I have this recollection of a TV spot wherein Jimmy Carter stood amidst a field of golden prairie-like foliage (perhaps wheat… or tall grass) wearing a red sweater and talking very quietly and earnestly in his soft, Southern drawl. I have no idea what he was talking about, but the overall tone was soothing and (I assume) aiming very solidly for trustworthy.
Whether this memory comes from actually viewing the spot as it happened, having seen it later, or having created it in my head as a mashup of actual interaction/observation and associative leaps made from a lifetime of media consumption I’ll never know. But I do remember thinking he looked a lot like Fred Rogers (a seminal figure in my early 70s childhood). And, as an adult, my go-to mental picture of Carter remains that of “sweater-clad possibly-farmer standing in a sunny field middle-America-style.”
The intersection of political messaging and media as vehicle has long been present in our election-cycle process. Political cartoons emerged as early as 1754, the first being published Ben Franklin in his Pennsylvania Gazette. Newspapers have thrown their weight behind candidates, chosen to reveal or hide presidential scandals, and become synonymous with campaign politicking… the two locked in an elicit embrace that ultimately feeds a 24-hour news cycle and supports the employment opportunities of what would otherwise be considered the soapbox Sunday crazies one might find wandering through a community park.
And then this happened.
Not new, by any means. We’ve long seen the impact of television spots and appearances on voter perceptions and selections (along with an increasing awareness of the Super PAC relationship to political messaging). Think about the Eisenhower using marketing execs to craft messaging for his political ads or the Kennedy/Nixon debates. Clinton’s use of MTV and the Arsenio Hall show to appeal to young voters. Obama showing up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
And they all have their talking points; they all have the demographic they’re hoping to target with the spot, and they often end up looking foolish or desperate. This job of marketing the presidency is a weird thing. And it works in sharp contrast to the party-driven machinery meant to highlight every gaffe and trumpet every mistake.
But no matter what your political affiliation, it should be noted this new move by Obama heralds a shift in tactics. Suddenly we have a media as medium foray coupled with a clear platform message – all within the arena of “entertainment,” rather than the more regularly contentious realm of advertising. An interesting and bold move… one that has already sparked backlash and garnered giddy approval.
And because of the omnipresent and overly insistent nature of social media… this type of intersection will likely only increase in the years to come. Presidents will tweet and blog and be your fb friend. They’ll show up on late-night tv shows and continue to engage in this process that spotlights their most human qualities. Nerves and stumbles, bad puns and jokes that fall flat, askew ties and too-energetic laughter.
The medium is not going to disappear… but perhaps in this age of global and social interconnection, the message will get stronger. Not as a marketing tool, but as an honest attempt to talk about why your choice as a voter matters. About why this person’s decisions, philosophies, and ideas will directly impact you. About how you have strength.
For all of you involved in the Plays for Presidents Festival – thank you for taking this on. Thank you for stepping in to create yet another medium for a message aimed squarely at the electorate. Thank you for sharing links (Doug Oliphant!), and joining in conversation, and engaging your communities, and paying attention.
You are the medium AND the message.