September 15, 2008

I know more about campaign ads than probably anyone else in America

Y'know, people sometimes ask me, "Where do you get off, Radosh, holding forth on the effectiveness of campaign messaging like you're some kind of authority?"

Well, I don't like to boast about my credentials any more than John McCain likes to dredge up all that ancient history about the POW camps, but the fact is, I learned everything I need to know at age 14 by virtue of my proximity to one of the most widely-admired political media campaigns in modern history. Much the way Sarah Palin became an expert on Russia.

I'm talking, of course, about Harold Washington's history-making campaign for mayor of Chicago, the campaign that David Axelrod, Obama's chief media strategist, credits with inspiring him to get into the business (Axelrod later ran Washington's re-election campaign).

Here's a still from one of the campaign's most famous spots, which you can watch after the jump. Take away the dorky haircut and add a dorky smile. Look familiar?


Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, provides the history.

In 1983, Republican Bernard Epton faced Democrat Harold Washington in the Chicago mayoral contest. Epton was white, Washington black. Among other things, Epton's radio ads falsely accused Washington of being a "convicted felon" and of having been "disbarred." An unsigned leaflet alleged that Washington had once been arrested on a morals charge. Epton's slogan, widely criticized as "racist," was "Before It's Too Late."
On Palm Sunday, Washington and presidential hopeful Walter Mondale went to church services at St. Pascal's Catholic Church on the Northwest side. "When they arrived, they found 'nigger die' spray-painted on a wall and were met by a nasty, jeering crowd of perhaps three dozen, some of whom shouted racial epithets...

Of that encounter, Bill Zimmerman, Washington's media consultant, created two spots. In the first, pictures of black and white children together reciting the Pledge of Allegiance were intercut with news footage of the hostile crowd. The spot invites viewers to ask, do these two sets of images belong together? Do they belong in our city?

The second intercuts still after still of traumatic moment sin the nation's remembered past. A camera clicks as one picture replaces another. The pictures included images of the Klan, of the Kennedy assassination, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., police beating black civil rights protesters... As these stills click forward, the announcer notes, "There are moments in our history of which all Americans are thoroughly and profoundly ashamed. One of these moments may be happening now. Here. In Chicago... When you vote on Tuesday, be sure it's a vote you can be proud of."... By asking whether the crowd jeering Washington is analogous to these moments while positing that it "may" be, the ad invites both an emotional and an analytical response. There is not a more powerful instance of "reframing" that I know of in the modern history of televised campaigning."

The montage below features 45 ads from the campaign. The first of the two spots described above — and with all due respect to Prof. Jamieson, the more powerful — begins at time-stamp 21:15 below, or just click on my picture in the bottom row. (Note how I put my hand over my heart while saying the pledge, not like that Muslim Obama.) That ad is followed by an Epton one (in which he tries belatedly to backpedal from his nasty attacks) and then the "moments in history" one.

So is Axelrod still turning to me for assistance? All I'll say is, I used that I've got a bridge to sell you joke six days ago.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


In all fairness, though, I think that last fourth-wall-busting gaze came straight from Donna Summer, no?

At any rate, well done. Go ahead and make some more!


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