner:

No less ridiculous as the naivete of Republican, Christopher Lee:
 

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Activists know this: Posters are magnets for media coverage

Capturing a sound byte used to be a great way to thread a breaking story. News organisations such as NPR, or BBC for instance use the formula well. Some use it to balance a story, others, to tilt one in favor of a point of view it wishes to hold up.

Audio is also a great way to capture the ambiance of a particular environment. A machine grinding away on factory floor, a call to prayer from a far away minaret, children on a playground…

So why is it that the poster is suddenly making a comeback? It’s one dimensional, after all!

I think of it as a powerful tool not only because of what it says but how it is displayed. In other words, there is more contextual detail that surrounds a poster that adds to the story, even though it is a frozen moment. Two things come into play that make a poster powerful:

  • The image is at once analog (when printed) and digital (when photographed and preserved in a digital stream).
  • The message feeds a story because it tends to be connected to a human who holds it up, or a group of people in which it seems to be rooted

There is a third element – mystery. The unknown or un-clarified details take on greater significance, goading our curiosity, and our need to fill in the gaps of the larger story.

The protests in the past few weeks in Egypt  demonstrate this. From the simple pen sketches, to the large-font messages to the administration:

 

No face here, but the reference to another country adds a new dimension to political intrigue in the region.

Adding more context, a paper poster is just another element to counterpoint the heavy machinery around it!

 

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When attack ads have a sense of humor, brands aren’t laughing

The moment you see this website you want to have a good gaffaw.

It’s a cross between The Onion, and the fake BP Global PR Twitter handle.

But it highlights the seriousness of social media monitoring, and why you can’t be asleep at the wheel.

On Monday NPR ran a story about Ben Quayle, and how his ‘dirty’* Google juice was pushing down search results to the positive things his campaign wanted to emphasize. Problems like that won’t get buried easily.

Jon Kaufman of Zog Media was quoted as saying this industry is dependent on who controls the message.

Really? Control, or Manage?

Recall how BP faced a logo attack as well. How do you stop that? Or take a look at this Press Release. It’s Chevron’s statement on….

Just kidding!

Try controlling that!

 

Quotes for the week ending 30 Jan, 2010

“Was he a talk-show host masquerading as a politician?  Or a politician masquerading as a talk-show host?”

Editorial in the Arizona Republic, on J.D. Hayworth, giving up his 3-hour slot on talk radio, to possibly run against John McCain.

“Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated.”

Barack Obama, State of the Union address, 2010

“Reverse Psychology: Chinese Knock-Off Firm to Sue Apple Over iPad”

Fast Company, on Shenzen Great Long Brother Industrial company claim that the iPad is a knockoff of its P88 model, presented six months prior at the IFA

“It’s time to find your voice and get an online printing press.”

Wayne Kurtzman, at MediaBullseye

 

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Quotes for the week ending 27 Nov 2009

“Teachers begin using cell phones for class lessons”

AP story about a Florida teacher using a  phone-based scavenger hunt to teach Spanish

“I myself straddle the line between political commentator and a member of the political universe … it’s not easy being a woman.”

Meghan McCain, commenting on Hillary Clinton facing the media

“Lesson: Don’t dumb down your information. We’d prefer the full story.”

Sheila Scarborough. Guest blogger at Old Media, new Tricks, on the web site FiveThuirtyEight, and political reporting

 

Students’ G-20 project gives hope

For all those who equate young people and the Me-Generation, with limited interests, take a look at Voices of 21.

It’s a project by students of the University of Pittsburgh, and it’s named for a god reason -to add a 21st ‘voice’ to the 20 global voices at G-20 summit going on in their neck of the woods. It’s goal is

to inspire a more inclusive and constructive dialogue on global economic stability that will resonate with the Pittsburgh community and beyond.

This analysys of the protests, for instance is enlightening. A rather long post, it is written by fourth-year student majoring in Law and Global Political Economy, Eli Baumwell.  I don’t mind the length, and will probably use it as an example of those who complain that wonder if this generation is all about short form content and  Facebook-y status updates!

Thanks to Danny Stoian, at the Department of State, for pointing this site out.

 

Quotes for the week, ending 29 Aug 2009

“He took the long view. He never gave up. And though on most issues I very much wished he would give up.”

John McCain, on his friend and Senate adversary, Ted Kennedy who passes away this week.

“IBM is trying to push this debate onto social nets via the most convenient device–the remote you’ve just used to switch channels. “

Fast Company story on the new move to get TV viewers to micro-blog from the couch.

“I would say I’m a different GoDaddy Girl.”

Erin Kalin, a mother and singer who is the latest GoDaddy Girl, who hopes to be a role model for young girls.

“I like to call that person The TMI  Guy.”

A post from CaliberPulse, on how each one of know someone who posts Too Much Information

“a kind of virtual race to get as many people online by the Olympics alongside all the real physical races that will be going on.”

Martha Fox, the British government’s digital champion.

“It’s a balance between the issue and the (one) person …“Pick people who symbolize the issue.”

Kimberly Dozier, on the challenges of being an ‘embedded journalist’ in a session (‘Reporting from the frontlines’) at the SPJ Journalism Conference in Indianapolis.

 

Quotes for the week, ending 15 August 2009

“We’ve just had a demonstration of democracy.”

Senator Arlen Specter, after a person attending a town hall meeting shouted at him. The man was escorted out of the room, at a Harrisburg Community College.

“The Obama administration has delivered … a message of tough love. We are not sugarcoating the problems. We’re not shying away from them.”

Secretary Hillary Clinton, summing up her trip to Africa

“The Internet disrupts any industry whose core product can be reduced to ones and zeros ..it is the biggest virgin forest out there”

Jose Ferreira, founder and CEO of education startup Knewton

“Doing sustainability is fine, but being sustainable is where we want to wind up.”

Michelle Bernhart, author of “The Rules of the Game” in an upcoming edition of IABC’s Communication World magazine, interviewed by Natasha Nicholson.

“FriendFeed, in my mind, is the new RSS reader.”

Robert Quigley in Old Media New Tricks

“Macaca Day, for those of us who make our living from video on the Internet and elsewhere, is a holy day – the day that marks the birth of YouTube politics, and reminds us that citizens with cellphone cameras and a YouTube account – or at least an election.”

Dan Manatt, at Tech President, on the infamous comment by senator George Allen during the election campaign

“Google Voice “is merely symptomatic of that larger question.”

Ben Scott, public policy director of Free Press, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group in Washington, on the investigation on whether the carrier (AT&T) and handset maker (Apple) had anything to do with banning Google’s voice application from the iPhone.

“This is a decision based upon consumer experiences, child protection and our strategic investment to build up MSN Messenger.”

Geoff Sutton, GM of MSN Europe, on the decision to shut down Microsoft chat rooms in 28 countries.

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