and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation


Barbara's Column
October 2002 #1

Slick TV ads don't tell voters what they need to know
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Monday, October 7, 2002

Autumn and middle age are the times to start ridding oneself of illusions, preparing for the stark reality of the seasons to come. Autumn is also the time when political ads fall from our television sets into our living rooms to create new illusions.

But I believe that 60-second TV ads cannot possibly be the major influence on how we citizens vote. Tell me the truth: Am I wrong? Are people really going to vote for Mitt Romney because he and his wife fell in love while driving around in a funny-looking Marlin? Or will they choose Shannon O'Brien because a little girl spells her name in a spelling bee?

O'Brien's media people probably lifted that approach from the success of Tim Cahill's ad in which his young daughter came up with the slogan, "Tim for Treasurer" to distinguish him from the other Cahill who was running for the same office.

Will Romney's people counter with cheerleaders chanting, "Mitt, Mitt, he is It!"?

Here is what my illusion tells me: Tim Cahill actually won because he was the only candidate who was already a treasurer, albeit of one county, so that experience seemed relevant to the race. The slogan just reminded voters of that fact. Right?

When Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT) initiated the 1980 Proposition 2 campaign, we didn't have any money for television ads. We figured we could get by with the free media that comes with a hot issue, and a lot of grassroots activists holding signs, distributing flyers, writing letters to the editor and calling talk radio.

Our ally, the Massachusetts High Technology Council, disagreed, so it raised a lot of money to buy TV. One of the pieces was, I admit, really good. It used the then-popular Alka-Seltzer ad to show taxes going up ("oooooh"), then taxes going down with Prop 2 (aaaaah").

This reinforced our grassroots effort, thereby helping, not causing, us to win. Or so I liked to think.

I also like to cite our experiment at the Topsfield Fair, where we and other political causes were given complimentary booths in those days.

CLT had a four-page, single-spaced information package on Prop 2 set up in a Q&A format. An adviser insisted we needed something "catchier," so we created a colored flyer with a cute cartoon-style Minuteman and a few key phrases.

People at the fair walked right past it, grabbing the in-depth information piece, so we kept running to a nearby printer to make more copies.

This reinforced my populist notion that the voters really cared about facts, details and reasons -- not just slogans. I cling to this, even today. Otherwise, how can I be a populist, which is defined by respect for the people?

We watch debates, read in-depth newspaper articles about the campaign, go to websites to read position papers, then enjoy political ads as a supplement to all our information. Don't we?

The late Paul Tsongas was a man of substance, and his clever "How-to-pronounce-Tsongas" ad was just a way to help people remember his name (which was obviously more difficult than "O'Brien").

Congressman Ed Markey's "You can tell him where to sit, but you can't tell him where to stand" ad showed his independence from the legislative leaders who had moved his desk into the hall after he defied them.

Both those ads worked.

The famous Dukakis tank ad reminded voters of his lack of experience with the military - an important thing to know when one is voting for the leader of the free world. Too bad no one came up with a similar "lack of military experience" ad against Bill Clinton.

Many pundits think that Mitt's romantic ad is intended to counter his opponent's depiction of him as a heartless corporate downsizer, something which in my opinion would be making the mistake of fighting the last campaign instead of the present one. But Jim Braude insists that it is actually meant to counter a suspicion that Mitt's wife was less than enthusiastic about this campaign, which would be a turn-off for women voters who might feel resentful on her behalf.

I think Shannon O'Brien's warm and fuzzy ads are meant to counter memories of her harsh attacks on people who've opposed her, and override her aggressiveness toward Romney in debate.

If Jim and I are right, these ads are helpful to their campaigns. But in the end, voters won't choose someone because he plays with his kids and grandchildren, or because she looks caring when talking with a group of senior citizens.

We are people of substance, and the very expensive ads on television can't buy our votes. Right?

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

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