By: Brookelyn Riley
$265 million—the gap between how much money President Obama and Mitt Romney spent on television ads through October 29, 2012. If the advertisement spending were combined, it would total more than one million television ads purchased by the campaigns and their supporters. (Hudson) Clearly, in the 21st century, television and the Internet have revolutionized the way candidates brand themselves and run their campaigns. While print and interpersonal communication still play a factor in campaigns, the majority of the focus is on TV, the Internet, social media, and other forms of new age technology. Ads that were once limited to being seen only on a page can now take on a whole new dimension on the television screen, or even more technologically advanced, on an electronic billboard. This shift in campaigns to adapt to the technological ways of the world, specifically through TV and the Internet, give campaigns an outlet to reach the masses like never before in a creative, appealing way, yet undermine the actual content behind campaigns and the issues.
Television has played an influential factor for decades in campaigns and became a dramatic intervention, especially in presidential campaigns. Audience numbers vary, but they are typically much larger than any other medium of communication during a presidential election season. Since the available viewers of television are predominantly of modest political engagement, ads are more of a public performance, whereas a print media advertisement would be more reliant on fact and what is said. However, for television and interactive media, it is not so much as what the candidates say, but how they say it. A prime example of this is seen in televised debates, most notably the Richard versus Kennedy debate in 1960. After the debate, radio listeners reported that Nixon had won, based on listening to the actual facts and what was being said. However, TV viewers were able to see the two candidates in live action and deemed Kennedy the winner hands down, because he was wearing make-up, had charisma, and was better looking. On the other hand, Nixon refused to wear make-up and looked washed out, had sweat on his upper lip, and in general looked more nervous than his opponent. Therefore, television brings a “class president” view of politics, because viewers are more attracted to the candidate who appears to be more prepared and knowledgeable, whether they truly are or not. (MacKuen, Information and Elections) In this aspect, the shift to television and the Internet has resulted in a more shallow take on the candidates, because unrelated factors like looks, persona, and collectedness play a larger part than they otherwise would in print or interpersonal communication. Logical, analytic argument carries hardly any weight at all compared to the impression of command. (Postman, 44-63)
The shift from print to televised commercials and campaign efforts has also transformed the way candidates package their ideas and address the issues. In print, written text has content, resulting in facts. “Print… is serious because meaning demands to be understood. A written sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what is said.” (Postman, 50) Reading actually requires understanding the logic of an argument and, in doing so, classifying, making inferences, and reasoning. For example, advertising from 1600-1890 contained written propositional claims that asked the reader to evaluate and distinguish these claims. It was not until 1890 that slogans made their way into advertising. Now, in TV commercials, claims are substituted with images, colors, emotions, and aesthetics. Their entertainment quality is more important than their informative essence. (MacKuen, Amusing Ourselves to Death) Also, since TV commercials are normally 30-60 second spots, the candidates only have a small slice of time to make an impression on their audience. Therefore, their messages have to be simple, straightforward, and be able to garner attention, whereas in a print ad the reader would already be engaged with more of an opportunity to expound upon what the context and facts are behind the claims. (MacKuen, Campaigns) Nowadays, political campaigns are now known for their slogans rather than the real issues behind them.
While emotions can certainly be displayed in print and interpersonal communication, many of today’s political advertisements are reliant on emotions more so than the message itself. Ted Brader conducted a study that found that engaging negative emotions directly affects attention and sometimes results in learning. He found that music and imagery engaged the experimenter’s emotions; the verbal argument does not. While old conventional wisdom thought emotions were a distraction to political cognition, modern campaigns’ approach is that emotions augment political cognition, learning, and meaningful communication. Therefore, emotions have become the currency of electoral discourse. Many modern campaigns, in order to keep up with their opponents, go “negative” in their campaign strategies. This means using emotions such as anxiety, like fear and uncertainty, and aversion, like disgust and contempt, in order to advertise. Brader also found that using negative emotion increases attention and learning, while using positive emotion reinforces previous views. A 30-second ad does not amount to enough time to produce quality argumentation or address potential dialogue with an opposing viewpoint. Therefore, campaign ads are now emotionally engaging and dramatic without being necessarily in reason. (MacKuen, Campaigns)
Ultimately, the most prevalent, and looming, aspect of the shift from print to television/Internet in campaign ads is that politics are now viewed as a form of entertainment. (MacKuen, Campaigns) For example, in the most recent presidential elections, Clint Eastwood spoke on behalf of Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention as well as in TV ads. Eastwood is an entertainer, seemingly unrelated to politics, but was incorporated into the campaign as a way to attract the public and appeal to the masses. This shows that politics and entertainment are juxtaposed in not only the eyes of citizens but in the eyes of politicians as well. The real purpose of politics is to elect leaders to run our local, state, and national government; therefore, the fact that politics is becoming more and more a form of entertainment is important. Going from what used to be informative, educational ads based on the issues and candidates to political campaigns now based on emotional and aesthetic appeal, the meaning of elections and democracy are redefined altogether. If political campaigns are based on “fluff”, slander and mudslinging, people think of politics as only that, rather than the idea that the purpose of elections is to control policy. And in turn, if politics are accepted as fluff, slander, and mudslinging, then eventually governing politics in that same fashion could be accepted as well. Unfortunately, with the lack of commitment to any form of testable truth in politics, this is slowly but surely proving to be true. (MacKuen, Campaigns)
The move to television and the Internet is not all bad. TV and the Internet are especially useful tools that allow politicians to appeal to their masses and allow those masses to, in turn, get a sense of what that person is like rather than merely reading about them. However, with high costs, short duration of ad spots, reliance on emotions, and messages that are inundated with nonsense and slander, the shift to television, and eventually the Internet, could be detrimental to what we once knew as electoral politics. While television is still the most predominant form of communication during a campaign, the Internet is surely rising to the occasion, making its way into the picture as well. With social networking websites, blogs, and the ability for users to post their own content and comment on others from all over the nation and globe, the shift from television to the Internet for advertising is upon us. And with that will come, yet again, it’s own slew of issues that threaten to alter the meaning of campaigns and elections. However, just because advancing technologically in the way we campaign and live in general comes with a price, it is a risk worth taking. We must move along with the times and address the problems head own rather than back down and remain in the past in fear of what lies ahead.
Hudson, John. “The Most Expensive Election in History by the Numbers.” The Atlantic Wire. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 6 Nov. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2012/11/most-expensive-election- history-numbers/58745/>.
MacKuen, Michael. “Campaigns.” PowerPoint presentation for POLI 418.
MacKuen, Michael. “Information and Elections.” PowerPoint presentation for POLI 418.
MacKuen, Michael. “The Medium as Epistemology: Amusing Ourselves.” PowerPoint presentation for POLI 418.
Postman, Neil. 1986 (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking.