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The gift that didn’t give

by bdietrich on November 9, 2012

Last month the Seattle Times spent $75,000 to prove that newspaper political advertising doesn’t work.

That’s not how the business executives at my former employer would put it. While they offered daily free advertising to Washington Republican governor candidate Rob McKenna valued at that price, the Times’ out-of-pocket cost was far less since the presses would run anyway. All the company was risking was credibility, and that was a newsroom concern, not advertising’s.

Reporters protested. Subscribers canceled. Readers complained. To no avail. If there’s one thing business executives are willing to give away cheap in 21st Century America, it’s integrity.

Now, though McKenna has yet to concede and vote counting remains glacial in Washington State, it appears likely he will lose narrowly to Democrat Jay Inslee, as polls predicted all along. Washington hasn’t elected a Republican governor for three decades.

More importantly, the Times blatant favoritism of one candidate over another didn’t appear to move the dial at all. In King County where the newspaper circulates, McKenna appears to be doing slightly worse that GOP gubernatorial candidates before him, with less than 40 percent of the vote.

My wife wanted to cancel our subscription. We didn’t, out of my loyalty (I worked at the paper for a quarter century) and my trust that reporters would do their best to remain fair.

But the ad strategy seemed pathetic, extortionist (buy our ads or we give it to your opponent free!) and now an abject failure. To quote a French police minister after the rash Napoleonic execution of a royal, “It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.”

The McKenna ads were not just ethically wrong, they were dull.

What’s interesting about this is that a great deal of political advertising failed nationally as well. If Republicans can no longer win by simply appealing to white guys, it also appears conservative businessmen can’t buy elections as easily as they thought in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizen’s United ruling.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to barely move the dial. After two years of acrimony, gridlock, and negative campaigning we have the same President, same Democratic Senate, and same Republican House.

As a citizen, I’m cheered the “this election is for sale” strategy didn’t work.

As an author in the communication business who has seen newspapers, networks, books, and magazines struggle to retain an audience, I find it jarring. What are the advertising pros doing wrong?

The assumption seems to have been that elections will be settled by those clueless enough to remain undecided, and so lies and half-truths in attack commercials will sway the stupid sufficiently to deliver public office.

I think this backfired because Americans are so media savvy. They know how to respond to television interviewers (be emotional, quotable, brief) to get themselves on the air. They are keen students of reality TV. They’ve seen endless examples of political spin, biased cable channels, cooked coverage, and comedian satire. They’ve heard the philosophic quarrel for decades now.

As a result, attack ads increasingly boomerang against the campaigns initiating them because they seem to say more about the candidate buying them than the candidate being criticized.

The math pollsters were slick this time around. The ad writers were anything but. Their stuff was clumsy, predictable, and boring in its overkill. The dueling stupidities canceled each other out. Reporters ended up writing more about candidate lies than their platforms.

Politicians didn’t get their money’s worth even when, as in McKenna’s case, it was free.

But this underlines the growing challenge for every writer, including me. In a cacophonous world, it’s getting harder and harder to deliver a persuasive message. My next novel, and the one after that, better be page-turners with a core of truth! Because otherwise, I’ll just be proving fiction doesn’t work.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tina Hoggatt November 9, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Excellent piece. I considered canceling my subscription to the Times as well but like you, I know people in the newsroom and they don’t come any better. Thanks for this.

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Alfred Harris November 9, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Just last night there was a booth at the Affordable Art Fair to sell subscriptions for the Seattle Times. I told the attendant I long ago stopped reading it because of Blethen’s odious political stands. I feel bad for the staff but he gets the lions share of the profits and I won’t add a penny to it.

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Mike Lyons November 9, 2012 at 7:58 pm

Thanks, Bill. I was shocked when I heard that the paper where I worked for 25 years was actually endorsing candidates in places other than the editorial pages. Dave Boardman was correct when he stated that the newsroom’s integrity was beyond reproach. But he let the management off the hook. I suppose he had to do it that way. This whole thing reminded me of the time awhile back when The Times wrapped an asinine add campaign around the front page with a big headline which read: What’s Going On? Like we didn’t know. That’s what we were in the business of do — informing our readers exactly what was going on. Mike Fancher defended it. It’s really sad to see a newspaper like The Seattle Times embarrassing itself.

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Clifford Vickrey November 9, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Interesting piece, though I do worry that the failure of the super-PACs and nonprofits to change voters’ hearts and minds this time around will lull us into a false sense of complacency re. Citizens United. The ads misfired this time around, but in the hands of better political strategists than Karl Rove the campaign financing could have gone to more effective use.

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David Guichard November 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

We have a Democratic senate, not a “Democrat Senate”.

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bdietrich November 10, 2012 at 4:56 pm

You’re right – didn’t realize Democrat (without the ic) apparently as a history as a Republican put-down. (At least according to stuff on the Internet.) I changed it.

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Astrid November 10, 2012 at 8:02 pm

If it weren’t for a paper copy of the crossword puzzles (my entertainment on the 80x) I would not have the paper. That, and it is a source of income for the person that delivers.

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Brian November 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm

That might say more about you than the paper.

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