Sunday, December 30, 2007

'Cheap seats' lucrative for media consultants

(Originally published 12/29/07)

“Is the view pretty good from the cheap seats, A.J.? … Because it occurs to me that in 25 years, I’ve never seen YOUR name on a ballot. Now why is that? Why are you always one step behind me?”

So asks President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) of his chief of staff, A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen), in The American President.

It takes a lot of work to support a politician. Elected officials have all kinds of staffers with all sorts of different jobs. As such, and out of necessity, there are many sections of “cheap seats.” But as the New York Times reported this week, some cheap seats yield bigger bucks than others.

The Times reported that during the 2004 presidential election cycle, five Democratic strategists and their media consultant firms raked in nearly $9 million in fees for handling the television advertising for U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s campaign.

President Bush’s re-election campaign paid about the same amount for its ad blitz, though it was “more extensive,” the Times reported.

Doesn’t that make your stomach turn?

Democratic moneymen began asking questions about how so few people could make off with so much money, the Times said; “…and with more money than ever on the line this time around, resentment has been building, donors and other operatives say, at how, win or lose, presidential elections have become gold mines for the small and often swaggering band of media consultants who dominate modern campaigns.”

You know their work: those obnoxious fliers you get in the mail, sometimes weeks in advance of an election; the radio advertisements with the disdainful voices denigrating a candidate; those dreaded phone calls you get during the dinner hour; the TV commercials that infect the otherwise-positive hour you spend watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Admit it: One of your first thoughts every election season is to finally drop those extra bucks for a DVR so you can skip over those self-aggrandizing commercials.

I’ve seen a lot of political advertising. None of it was worth $9 million.

Most media consultants I’ve encountered are political junkies who are full of ambitious ideas during campaigns, but they disappear when it’s time to do the heavy lifting. They’re like the cousins of the cowardly lion. In most cases, they are just like the politicians they serve – minus the courage to put their own names on a ballot.

So, from the sidelines, they concern themselves with the facts only long enough to twist them into weapons. They wrap their attacks in glossy mailers and American flags, throwing in some smiling kids here and there for good measure. And they do it all in the cloak of virtual anonymity, using sham return addresses and names like the coalition to protect thus-and-such or the foundation for the betterment of this-or-that. It’s a drive-by mugging, with art. And it’s lucrative.

But candidates will only pay for effective marketing, and that’s the sad part about all this: Political media consultants exist because they get results. People complain all day long about negative campaigning, but guess what? They listen. Voters allow themselves to be influenced by these 30-second eggings candidates pay to perpetrate on one another.

So I propose a New Year’s resolution that we can undertake together. Let us resolve this year to ignore all political advertisements designed to speak to us in terms of the lowest common denominator, whether they are delivered over the airwaves or into our mailboxes. Let us resolve that every dollar spent this way will be a dollar wasted.

Let us resolve that the cheap seats will live up to their name.

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