Watching the latest gubernatorial ad campaigns reminds me of “The Simpsons” episode in which Bart joins a boy band whose songs repeat subliminal messages. The similarity between the episode and the ads isn’t so much how the candidates for governor resemble the show’s characters (although Steve Poizner does look somewhat like Milhouse). It’s more that the lesson the episode teaches (and with “The Simpsons” there’s always something educational) can be applied to the tactics of the ad campaigns currently running.
Which takes us to rule of thumb #172: If you can compare an event in real life to an episode of “The Simpsons,” there’s probably something wrong.
The ad campaigns repeatedly use catchphrases, such as Obamacare, illegal aliens and amnesty, in reference to political issues. Rather than campaign against an opponent’s platform or capabilities, the candidates coin terms and phrases that stigmatize the issues. In turn, the ads use the new way of describing the issues as a way of jabbing at opponents. And like any victim of the LSAT knows, the ads become ad hominem attacks rather than solutions to the problems the state faces. While this hit-and-run advertising may be effective as the lingo starts catching on, it diverts attention from the real discussion these political matters should receive.
For instance, in one campaign against fellow Republican running-mate Meg Whitman, Steve Poizner attempts to draw similarities between his opponent and liberal Democrats. At one point the ad states that Whitman supports “Obamacare,” a term referring to the health care legislation passed by President Obama. Although Poizner may disagree with the health care legislation, the ad’s use of the term “Obamacare” deflects attention from the potential problems he sees with the policy. Instead, it focuses on the fact that it is Obama, a Democrat, whom Whitman is siding with.
Poizner’s ad tries to criticize the health care policy by saying it promotes taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants. Yet this statement is false since the health care policy expressly leaves out illegal immigrants from receiving such benefits funded by taxpayers ““ a strategy Obama used to win over some Republicans for the bill. Moreover, the use of “Obamacare” appears to attack health care more than it does Whitman’s platform.
I also understand how the association between a Republican and Obama may be just as offensive for a Republican (and perhaps more so for the Democrat) as comparing a Democrat with Bush could be offensive for a Democrat. But not only does this ad provide false information, it uses a made-up term to redirect attention away from the actual issue of health care reform in order to condemn an opponent.
Moreover, the ad identifies or rather “exposes” Whitman as a false Republican not only by associating her with Democrats and Gov. Schwarzenegger (yes, you read that right), but also by asking, “Don’t we deserve a Republican?” First of all, the last time I checked, Arnold registered as a Republican and certainly carried out budget cuts like a conservative Republican at that ““ please refer to the education cuts he implemented throughout his term.
Secondly, what does “Don’t we deserve a Republican” even mean? Just because Whitman possesses, or at least appears to possess, some potential to compromise, or because she doesn’t allow party lines to influence her decisions does not mean she is not a Republican. Perhaps Poizner and his ad managers need to expand their political lingo. Rather than making up phrases, maybe they should start by learning about terms that legitimately exist. This may be novel to them, but there are such things as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Another one of Poizner’s ads attempts to comment on Whitman’s inability to make the right decisions when it comes to immigration policy. However, instead of focusing on what is wrong with her policy, his ad again attacks the issue of illegal immigration itself. This time, the ad plays on illegal immigration by interchanging references to “illegal immigrants” with “aliens.” Even though “alien” is a technical term used to refer to a foreign subject, the ad’s free swapping between “illegal immigrants” and “aliens” makes it sound like we’re being attacked from outer space. Instead of focusing on Whitman’s weak policy, the ads use such hyperbolic phrases to grab attention.
And just in case you were starting to doubt your English skills because of these ads, let’s clarify a third term that Poizner’s ads have affixed a new connotation to: “amnesty.” In another ad, Poizner again tries to criticize Whitman by comparing her policies on illegal immigration to Obama’s by asking, “The Whitman/Obama policy? It’s called “˜amnesty’.” Paired with dreary sound effects, the word “amnesty” makes it as though we should yell and run in fear.
But since when did the term “amnesty” pick up a bad connotation? Again, it’s clear that the candidates use these terms and phrases as mechanisms to attack their opponents. But rather than convey the weaknesses in policy, the terms try to redefine the issues and instead create straw-man arguments.
It’s common for candidates to slam each other and their respective platforms, but playing a war of words can be fatal, especially when you don’t use them correctly.