People in the Middle
Political campaigning is a lot like advertising. It is â€śa form of communication that typically attempts to persuade potential customers to purchase or to consume more of a particular brand of product or service.â€? (wikipedia) The service: President of the United States of America. The brand: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford, Kerry, Carter, Bush, McCain, Obama, etc. The objective, as well as the hurdle, is to connect to American citizens and appeal to them, or make the opposition seem unappealing. Errol Morris has written an article, â€śPeople in the Middle,â€? about the methods used to attract those who havenâ€™t made up their minds yet and how these methods have changed election after election.
Morris notes the prominence of â€śreal peopleâ€? advertisements, those that connect the viewer to the real people in the ads, and in some cases, connect the presidential candidate to those real people. This, in turn, connects the candidate to the viewer. Morris takes his examples of ads from â€śThe Living Room Candidateâ€? website compiled by David Schwartz. â€śReal peopleâ€? advertisements have always been appealing because of their candid appearance. A 1952 ad for Eisenhower shows a woman in a town hall type of setting, which is nicely lit and has a conveniently neutral background. The woman asks a â€ścandidâ€? question about rising food prices. Eisenhower answers her question earnestly, even giving a shout out to his Mammy? It is all very scripted and not at all candid.
Kennedy gives the real people appeal a shot when he comes to dinner with the Sills. Kennedy sits down to dinner with the all-American family, and they discuss their concerns about the economy, society, etc. It is supposed to be a candid, normal occurrence. The question comes up, though, â€śJFK shows up in their living room? Was he invited? Did they offer him milk and cookies?â€? (Morris.) Candid or genuine are certainly not the words to describe the ad and it is certainly not a strategy that would work in the 2008 election.
The 1972 ads for Gerald Ford take a turn toward the kind of â€śreal peopleâ€? political advertising we see today. People stopped on the street, conveniently switch voters, who tell why they are switching to Republican. Although specific people were used in the ad, the interviews were obviously unscripted. This ad appeals mostly to the people in the middle. Those who havenâ€™t made up their mind yet, who see hardcore Democrats switching to vote Republican may be turned off by opponent Jimmy Carter.
These switcher ads also create a new genre: the attack ads. Morris cites the Swift Boat Veteransâ€™ anti-Kerry ads from the 2004 presidential campaign as memorable attack ads. In these ads, real people who served with Kerry during Vietnam called him a liar, among other things. These advertisements work because they have the real people factor. The downside, though, is the turn off. For me, at least, the ruthlessness of these claims and attacks against Kerry turn me off to Bush, even if he isnâ€™t the one putting out the ad.
The real people appeal is an appeal to the ideals of democracy. The idea is preached and preached that every vote counts, and in this democratic system everyone has a voice in choosing the leaders of our country. With this in mind, it isnâ€™t much of a surprise that McCain/Palin turned real people into a large aspect of their campaign. Joe the Plumber is just like you and me. (Except that we havenâ€™t turned into celebrities, our opinions on politics donâ€™t make it on Fox news, and we arenâ€™t in talks with producers about making that country album we always wished we could make.) The point is that real people advertising works because you and I are real people. The question is, though, with real people becoming increasingly prominent in political campaigns, how far will the real people approach reach, come 2012?
by Nora Nolden