McKinnon was joined at the USA Today-sponsored "Pulse of America" event, moderated by that paper's Washington bureau chief Susan Page, by his Democratic counterpart David Axelrod. A onetime political writer for the Chicago Tribune, Axelrod moved on to develop media and communication strategies for a host of clients including John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Like McKinnon, Axelrod is a seasoned professional considered by many to be at or near the top of the media strategist pile.
Both speakers agreed that we are now in 'a change-oriented environment" wherein a majority of the electorate is "unsettled and serious" and seeking simple and direct messages. "Voters today are sophisticated and cynical," said Axelrod. "They just don't believe political ads. Instead they are looking for stories told through the mouths of real people in their own words."
"We've lost a lot of control," McKinnon agreed. "So who's in control now? It's anyone with a camera. Just imagine someone in their pajamas in a dorm room making their own ads and putting them up on YouTube. Young, fast, smart, adroit people doing everything on a Mac -- this is what will have the greatest impact on the next election. The whole thing will be online from beginning to end. There's a 24-hour news cycle and anyone can participate. There are so many other players now."
"The merger of technology and media has made dramatic changes in the entire process,' said Axelrod. "There is now so much media choice that our biggest problem is determining how to drive people to the candidate's message."
"There is more noise and more clutter now, and it's harder to break through," McKinnon agreed. "Ultimately, the community will decide."
"Ads are just a part of a much larger narrative." McKinnon added, sounding a lot like a Republican George Lakoff. "And the best political ads are 'values' ads. They have a narrative arc, tell a story and communicate emotion. For President Bush, the message we tried to communicate was strength and humanity.
"Of course, we were blessed by the weakness of our opponent," McKinnon concluded. "Kerry seemed to have a different strategy and different message every month. That inconsistency played into our portrayal of him as a flip-flopper, and people never got a good sense of who he was or what he stood for. Plus Kerry made the mistake of just running against George W. Bush. Until the Democrats stand for something instead of just against, we'll benefit."
Both media pros, however, coyly downplayed the impact of what they do. Axelrod compared the 'impact of media in American politics" to a Bell Curve, saying that political advertising had its biggest impact on the level of state campaigns, but was just "background music" in both local and presidential races. "Ads cannot elect a weaker candidate," McKinnon added. "Advertising has very little to do with electing the president" - to which Axelrod caustically chortled, "$170 million dollars later, he tells us!"
Here's another tip from the insiders - many ads are made not to influence individual voters, but instead to influence media coverage. When moderator Page asked what the media should do to avoid being played in the partisan fray, both Axelrod and McKinnon suggested that instead of mindlessly cooperating with their ploys, the media instead should ask more questions and perhaps simply ignore ads -- like the infamous Swift Boat attack on Kerry -- that play only once on a cheap, small market cable system and are clearly designed solely to attract 'free media' attention.
So bottom line, what can we expect in political advertising in the 2008 presidential campaign? More of the same, apparently. Despite the fact that ads can't elect a weak candidate, that voters are more sophisticated and cynical, that's there's more noise and clutter and it's harder than ever to break through with your message, and that top-flight media strategists say they are losing control to everyone from well-funded third party groups to the video-producing masses, both McKinnon and Axelrod agreed there will probably be more money spent on political advertising in the next presidential campaign than ever before, and that "75 to 80 percent" of all the advertising dollars will go to broadcast television, which Axelrod characterized as "the nuclear weapon of politics."
Let's drop the Big One and see what happens...