Political messaging

As the current presidential campaign winds down, and observers are inundated with political messages, a recent presentation on political advertisements at Miami’s Wolfsonian Museum is of particular interest. The Wolfsonian is a unique museum that focuses on propaganda. It hosted a film by archivists Antoni Muntados and Marshall Reese that presented presidential campaign ads from 1952 to the present. There were no commentaries, so viewers could take from the documentary what message they found in the 75-minute collection.

I wondered whether the current $2 billion of presidential ads persuaded anyone. Such profuse and intensive ads are likely to force viewers to block them out as unwanted noise. Obama voters are not likely to be persuaded by Romney ads, and vice versa. $2 billion to convince three voters in Ohio? And for those who are truly undecided, won’t their decisions be based on concrete and idiosyncratic facts — their jobs, taxes, personal views about social issues?

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What was discernible from the Wolfsonian presentation is the evolution of political ads from the personal “Vote for me — I’m better” (Eisenhower, Stevenson, Kennedy, Nixon) to the “Don’t vote for that guy, he’s bad” (Goldwater to the present.) The technological advances have led to smarter, more “artful” ads. The pervasive political rancor has led to more violent and angry ads. Goldwater and the little girl plucking flowers before a bomb blast being a culture-changer in political ad style. I worked on that 1964 campaign (for Robert F. Kennedy) and recall that many partisan viewers were put off by it.

The current crop of ads, and the overdose created by current campaign finance laws along with the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, might have led to so many political advertisements that they might simply cancel each other out.

Let’s hope.

 
Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington- and Miami-based attorney, author and literary agent.

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