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September 15th, 2008


by Joelle Panisch

When the Museum of the Moving Image launched landmark website “The Living Room Candidate” in 2000 it was met with critical acclaim. At the time the site, which neutrally showcases historic political commercials from 1952 through 2008, was a fascinating discussion for the sophisticates lounging in bar stools on the election’s eve. But after eight years of G. W. Bush and what only can be described as the current American crisis, this election is arguably the most important of modern times, and we know it.

Through nonpartisan examinations the site has always been a valuable means for comparison and analysis. The simplicity of the commercials without politics brings awareness to the commercials themselves, and how separate they are from actual policy. However this year the site has taken on a new relevance by instituting a consistently updated stream of McCain, Obama and even third party advocacy commercials that demonstrate the disconnect between candidate marketing, the media, and the issues in today’s election.

“Living Room” makes its opinion of campaign commercials clear. On its homepage the site posts a quote from democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956 that compares presidential campaigns to selling breakfast cereal. It urges one to ask, if the awareness of candidate “merchandising” has been around since the 1950’s then why in 2008 do we still fall victim to it?

Sifting through the last half century’s campaign ads, the simplest answer becomes obvious. Just like with selling breakfast cereal, television advertising works. In today’s culture we become so inundated with sales pitches that we forgot to question. Our thoughts float from image to image, taking what we see at face value to such an extreme that we often overlook the source.

But by viewing the 2008 ads in context with the rest of the collection, the messages that initially seem direct become fractioned parts of a much larger whole. The hypocrisy of seeing past ads veer so far from what has been proven as historical truth puts current ads in perspective. A part-truth can be very decisive. The site showcases campaign media strategies such as ‘backfire,’ when an ad uses an opponents own words against him, to ‘fear’ ads, which induce fear of a larger happening to sway a vote. As studied to exhaustion, the forum of short but lasting messages works well for marketing campaigns essentially by exploiting the weaknesses of collective psychological tendencies. It is normal to sort larger, more complicated issues into chunks we can handle.

However today we are faced with ads comparing Obama to Britney Spears, suggesting McCain still rubs elbows with Bush, and of course, the powder keg that is “lipstick on a pig.” These are smokescreens that successfully avert focus from the issues, and muddle voters ability to make sense of the platforms. Today’s campaigns are banking on the assumption that voters won’t be clever enough to realize it, and maybe they are right.

With such obvious smoke and ladders one would think the public would be able to be discerning of it. However that has become an issue itself. As attack ads permeate the airways, distracting from actual policy, the media coverage has flocked to the controversy and spending less time on the actual policies. Today, during a period of economic crisis, the media spends significant coverage chatting about Sarah Palin’s branding. The influences of McCain attack ads are given more airtime than messages themselves. This parallels, though to a much exaggerated extent, the infamous “Daisy Girl” commercial by President Johnson in 1964 that places the image of a little girl counting petals on a daisy against to a countdown of an atomic bomb. This iconic short was only ran once as a paid advertisement on September 7, 1964. After, it was replayed in its entirety on ABC’s and CBS’s nightly news shows. Ultimately the more controversial ads, by becoming news themselves, are being given free viewings on nationally syndicated programs. And now the attack advertisements have spurred ads, counter-attacking the initial ones. The Obama campaign recently ran commercials digging at McCain’s negative ads comparing Obama to Britney Spears. Candidates are now suggesting that you should vote for them because their opponent is running a nastier campaign! It’s as if media coverage has become a cyclical abyss for political punches, where each jab encourages further reporting of the opponent’s retort and all of which is getting more of a platform than our trillion-dollar war.

This is observably absurd. In a time of such political ‘wackiness’ the website has become a golden tool in cultivating perspective. Viewing the partisan, sometimes slanderous, and calculated commercials of past campaigns in historical context reveals an unnerving truth about what prompts the most important decision American citizens make. And by putting that epiphany in context with the 2008 commercials it will hopefully open eyes to societal weights influencing us now. Perhaps the public will gain perspective before casting votes. What a novel thought.

Filed Under: Articles | Commentary | New York | Politics





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