When looking into the future, it’s vital to remember the persistence of the past. I was reminded of this maxim while reading and listening to an NPR interview with a major political advertising player, Neil Oxman. Despite the appearance of new technologies and demographic shifts, the leading political campaign expense is for a quite old and often awful medium: tv ads. They are also the most decisive part of a campaign strategy.
Let me break this down. To begin with, Oxman is very clear that tv ads are a retro thing. There’s nothing new about their content, to begin with. Far from it: “nothing is original after the 1950s in political advertising – or ’60s, I should say.” So today’s major campaign ads are creatures from two or three generations ago.
Which makes sense, given the major audience for tv ads: people who came of age then.
[I]n America today, the greatest predictor of … if somebody’s going to vote is how old they are, which is why in presidential campaigns you get 25 or 30 million more people vote than in the nonpresidential – because people under 30 just don’t come out in these bi-elections. And older people watch TV.
And that generation of older Americans maintains old-fashioned media habits, much as Pew and others have shown us:
They’re much more passive about how they get their information. They sit in front of the television. They don’t flick away from commercials. They watch TV.
Why does this matter? Because that tv-ad-targeted group is now the decisive element in the American electorate. And because tv ads are now the leading expense for American political campaigns:
television is still, in most campaigns, the largest single expenditure you’ll see in that campaign whether somebody runs for mayor of a big city, congress, governor, senator, or president – maybe not president.
Remember this during any discussion about money in politics. The leading purpose of raising all kinds of money, which takes up so much of candidates’ time and, arguably, ethics, involves paying for 1960-style tv ads.
Worse, Oxman even admits these ads aren’t very good for getting across information.
DAVIES: I wondered – do you ever feel like, gosh, this is just – we’re not doing a very good job of informing our electorate?
OXMAN: Yeah, absolutely… We’re trying to do persuasion no different than any other marketing that you see, whether it’s for Pepsi or Ford or Coke or anything else.
He thinks things used to be better in the past, perhaps with a touch of nostalgia:
DAVIES: You know, for years now, the media have been analyzing political ads and truth squad-ing them, right – well, this claim doesn’t quite hold up, that one’s a half-truth. If you’re in the middle of a campaign and the media criticize the accuracy or fairness of your ad, do you care?
OXMAN: You used to care a lot more than you do now.
I’m going to assume the “you” there refers both to campaign support staff, like Oxman, and to voters. He goes on to lament the decline of newspapers, whom he sees as fact-checkers. And with the increase of donations to campaigns, “The ratio of negative to positive has gotten much higher.”
Note that new digital forms of media barely make a dent in this narrative. Oxman mentions social media, but sets it aside. As one blogger notes, the role of digital sources in fact-checking, correcting, supplementing, and investigating campaign communications doesn’t appear in this interview.
Oxman admits that young people have different tv viewing habits (“Kids today don’t watch TV on TV. They watch it on every other thing they can get. They watch it on their phones. They watch on their iPads”), but that is still less important for campaign strategies then getting Eisenhower-era tv content out to seniors.
What does this mean for educators and the future of learning? Let me offer several responses.
- While one can easily overstate the Net.Generation idea, this interview offers more evidence to back up the argument that there remain serious generational differences in how Americans use media.
- Information literacy needs to take into account old-school media literacy.
- It’s good to remember that old technologies and practices can persist and have great power, no matter how many new things pile on top of them.
- The world of new media has serious audience/demographic limits.
There are other fascinating elements in the interview, including practical tips for making a successful ad. Oxman is clearly steeped in effective video-based storytelling. His views on campaign strategy give us insights into how many campaigns run these days. He tells a good story about Jerry Springer’s campaign history. The golf caddy bit is surreal. Read the whole thing, as we say in bloggery.
For a bonus, educators can wince at this comparison:
Now a good congressional campaign any place in America spends two to $3 million on TV – certainly way beyond the cost of inflation. I mean, unbelievably beyond the cost of inflation. Even beyond the cost of the way college in tuitions have gone up.
*This post’s title pays homage to a splendid book, which should be required for everyone thinking about the future.