Elections as media events
Joe McGinniss’ book The Selling of the President had a shocking title for 1968, suggesting as it did that in the television age the presidency had become nothing more than another product to be packaged and sold. MediaSmarts’ resource, Watching the Elections (a lesson for Grades 8-12), shines a light on how the different aspects of an election – from the debates to political ads to the candidates themselves – are actually media products.
Despite the shocked reaction to McGinniss’ book, as far back as the Nineteenth Century it was the power of the press that brought events such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates to voters. Now, thanks to the Web site The Living Room President, we can see that candidates have been sold like soap since the dawn of television. (You can view a playlist of our favourites here, or browse the site from the main page.) While some of the commercials from 1952 have the direct and dignified air we expect to see in the past, others use advertising techniques that today’s politicians would find too crass, such as jingles and cartoons (including this one with what sounds like the voice of Alan Reed, the original Fred Flintstone).
It’s true that political ads have become more sophisticated over the years. Perhaps the biggest change came with Ronald Reagan, a candidate who, having been an actor, was already a media product before entering politics: his ad campaigns created a seamless narrative that blended patriotism, fear and reassurance by painting a picture of “Morning in America.”
Most recently, campaign commercials have focused as heavily on the candidate’s personality as on any matters of policy. The 2004 George W. Bush ad “Windsurfing” purported to be a criticism of John Kerry’s purported flip-flopping, but in fact served more to highlight a moment in which Kerry looked silly – like the famous shot of Stockwell Day in the wet suit – and also cemented viewer perceptions of him as an East Coast liberal.
Political debates are, of course, a natural media event, and they are particularly suited to TV – a medium which thrives on close-ups and one-on-one combat. To this day one of the most famous presidential debates was that held between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. This debate proved the power of TV: those who listened to it on the radio generally thought Nixon had won, but those who saw it on TV – swayed, perhaps, by Kennedy’s youthful charm and Nixon’s flop-sweat – gave the win to Kennedy. Over the years TV networks have come up with a variety of techniques to make debates seem more dramatic: this 1992 Clinton-Bush-Perot debate, for instance, starts with clips of each candidate declaring “Let’s get it on!” (Note: this video may not have been uploaded by the copyright holder.)
Some have argued that the emphasis on conflict in the debate format, which is intensified by how the debates are presented on TV, lowers the tone of political argument and forces candidates to limit their positions to simple either/or statements. Those who feel this way will get no comfort from the fact that the upcoming debates will be tweeted live – perhaps forcing candidates to make sure that anything they say can be easily captured in a 140-character tweet.
What really makes debates such a great media product, of course, is that they’re all about personality. More than anything else, debates are a way for candidates to brand themselves (and their opponents). Consider Reagan’s glib dismissal of Jimmy Carter with “There you go again”; Brian Mulroney’s ability to paint himself as the principled outsider by telling John Turner “You had an option, sir. You could have said no”; Vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen’s withering response to Dan Quayle’s suggestion that he was no less experienced than John F. Kennedy had been when elected – “I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
One controversial element of this election has been the leaders’ refusal to participate in debates. Unlike in past years, when all the major party leaders participated in debates organized by a consortium of Canadian broadcasters, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to be part of only one debate organized by the consortium during the campaign, on September 24th, as well as debates organized by the Globe and Mail (September 17) and by the Aurea Foundation and Facebook Canada (September 28), and one French-language debate to be aired by TVA (October 2). Apparently aimed more at social media than broadcast TV viewers, the September 17th and 28th debates will air on CPAC and will be streamed on YouTube and Facebook respectively.
Questions for classroom discussion
The activity below is taken from the MediaSmarts resource Watching the Elections. Click here to view the entire lesson.
Ask students what they know about the candidates who will be participating in the debates. (You may wish to do some research in advance to be able to fill in gaps.) Share information on the board so that students are able to build a fairly complete profile of each candidate. Ask students what they think the key issues of the election are and list them on the board.
Distribute the following questions and go through them with students. Have students watch one of the debates live or online and answer the questions, then take them up with the class the next day.
Questions to consider while watching the debate:
What does the broadcaster do to make the debate seem more exciting in the opening sequence?
How does the set make the debate seem more exciting or dramatic?
How does the set enhance the sense of conflict between the candidates?
How does the format of the debate help to keep answers short and dramatic?
How does the format of the debate increase the conflict between the candidates?
Topics and questions
Who chose the topics and/or questions? Who asks them? How do they serve to make the debate more dramatic or increase the conflict between the candidates?
Which candidate(s) do the commentators feel won the debate? Why? Do you agree? Why or why not?