A McLuhan Take on the Bern
And why Republicans should be getting smoked right now
Actually, some Republicans are getting smoked right now on a cost-per-vote basis, most notably Jeb Bush. Jeb’s campaign committees just spent somewhere north of $35 million dollars on television in New Hampshire. That works out to about $1,150 per vote, which is actually an improvement over the $2,835 per vote he spent in Iowa.
Were the ads any good? Who knows, and apparently, who cares? The issue of the hour isn’t the quality of the creative, but the medium of the message because, as Marshall McLuhan put it “the medium is the message.” What he meant by that was that the form of a medium, such as television, embeds itself in the experience and becomes part of the message. What we have witnessed may well be the impossibility of communicating the notion of relevancy through the medium of a political ad on television. The medium, in effect, was a buzzkill.
Bernie Sanders is undoubtedly a unique individual with a speaking style that no one in their right mind would try to mimic, but when run through the filter of Reddit, he became quite literally an avatar channeling the restless angst of a generation. He scooped up millions of adherents online who became an echo chamber of support, both moral and financial. He hit what Tony Schwartz called in his seminal book on political messaging “The Responsive Chord”.
I resist joining the chorus that Jeb is finished because no one can predict what a win in South Carolina could do to this race. Because he has what seems like an inexhaustible supply of money, Jeb Bush can keep pounding a diminished television audience and fashion a constituency of sorts from among people who respect his not insubstantial accomplishments, or who respect the Bush family and their legacy. The problem is that the campaign has been damaged as much as it has been helped by the medium in which their campaign message is being delivered.
Television remains a significant channel for communication, but the ROI of the traditional political commercial has never been lower. Simply Measured is a terrific analytics company that was hired by Facebook to independently examine Facebook as a communications medium. One of the sidebars of that research was the discovery that people actually trust a 30-second spot more if they view it on their mobile device than if they view it on the widescreen in their den. Recall was also greater. Now that doesn’t mean television can no longer be an effective communications tool for the delivery of political messages, it simply means a lot of viewers are treating those television messages differently than before and we need to take note of that.
I’ve created hundreds upon hundreds of political television ads, so I am by no means dismissing the medium. I do, however, believe that we’re getting it mostly wrong these days by refusing to recognize that the perceptions of the medium have changed. And that means when we use it, and how we use it must change, as well. The most obvious change is that when we see poll numbers flat-line in response to a campaign ad, we need to believe it instead of doubling down. The creative guys also need to focus their best efforts on creating different ads for different audiences, something the direct mail people have always understood, but something that now applies to digital video.
There will always be room for the “iconic” advertisers, e.g. Fred Davis who is producing spots for the Kasich SuperPAC. He’s built a career creating the overarching theme ad that puts a dye marker on a candidate or, as is often the case, on the opponent. The point is not that every message must be a micro-message, but that the same creative talents that have dominated political advertising in our generation need to think about how and where people are viewing their work. It matters, because how and where people get your message is now, more than ever, a part of the message.