Packaging the Presidency

Ahh, wintertime. In our materialistic society, 'tis the season for conspicuous consumption. As the leaves crunch underfoot and the air turns frigid, the unending Christmas advertising blitz reminds us once again that our world is one in which a Tickle Me Elmo can be worth more than it's weight in gold, where Toys-R-Us has become the pilgrimage destination for the devout, and where we, facing an empty bank account and the expectations of a hundred friends and relatives, are supposed to have no choice but to be grateful that Visa (and our emergency line of credit) really is everywhere we want to be.

And the moral of this story is: Americans are inherently consumer animals. Doesn't really seem like a revelation, does it? Try telling that to the two most talked-about men in the nation today, those ne'er-do-well Presidential candidates. Both Al Gore '69 and George W. Bush seem to have forgotten the lesson about the true meaning of the holidays: If you want to sell your product, you have to convince your audience that they can't live without it. Had either candidate discovered a better way to sell themselves to the "electoral consumer," we never would have gotten into the pickle we're in. I suppose that on some level, it's nice to see that the American populace isn't wholly seduced by slick advertising; that our presidential election has more meaning than an elementary school student council election, where the kid that became president was the one with the coolest posters, who broke the rules by passing out candy at recess.

Because neither Gore nor Bush had anything remotely resembling "cool." It certainly wasn't for lack of trying. Both candidates employed entire staffs of spin doctors and pundits who spent countless (billable) hours making each man "look good" We heard that Bush was being told to act like he actually had a brain, and that Gore was urged to act as if his veins contained real blood. But apart from these rather superficial stage directions, neither group was successful in creating any real "product differentiation" between the two men.

One need only look to their respective advertising campaigns to get a feel for how badly each man failed at this key task. Gore's commercials, for the most part, were as uninspired as the lockbox in which they should have been hidden. While trying to distance himself from President Clinton's lechery, Gore seemed to have also distanced himself from Clinton's advertising experts. This time around, there was no catchy classic rock theme song, just lots of elevator music.

In contrast, Bush showed some promise early on with the whole "RATS" almost-subliminal message commercial. Here was a candidate willing to spice it up a little bit; for better or worse, the spot sent a message about Bush's willingness to "do what it took" to win. Unfortunately, he chose to deny the responsibility for the stroke of near-brilliance (small wonder: who would have believed that he could come up with something so close-to-ingenuous?) and to pull the ad from the airwaves. The void left by the spot was filled, predictably, with a lot of sound and fury that failed to earn Bush a spot even in the little picture-in-picture box on my TV.

The fact of the matter is that when it came down to election day, we were being asked to choose between, say, the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square and the Au Bon Pain in the food court at Cambridgeside Galleria. Sure, the two eateries could be considered different--the former has a "Good Will Hunting" groove going on, and the other has definite mall rat appeal--but in the end, it's still the same darned chocolate-filled croissant, and it still costs way too much money.

What presidential consumers really needed this fall was a more competitive candidate marketplace, some sort of funky, boutique-like alternative to the two chain-store major parties. To find it, they need only have looked to the airwaves and to the comparative genius of the advertisements composed by those running on third party tickets.

Take, for instance, the spots for Libertarian candidate Harry Browne. In one, he shows an enormous wrecking ball smashing into the IRS building in Washington, to the delight of a frenzied crowd. Unlike Bush and Gore, Browne has no qualms about laying down quantitative specifics.

The man "has plans for the IRS building--he wants to demolish it, and sell off the rubble as souvenirs to pay down the national debt." After all, Browne says with a smile, the "U.S. government collects enough money from tariffs and excise taxes to fund all [its] constitutional functions." A little out there, perhaps, but the populist message and obvious willingness to take the high road on the issue distinguishes Browne as a sort of lone ranger and a definite Washington outsider. Or consider the sensationalist appeal of the infamous "meatball" spot for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. The advertisement begins with a portly man eating spaghetti and meatballs in front of his television. When the anchor breaks the news that English is no longer the nation's official language, the man chokes on his meatball in shock.

Unable to breathe, he attempts to call for help and is confronted with the a perky voice recording system that advises "Thank you for dialing 9-1-1. Please listen for your language. For Spanish, press one. For Korean, press two. For..." As he falls to the ground in agony, a voice-over queries: "Do you ever miss English? Immigration is out of control!"

The idea (I suppose) is to vote for Buchanan because he puts (English-speaking, Bible-thumping, white male) Americans first. Brutal? Definitely. Outrageous? Sure. But at least there's no confusion about what's going on here. And there's a sense of honesty that's alarmingly refreshing.

But the prize for "best packaging of a candidate" must be awarded to Ralph Nader (Gore supporters, get out the voodoo dolls), whose huge success (comparatively speaking) can undoubtedly be ascribed to his ability to tap into the aggregate pre-existing consumer consciousness by mimicking ads from Mastercard and Monster.com. The former has a tagline that includes "Campaign ads filled with half-truths: $10 million. Finding out the truth: priceless"; the latter shows a succession of adorable children proclaiming: "When I grow up, I want the government to have the same problems it has today. I want to vote for the lesser of two evils." This simple but brilliant idea to co-opt two of the most ingenious ads of the last few years really showed Nader to be a hip guy with a sense of humor while dishing out well-directed and well-deserved criticism of the two major-party candidates.

Unfortunately, none of the third-party candidates had enough seed money to ensure that the populace at large viewed their ads. The result? Money wasted on ineffective advertising by major-party candidates: ten million dollars. Having the Presidency hinge upon a chad: priceless.

Alixandra E. Smith '02 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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