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I love politics. I love smart, ruthless guys like Dickie Wadhams. I admire crafty, ambitious pols like Bill Owens. And I treasure happy-go-lucky scamps like Ed Jones. I revel in quixotic candidacies such as Biff Baker's (hey, Biffster, you got my vote!) and I enjoy dull, bring-home-the-bacon party wheel horses like Joel Hefley.

They're all part of our messy democracy, the flawed raw material of government of, by and for the people.

Given such a colorful cast of characters, the three months leading up to elections ought to be an agreeable time of year. Imagine a prolonged family reunion, with dozens of quarrelsome relatives, complete with drunken parties, romantic trysts, tearful confessions, and even a fistfight or two. It'd end with one last bash on Nov. 5, fond farewells, and promises to do it all again next year.

That's the way it ought to be, anyway. We ought to look forward to Election Day the way we look forward to the seventh game of the World Series. Sure, there are winners and losers, but the whole process should be affirming and celebratory, symbolizing our enduring commitment to this grand Constitutional Republic.

And that's not the way it is.

It's a sour, negative time. There's scarcely a candidate for any office above dogcatcher who doesn't devote much of his/her energy to bashing his/her opponent. Demands are made: "Call [candidate's name] and tell him to stop having sex with goats and raising our taxes!!"

Of course, since most of this scurrilous nonsense is put out by anonymously funded, faceless entities, the candidates can all claim ignorance: "What! You mean that someone spent 50 grand mailing out lies about my opponent!?! I'm shocked, shocked ... At the same time, I'm deeply concerned about those goats."

Let's think about the way that politicians market themselves.

Obviously, any successful pol uses the basic techniques of advertising -- market research, focus groups, demographic analysis, product design, media selection, and message creation.

Some campaigns are brilliantly successful in so doing (see Clinton, Bill). Others are not (see Dole, Bob). But every campaign uses the same basic strategy of attacking/belittling the opponent, and linking her/him to programs and potentially unpopular positions.

That's called negative campaigning, and it works. If you're attacked, so goes the conventional wisdom, you attack back. Otherwise, the voters will think that you're a scumbag, and your opponent isn't. Better that they think you're both scumbags; at least it'll be a level playing field.

That may seem like an advertising strategy, but it isn't. In fact, it violates the most basic principle of advertising.

Look, for example, at ads for Coke or Pepsi. Pepsi never says that Coke is bad, just that Pepsi is better. And vice versa: Coke never attacks Pepsi, just claims that "Things go better with Coke."

It's inconceivable that Pepsi would claim that Coke is overpriced, sugary swill that'll make your teeth fall out. That's because Coke and Pepsi realize that they share something of great value. The market thereby created is the reason that the companies exist. Whether you sell soft drinks, fast food, cars or beer, you can't attack your competitor without attacking yourself. You never endanger your base.

Never, that is, unless you're a politician running for office. You see no personal benefit to you, or your candidacy, in running a campaign that protects the market franchise you share with every other politician.

You don't think that your election depends upon a vital, functioning democracy, whose citizens are eager to participate in civil, informative and positive campaigns. You and your opponent spend millions persuading voters to despise politicians, and politics in general. And then you wonder why so few of us even bother to vote.

How do we fix things? Reforms may help, but we need candidates who are willing to campaign for the republic, as well as for themselves.

Suppose, for example, that Allard and Strickland, instead of dumping millions into annoying TV ads, had used that money to fund a joint campaign roadshow.

Imagine a series of open-air debates, with free beer and barbecue, big-name bands, hot-air balloons, face painting, fire-eaters, stiltwalkers -- a shameless promotion of politics! The price of admission: register to vote.

At its best, it could be as much fun as SpringSpree, or an Eagles concert.

And Messrs. Allard and Strickland, having run clean, interesting and fun campaigns, would be remembered as decent, honorable men.

And we could vote for one or the other without holding our nose.

And Colorado's goats would be safe at last.

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

  • John Hazlehurst on truth in advertising

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