$7 MILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF FLUFF
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- The March 8 mayoral primary election is approaching and with it, the 15 and 30 second spots that fill every available commercial moment on local television. It is a collection of little intellectual merit but considerable interest as a snapshot of the current level of manipulative psychology and technology. These ads merit examination for what they tell us about two seemingly unrelated topics, the current obsessions in politics and the status of the low-cost digital methods that are now available to pursue those obsessions.
The system is all driven, of course, by the pricing structure for televising political advertising, a subject of which much has been written but little resolved. It is problem that every major candidate must deal with, and it is interesting to look at the different ways they try.
The Website laobserved.com has collected and organized the links to the mayoral candidate sites, and on those sites, the ads are available for viewing. Now, any old candidate for office can make his video creations available for you to download and watch on demand. At last, our political system has managed to catch up with motel pornography.
The analogy to vice may be apt. Every one of these ads cost money to make and costs a small fortune to screen, and all of that money came from somewhere. It is the "somewhere" that is of most interest.
The dreary list of donors (available on the city's Ethics Commission web site) may very well include quite a few well-meaning people whose only interest is in good government, but it also includes hundreds upon hundreds of interested parties -- companies with city contracts, politically connected law firms, trade unions, police unions -- you name it and it's on the list. It's only a small stretch to consider the candidate and his collection of donor interests as a new symbiotic life-form, linked by that newly-minted term, "pay to play."
And what has been created with the $7 million dollars that the top candidates have raised in aggregate? Let's take a look.
Mayor Jim Hahn has been running an ad which begins with him on camera, seen from across the street. An announcer's voice says, "Mayor Jim Hahn. Gutsy decisions." At this point, Hahn begins speaking to us directly as he steps into the street and crosses to the near side.
I brought in a new police chief, Bill Bratton. Now, violent crime is down 18 percent, and response times are faster. We moved police out from behind desks and into our neighborhoods. We stopped Sacramento politicians from raiding our tax dollars, money L.A. needs for our police, firefighters and local services. And, we kept Los Angeles together.
The spot concludes with the announcer's voice, "Jim Hahn. Tough decisions, right choices, for L.A.'s future."
In all, not bad for a radio commercial. The audio track drives the political message, which is that Hahn is running as a (Police Chief) Bill Bratton surrogate. It's what everyone has been expecting. What else does Hahn have to show for his four years?
What of the visual aspects? I must confess that as I watched this and other ads on my computer screen, I began to look at them as exercises in amateur video editing. It's not that these were made by amateurs, but that given today's technology, they could have been. They are a little beyond the ability of a junior high kid with an iMac, but a high school student with standard video editing software could have cut any one of them.
Hahn's ad is illustrative. As he walks toward us from across the street, the ad goes to a split-screen format. As he tries to sound scathing in referring to the "Sacramento politicians," the right side of the screen shows one of the legislative chambers in the state capitol.
The effect doesn't work very well: Hahn looks scrunched within the left half-screen, while the legislative chamber shot shows more of the wall and the ceiling than it shows of the legislators. The split-screen shot does, however, allow the video editor to overlay written text over the Capitol scene: "Jim Hahn stopped Sacramento politicians from raiding our tax dollars."
The ad concludes with the Mayor arriving on the near side of the street and, as a dozen or so men, women and children of all ethnic groups cluster around him, he claims victory in having kept L.A. together. This may be a reference to Hahn's victory over valley secession, but the effect is too cute to make clear whether that is actually supposed to be the point.
The ad doesn't work all that well. Observing carefully, the defect becomes apparent: Hahn is not all that good at reading his own words. He's not an actor.
Sen. Richard Alarcon is way behind the rest of the pack in fundraising. Perhaps that is why his ads are 15 seconds instead of 30. The video editor has tried to make the best of things by limiting each spot to one or two strong punch-lines followed by an announcer ritualistically intoning, "Richard Alarcon, the senator for mayor."
Here's one example. We hear Alarcon's voice: "They jack up the water rates, and waste the money on pr.. contracts. So I sued them." Then the announcer: "Richard Alarcon. The senator for mayor." That's all of 23 words and it makes the point just as well as Hahn's excessive verbiage.
Here's another. "No one should get a city contract after contributing to a politician. My initiative will end that."
It's a valiant attempt to make limited funds go as far as possible. The problem is that we are several seconds into them before we realize that we are watching a political ad, and sometimes we don't even understand that it's an Alarcon ad until the final voice-over.
Bob Hertzberg, as usual, is the most interesting candidate in this race, even when it comes to the 30 second tv spot. The ad, titled "Big Steps" by the campaign, but referred to as "Bobzilla" by the rest of us, shows Hertzberg as a 70 foot tall behemoth, walking around the city, looking into and over buildings, all the while complaining about the Hahn record. Here's what he says:
I'm Bob Hertzberg and you deserve a mayor who doesn't tiptoe around problems. First, the L.A. Unified School District is a failure. I'll break it up into smaller districts for local control and better schools. There's no good reason for road construction during rush hour. Do it at night. If you can't synchronize the lights, you shouldn't be mayor. And L.A. city revenue grows a hundred million dollars a year already. I'll use 25 percent of that money to hire more police. We don't have to raise taxes to make L.A. work again."
As he walks through the town like Godzilla in a charcoal-gray suit, he stands behind a school building as if it were a kitchen counter, wanders around roads filled with traffic, and in what is perhaps a self-conscious parody of the style he seems to be inventing, lumbers towards the camera above trees and buildings.
It's a remarkably inventive effort for a politician who is in third place going into the final week of the campaign. It is also the ad that is the most misleading. As I mentioned in an earlier column, Hertzberg is promising to increase the size of the police department by 3000 officers by spending 25% of new revenues, a sum that would provide for perhaps a third of the promised number. The ad manages to finesse the deception by having Hertzberg mention spending 25% of new revenues while a text title proclaims, "12,500 Police. No new taxes." It's the montage-as-propaganda technique that goes back 85 years.
By the way, the method for taping an actor in front of a blue screen or green screen and then substituting the background with (in this case) shots of the city is now well known even to high school video students. What was once the realm of Star Wars is now available on the home computer.
Antonio Villaraigosa's ad is another example of video editing by gimmickry. Those with a technical interest can download the ad titled "Believe." The editor has taken a collection of still photos and a few video clips and combined them into a half-minute spot that outdoes the Hahn effort for visual business.
The curious thing about it is that, unlike all the other ads, the candidate himself is never heard to talk. All the speaking is done as voice-over by some other person. It is a little strange, because practically every video clip shows Villaraigosa talking to somebody, but we never get to hear what he is saying. Meanwhile that serious sounding announcer is explaining what a great leader he is.
From an artistic standpoint, the spot looks as if a whole class of beginners at the public access cable television studio tried every gimmick they were collectively capable of. The techniques range from the expanding and moving picture-within-a-picture to the slow dissolve of one picture within another, followed by wipes both vertical and horizontal, ad nauseum.
The ads discussed here have been running over and over on local television stations in the past few days. When you consider how little substance they contain and how much they cost to televise, the obligate conclusion is a sad one. Candidates raise semi-astronomical sums of money so they can buy lots of television time in order to say as little as possible. The driving force is the need to do as much political messaging in the shortest time possible.
It is a system that minimizes depth, punishes honesty and plays to demagoguery. The truly sad part is that the candidates mentioned here may have deep thoughts and well conceived ideas, but the mass media system they exist in makes it extraordinarily difficult to communicate any of that to the voters.
Television does damage to our political system by creating a media climate which rewards fundraising over substance.