Pols, Media at Fault, Panel Says
October 17, 2006
By Kathleen Sampey
NEW YORK Fear-mongering and mudslinging have become so prevalent in political messages that the electorate tunes out candidates’ stances on issues—and the news media only exacerbate the problem, industry watchers said today at an Ad Club-sponsored forum.
Encouraging developments, they said, include the rise of online social networks and the proliferation of bloggers who take politicians to task in ways the mainstream media seldom do.
“Politically Correct: Getting It Right on the Campaign Trail” was the title of the event sponsored by the Ad Club.
Commentator and writer Arianna Huffington moderated the panel, which consisted of former BBDO vice chairman Phil Dusenberry; The Kaplan Thaler Group CEO and chief creative Linda Kaplan Thaler; John Hlinko, vp, marketing and creative engagement at Grassroots Enterprise; Michael Turk, vp, National Cable and Telecommunications Association; and Bernard Whitman, president, Whitman Insight Strategies.
Huffington opened the event held at the Harmonie Club in Manhattan by promising to be non-partisan and then (humorously) being anything but.
She noted that fear tactics in political advertising is the easiest way to appeal to the electorate. “I’m not going to make any partisan comments,” she told the invitation-only audience of about 75 executives. “But we all know who appealed on that level [in the last election] and who did not.”
As a result, she declared, Democrats have allowed their platform to be defined by their opposition and a news media that “is suffering from attention deficit disorder.”
“They stay and stay with one story for a long time,” Huffington said, “and then abandon it. Does anybody know what’s happening in Kosovo now?”
She cited John Karr, the falsely confessed murderer, as being the focus du jour—from appearances on Larry King Live to a segment on CNN from Anderson Cooper.
“There is something sick about the culture” when that happens, she said, adding of the Larry King broadcast, “I didn’t finish watching the whole thing because I wanted to puke.”
After that, she asked her first question of the panel: What is different about this election cycle as the midterm Congressional races are approaching?
The panelists agreed that the increasing influence of the Internet was the most significant aspect of this election and would have an even greater impact in 2008.
“The Internet is no longer a novelty,” said Hlinko. “Three or four years ago, you hired your nephew to build a Web site.”
Now, you need more than a Web site, he added, candidates need to build a movement on the Web.
Dusenberry, who created the famous “Morning in America” campaign for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, said that in this election cycle, political advertising has reached an “all-time low.”
He described the New Jersey Senate race between Thomas Kean Jr., a Republican, and Democrat Robert Menendez as being so “dreadfully sleaze ball” on the part of Kean that it could turn voters more toward his opponent. Dusenberry also took the networks to task for allowing political ads to air, even if they contain blatant falsehoods about candidates.
“Political advertising is run by political hacks that are afraid of creative people,” he continued. “Political strategists don’t know squat about what makes something really appealing.”
Linda Kaplan Thaler and Bernard Whitman brought up the idea of building a candidate’s brand and how difficult that task is because, as Kaplan Thaler said, “[that brand] goes off the shelf after election day.”
Whitman stated that Republicans have been better than Democrats at creating a brand for their party in the long-term rather than for individual candidates. Negative political advertising is so often employed by both sides, he said, because “it’s easy, cheap and effective.”
Huffington then asked each panelist how he or she would advise a candidate who was mired in scandal. Their responses:
Dusenberry: “If you’re not innocent, you may have to look for another line of work.”
Hlinko [paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin]: “Three can keep a secret if two are dead. In other words, own up to it. Get out there. Throw it out there and say, ‘I take full responsibility.’ Americans are very forgiving but don’t like to think people are BS-ing them.”
Kaplan Thaler concurred with Hlinko: “You can’t un-Google yourself.”
Turk: “Be honest. Be open. You know your own secrets so tell someone before they end up on the front page of the paper.”
Whitman: “The worst thing you can do is go into ‘bunker’ mode.” He advised trying to shift the public’s attention to another topic “as quickly as possible. Change the subject.”