"The S.P.C.A. wants me to announce that none of the chimpanzees who played the men in these political ads were harmed in the process." Campaign 2000 Chuck McFadden
Radio Spots Before Our Eyes
(and up the yin-yang!)
Plug Up Your Ears, Voters!
Here Come the Political Radio Ads
By CHUCK McFADDEN
Hidey-ho, out there in Radioland. We're entering the political zone. We're all going to be there until November 7. You know what that means, don't you? Of course you do. It means you are going to be listening to political ads on the radio. Lots of radio spots. Radio spots up the yin-yang and out the wazoo. Radio spots for candidates and against candidates. Radio spots for propositions and against propositions (Lots of those.)
Radio political spots are an art form developed in the United States over the past 65 years. We now teach consultants in other nations how to do them.
National pride aside, you may get a little steamed about the prospect of having extra commercials ladled onto the airwaves between now and November, but have a little empathy. Consider the challenge facing the artiste who must write a radio spot for or against a political candidate or proposition.
First of all, it's a given that you don't want to hear it. You're driving to work, enjoying the disk jockey's chatter, or the music, and all of a sudden here's a commercial about a person or an issue that ranks number 739 on your list of priorities. You're worried about the fact that the damn medicine cabinet is starting to sag off the wall in the upstairs bathroom, and someone wants you to think about a ballot proposition to forbid real estate developers from naming streets after flowers because it could endanger the environment.
So the spot has to capture your attention. Reach out of the speaker and grab you by the ears. Do people do that? People do. They've gotten better at it. The format of choice here in this first campaign of the 21st Century is an itty-bitty little 30-second mini-drama. They are complete with character development, plot, denouement and, of course, a message. And as with any form of theater, they have their own set of protocols and stock characters. There are no-no's. It's as formalized as a minuet.
The 30-second plots are almost always the same. Someone has to explain something to someone. Quickly.
The characters are simple. First, there's a male protagonist who is really, really, stupid. Stupid is never a woman, unless it's a two-female-character commercial. It's OK if the person who can explain it all is a woman, but the explainee, the one with the IQ of a termite, is a man. And if a woman explains something, she is required to be chipper and kind.
In the more lavishly produced radio spots, there might be a Greek Chorus of supporting players who will chime in from time to time by saying things like, "And it won't raise our taxes!" (Additional actors mean additional money out of the campaign coffers, of course. These people are paid, you know. Do you think they make these commercials for free, out of a desire to see good public policy in place? It is to laugh! Ha!)
There is a corps of radio actors who specialize in playing stupid, or stiff-necked, protagonists. One anonymous performer (the actors are always anonymous) who's particularly adept, and who gets a lot of campaign work, can be heard on California's current anti-Prop. 39 commercial as the man who winds up being convinced. When he's not being dumb during the campaign season, he's frequently heard as a dumb boss. He's terrific.
This explain-things-to-Stupid procedure takes place in surprisingly few places:
· At the kitchen table
· A telephone conversation
· Or the traditional gathering of chatty employees around the Radioland water cooler
Here's how one political spot might go. Let's make it an ad against a ballot proposition.
"More coffee, dear?"
"Oh, thanks. You know, Prop. X seems to be a good idea. They say it will lower our taxes and mean less traffic congestion."
"Oh, honey, Prop. X does no such thing. Why, it would really raise our taxes, take away our home and sell our children into slavery."
"It certainly would. Why the League of Concerned-About-Everything Voters says it would mean higher taxes for homeowners, with no limit. And the League of Citizens Who Complain says it would let convicted axe murderers practice medicine!"
"Omigod! I'll vote against it!"
Announcer-type voice: "Paid for by Citizens for Good Things."
Does it work? You betcha. Campaign gurus have been doing the above, with variations, for decades. But how could the above convince you to vote for or against something?
"You're falling into a deep, deep sleep. The sound of the surf is so soothing, the warm sun so relaxing...now here's how we want you to vote on Propostion 98..."
Answer: It won't. You are judicious, thoughtful and politically savvy. But to a harassed person trying to carry a load of laundry downstairs while the baby is crying, or to someone driving through heavy traffic and honking horns on his way to the dentist, only a few things get through: "Prop. X." Nice lady says "higher taxes." "Axe murderers." Prop.XhigherTaxesAxMurderersNo.
Pavlov was the first campaign designer.
Something on the order of 70 percent of radio campaign spots revolve around the basic plot - tell someone who is surpassingly stupid why they must vote for or against something or someone. He changes his mind 25 seconds into the spot and plights his troth to the right side. The effect of such zest on the future of the republic is never explained.
One exception to our mini-drama format is the campaign testimonial spot. John Wayne did some for Sam Yorty when Yorty ran for mayor of Los Angeles years ago, and probably convinced a lot of voters that Yorty was the man. (Wayne was a resident of Orange County, 40 miles southeast of the Los Angeles city hall and 'way outside the Los Angeles city limits, but never mind.)
If you are going to establish instant rapport with your harassed, busy listener, use buzz words or phrases.
"Our tax money"
"Your tax dollars"
"Out of state interests" (Ohio is a sinister place, in the view of some California radio commercial writers.)
"America's working families" (Everyone sits around the kitchen table repairing shoes on a piecework basis.)
Unless it's a commercial for a candidate, elected officials are never called elected officials. They are politicians. That's the rule even when, in a testimonial-type commercial, the person doing the commercial is a politician. "Don't let the politicians get their hands on your tax dollars," says the politician.
You could, of course, find an ice cave in the Antarctic for the time being. If that seems impractical, get ready. But look on the bright side. After November 7, (Whee!) we go back to what God intended for us: commercials for dog food, deodorants and laxatives. We'll be so I was going to say relieved. Maybe not.
© 2000 by Charles M. McFadden. The cartoon images are from the IMSI Master/Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. East, San Rafael, CA 94901-5506, USA.
McFadden lives in the Oakland Hills. When he was very young, he was a radio reporter and later covered politics for The Associated Press.
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