September 26, 2010
By Bill Kraus
A man named McLuhan proclaimed years ago that the medium is the message. In politics the medium may or may not be the message, but it surely determines the shape and size and to a considerable extent what content is appropriate in the medium.
The first political medium I worked on was a brochure. As quaint as it may sound today, the brochure delivered the main campaign message not that long ago. It told the recipient the who, the what, the why, and wherefore of the candidates. It was delivered mostly by hand, mostly by the candidates’ friends, neighbors, and supporters, all of whom were part of the message under the McLuhan dictum.
The next step up was to the mass media of the time. Newspapers were the prime medium with radio a less prestigious supplement. Billboards got some play too as a precursor of the short, pithy, simpler deliverer of what was to become as television went from a polite intrusion on its way to domination.
Political communicators didn’t know what to do with television in its early years. It was thought to be kind of cheesy, not unlike the product categories that favored it with their business. Most candidates ran few if any TV ads. Many settled for a single ad after the late news on the Sunday before the election which presented the candidate’s family and a “thank you for your support” message from the candidate.
This tentative stage didn’t last long. A man named George Hinman, who was Nelson Rockefeller’s political guru, changed all that when he convinced his fellow campaign practitioners that if they presented their candidate not as a tube of toothpaste but as a Buick they would make the medium more respectable and their candidate more successful.
This started the medium on a long, uninterrupted road from insignificance through importance to dominance.
Messages were necessarily short and succinct and dramatic and emotional. Facts were okay, but this was, after all, show business. Cinema verite, which I shamefully helped bring to its temporary apex in Wisconsin, had its day until it became obvious to even the most casual observer that commercials using that technique were a lot more cinema than verite.
The major advertising agencies disdained political clients for a very long time. Television stations weren’t too nutty about political advertising either. The campaigns were short term, almost seasonal. Everyday commercial product clients were a lot more steady and profitable.
Now, of course, there is hardly a television station alive that could turn a profit without political ads, and the best and brightest ad agencies are more than willing to try their hand at creating the sizzle for candidates, even ideas, that will bring one to power and the other to acceptance.
The possibility that the internet would do to television what television had done to newspapers seems to have waned.
The partisan professionals who are in charge of campaigns quickly discovered that the internet is a user medium where the users decide where to go and what to get online. Political propaganda is not high on most users’ lists. Political advertising has to have a pusher’s medium. Television ads are intrusive. They go where the viewer already is.
The television medium clearly shapes the message. The medium is short, a mini-movie if you will, simple at best, simplistic at second best, and ideal for mounting a personal attack on an opponent and occasionally on an opponent’s ideas in addition to his or her character and genealogy.
I never was too clear on whether this is what McLuhan meant when he said the medium is the message. This seems to be what we have.
I wonder if he thought television would be the medium/message that would turn politics into a spectator sport.
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