James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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“Act now”: a new way for candidates to reach the electorate

Posted by James McPherson on June 5, 2008

The fact that lately I’m going through one of my occasional bouts with insomnia does have one advantage. Seeing middle-of-the-night infomercials for everything from exercise equipment (Does anyone work out at 4 a.m.?) to get-rich-quick schemes to “Girls Gone Wild” videos reminded me of an idea that I recommended to several political organizations when this campaign season begin. Each of those organizations ignored my suggestion, so with the general election campaign now underway I’ll make it again here.

My idea might be especially helpful for the Barack Obama campaign (which has more money to spend on communication experiments, anyway) and its supporters to help counter the conservative spin machine. My idea would effectively promote and especially explain important progressive ideas more effectively than debates, regardless of the number of debates or their format. My proposal might also increase both the amount of money devoted to the cause and the number of people who make up the progressive base.  

I became more convinced of the potential value of my idea after having read Richard Viguerie’s book, America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power. Viguerie, as you undoubtedly know, managed to use direct mail to help build a massive conservative base while most progressives and the mainstream media remained largely unaware of the political shift taking place under their noses. Though the book is loaded with self-congratulatory promotion and contains a number of misleading statements, it also offers some relevant points about how effectively conservatives have used direct mail, talk radio and the Internet. In each case, progressives have played catch-up, and many progressive organizations now effectively use some the same tools.

In fact, as I’ve noted previously, Democrats have used the Internet more effectively in the past two presidential elections than Republicans have. My own forthcoming book documents how conservatives used media to gain power, but also how the tide may be shifting.

But my idea is for something that may be entirely new to politics, and is particularly relevant to Viguerie’s early discovery that the percentage of so-called conservatives was not static, but could be dramatically expanded if people were shown the relevance of various conservative messages to their own lives. The Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns both have also demonstrated that new voters can be brought into political activism. One way to continue that expansion and reach more prospective voters–a way that salespeople have been reaching them for years – would be through the use of a form of infomercials. My suggestion is to use these long-format television messages not to sell goods, but to promote important ideas.

Infomercials have a deservedly poor reputation, with far too many of them produced by slick hucksters. Yet they also have been extremely effective. Relatively cheap to produce and air, they now make up a huge percentage of the income of local television stations and small networks. They appear around the clock (as a professor I can attest that most college students–who make up perhaps the largest untapped progressive market–seem to watch them primarily after most of us have gone to bed). Obviously the half-hour messages appeal to both viewers and station owners.

I do not suggest that the spots should sell anything other than ideas (and definitely should avoid the phrase, “But wait, there’s more!”). They might or might not ask for contributions, in return for some item (a book, a video, an attractive patriotic print or a copy of the U.S. Constitution are possibilities that come to mind). Perhaps something might even be given away to those viewers who request it via a toll-free number, mail or e-mail. The contact information they submit with the request might then be used to expand traditional lists of donors and volunteers.

Each message should center on a coherent, specific issue. After all, a traditional advantage of mail or print media over television–the medium that Americans actually prefer to use–is that a 30- or 60-second spot is not enough time to develop a meaningful message. In fact, because progressives appeal to reason more than to fear, this is an area in which they should have an advantage over conservatives (who undoubtedly will start running their own long-format broadcast messages if the idea proves effective).

I offer three media examples that might help illustrate the feasibility of these types of messages:

  1. One of the hottest market trends in motion pictures has become the documentary (many of them political in nature), indicating that people will not only sit through a lengthy educational message, but in some cases will even pay to do so.
  2. Ross Perot gained credibility and support during his 1992 presidential campaign in large part because of his use of graphs and charts in televised messages, suggesting that Americans appreciate details when they care about an issue.
  3. A 30-minute message titled “A Time for Choosing” was broadcast repeatedly by the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Among other things, the piece strengthened unity among conservatives and helped convince a group of California businessmen that its star–Ronald Reagan–should run for governor. Obviously today there is no shortage of Hollywood stars who support progressive causes and who might be willing to participate in a new kind of campaign.

Though there undoubtedly are many other possible themes, I’ve come up with 25 potential ideas for messages that come to mind for the Obama campaign or other progressive groups (some the campaign itself might try to stay away from, but supporters could develop):

  1. How individuals can participate in and influence the political process
  2. The Supreme Court
  3. The truth about the USA-PATRIOT Act
  4. The real John McCain–or the two John McCains
  5. The real costs of the Iraq War
  6. Where military (and/or anti-terrorism) funding goes
  7. Free trade issues
  8. Poverty in America (including the working poor)
  9. Voting rights issues
  10. Government corruption
  11. Corporations and the GOP
  12. Energy policy
  13. Environmental issues
  14. The status of women in America
  15. Truths about abortion
  16. Civil rights
  17. Immigration truths
  18. The Imperial Presidency
  19. Education and the truth about “No Child Left Behind”
  20. Voting machines (including reasons for the use of paper ballots)
  21. Campaign finance
  22. The American tax structure (and perhaps how the IRS focuses enforcement efforts on “the little guy”)
  23. Christ’s call to help the needy (countering the Religious Right)
  24. Social Security
  25. The Health Care Crisis in America (One approach might be to compare American health care with that of other nations–perhaps the nations where many Americans now buy their drugs or have their surgeries.)

My suggestion would be to produce and try out one or two messages in a limited geographical area. If I’m right, the response should then prompt the development and airing of more messages, distributed more often over a wider area. The messages also would go on YouTube. And I’ll have something else to watch at 4 a.m.

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6 Responses to ““Act now”: a new way for candidates to reach the electorate”

  1. edbooked said

    What is needed is a way to reach and influence more people at less cost. The cost for effective advertising via current media routes is prohibitive for many who wish to advocate heart felt perspectives.

  2. Wow! That’s a pretty impressive list right there. I’m convinced already. In fact, it wouldn’t take much tweaking to any of those ideas (okay, maybe #4) for McCain’s folks to produce any of those polinfomercials and run them just as effectively as Obama would.

    Oh, and the answer to your first question is no. Nobody works out at 4:00 AM. That’s why they run those commercials there: If you’re working out, you probably aren’t watching TV at ungodly hours of the morning.

  3. […] “Act now”: a new way for candidates to reach the electorate […]

  4. […] this recent post from his Media & Politics Blog, McPherson thoroughly explains the benefits that a candidate […]

  5. […] “Act now”: a new way for candidates to reach the electorate […]

  6. […] cowed or too interested in furthering their own careers, I’ve been a proponent of political infomercials for some time. I even wrote letters recommending them to the Democratic National Committee and […]

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