I am an ad man. Make no mistake about it. While I am a rarity — an ad man who delights in footnotes — I am nonetheless an ad man. This is why I identify with only one character on national television: Bruno Gianelli, the media whiz who was brought in by Jed Bartlett to run his re-election campaign on The West Wing. Bruno is great. Manipulating the public into voting for a lying President who is afflicted by multiple sclerosis, he shouts on the streets of Washington, “I can sell anything to anyone!” Democracy marches on!
If I were hired by the Democrats to run the 2004 Presidential campaign, I know what I would recommend.
But first, a word from our sponsors. . . .
I don’t watch much commercial TV, but when I do, I pay close attention to the ads. The shows are rarely worth watching, but the ads are. The ads reveal what the best psychologists on earth and the most skilled public opinion researchers believe will reach out through the noise and grab Americans in their capacity as consumers.
In between the ads, I sometimes watch snippets of news. TV news is highly deceptive. I don’t mean the spin, which is bad enough. I mean inherently deceptive. Its primary task is to sell products, not provide news. Other than covering an event like 9/11, the function of news snippets is to keep viewers from clicking their remote control devices in between ads.
The heart of all television is a phrase out of the 1950’s which began on radio before my time: “Don’t touch that dial!” Anything that persuades viewers to touch that dial — a quaint word, “dial” — is anathema to every aspect of TV broadcasting, including news departments.
What keeps people watching local TV news is universally known and universally denied by the news departments: fires. Auto accidents are a close second, but after the fact. Fires visibly move on screen. There is action. Murders are also high on the list. The old rule still holds: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Explosions, shootings, police car chases: these are the holy grail of local TV news. “Live action news” is what every local TV news director wants. It is also what network TV news directors want. Do the words “Rodney King” ring a bell? Had there been no home video, they wouldn’t.
A TIPPING POINT
The bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Iraq may turn out to be the tipping point in Mr. Bush’s presidency. Prior to that bloody event, the killing of a soldier every few days was perceived as a normal daily event, something that would begin each segment of The Today Show. But the UN explosion killed 20 people and wounded a hundred. This was not of the same order of magnitude as the daily assassinations had been.
Now, every death is seen as an amplification of the UN attack. There has been a change in public perception because of the number of the UN victims. There is a phrase of Hegel’s, which was picked up by Frederick Engels, Marx’s financier and partner: “the transformation of quantity into quality.” I think we have seen this transformation.
Unless the attacks somehow cease or become non-lethal, each attack will be seen by all concerned as representing the inability of U.S. forces to bring stability to Iraq: an inherent failure of the occupying government. In this sense, each attack will be seen accurately. This is exactly the perception that assassinations are always designed by terrorists to produce, going back to the nihilist groups in late-nineteenth century Russia.
President Bush’s now famous “Bring ’em on” remark, daring Iraqi terrorists to attack American troops, is looking more and more like Jimmy Carter’s “Trust me” and Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.” The remark is on video, which is always dangerous to a politician.
This is why every televised report of each American soldier’s death — “live action news death reports” — is no longer likely to be perceived by the viewing public as just another random event in a series of random events. It is now likely to be seen as part of a cumulative development: a permanent terrorist policy. What policy? In four words, “to bring it on.”
No Iraqi terrorist is ever reported as being arrested for murder, let alone tried. While arrests may be going on, there are no formal trials and therefore no public convictions. In short, there is no closure. They are getting away with murder, day after day.
This is now an escalating political problem for President Bush. The terrorists have taken up his challenge and are bringing it on.
A SERIES OF ADS
Consider the following scenario: a series of TV ads begin to appear nightly immediately after the Republican convention is over next year. They will be negative ads. They will promote no Democratic candidate. They will therefore not be under the tight restrictions of the Federal Election Commission.
Each ad will begin with a video clip of President Bush’s “Bring ’em on!” challenge. Then the screen will shift rapidly to the burned-out remains of a building or a Humvee. Underneath will be these words: a date, a location, and a death count.
Then a black screen with white print will announce: America needs a new policy.
There will be an ID of some kind: “Citizens for a Lasting Peace” or “Mothers to Stop the Bloodshed.”
There will be no bodies on screen. There will be only bombed-out buildings and equipment.
Each ad will last no longer than 15 seconds.
There will be a new ad every night — same time, same station.
Every night. Same time, same station.
On three networks. But not Fox.
The Republican National Committee will scream bloody murder. That, of course, is precisely the problem: bloody murder. Every night. Same time, same station.
People will tell pollsters that they don’t want to see these ads. But they will watch them in remote-clicking paralysis, no matter what they say to pollsters. If it bleeds, it leads.
Night by night, the message will be repeated: America needs a new policy.
The pollsters who run national political campaigns are almost as good as the pollsters who design national campaigns for commercial products. They will monitor public opinion.
A negative ad that begins with the President’s image and defiant words would be a nightmare for the Republicans. No Democrat is visible on-screen. Just the President, offering his challenge, and the charred results, one by one, night after night, with never a repetition.
What could the Republicans do to counter the graphic images of these ads? They could send Colin Powell to talk to Tim Russert. Then what?
This would be the ultimate talking head: the President of the United States calling for hit squads to bring it on. One by one, the results of these hit squads would be broadcast. Every night, same time, same station.
News footage of this series of disasters would be watched. Of that, we can be sure. The directors of every local news departments have trained us for fifty years to watch. Or maybe we have trained them. “Don’t touch that dial!”
The risk of negative ads is the opposition’s fury. A party’s media mavens worry: “Will a negative ad make the opposition party’s masses go to the polls to seek revenge?” It’s possible. But, offsetting this threat is the possibility of the opposition’s demoralization. Maybe the opposition will just stay home on election day, ashamed at the bravado of a President who could not back up his words with effective force, and so has put our troops at risk.
America needs a new policy. One way or another, America is going to get a new policy. Too many terrorists are bringing it on.
August 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 LewRockwell.com