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Electing the Cheshire cat

By Melvin Maddocks / October 25, 1982



According to the Citizens' Research Foundation, candidates are spending about can be no well-kept secret to anybody with a picture tube that a lot of money is being invested in television advertising.

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A political consultant operating out of Austin, Texas, named John Rogers figures that it costs a candidate $15,000 per point to raise name-recognition from 15 to 75 percent. From then on, the cost goes up to $25,000 per point. So if a new face wants 90 percent recognition, the total fee is about $1.5 million on the Rogers scale.

Nobody has yet had the nerve to work out the equation in votes. But the message is unmistakable. Forget kissing babies at picnics. Never mind shaking hands outside the supermarket. Why ring doorbells? Whoever wins the spot-ad campaign wins The Campaign, so, on with the blitz.

On the whole, we're surviving the blitz as well as can be expected. When you've had deodorants and mouthwashes and anti-dandruff shampoos thrown at you over the years, what's one more gubernatorial campaign?

Still, the going doesn't get easier. One is always looking for the latest audio-visual trick. At first, we thought '82 was destined to be the year of the nasty closeup. And indeed the image-makers this year seem to be less concerned with placing a halo above their candidates than with making the opponents literally look bad. Angles and lighting are being employed with a fiendishness hitherto known only to those who take identification portraits for passports and driver's licenses. The most-wanted posters in the post office look like the soul of integrity by comparison.

But the technique really testing our patience this campaign is the obligatory voice-over. Once upon a time the candidate was allowed to speak for himself, or herself. But now he or she has all but been replaced by an unseen persuader.

We are sure the political consultants have put hours of research into selecting The Voice, testing it for credibility with consumer panel after consumer panel. No doubt The Voice is meant to come across as ''natural'' - low-key and conversational, the voice of a friend making a quiet but convincing point across the kitchen table.

Alas, The Voice strikes us as the slipperiest assault on the human ear since W.C. Fields last impersonated a snake-oil salesman. How the '82 voice-over presumes upon our acquaintance! The unseen persuader seems to be speaking about two inches from the tip of our nose, and, while we're on the subject of mouthwash, we're not at all confident about his breath.

The approach is insinuating. The Voice wraps a figurative arm about one's shoulder and murmurs a question in one's ear: ''Do you sometimes feel that you're hearing the same tired old. . . .?''

The words are spaced out very slowly, as if presuming the lowest of IQs.

It is the whisper of an inept Eden serpent in a badly written morality play.

Often The Voice goes all cute with sing-song sarcasm, and the Madison Avenue nexus becomes so strong that one would swear one heard The Voice say: ''The other candidate claims to be 100 percent natural too. (pause) Then what's corn starch (slight falsetto) doing in his spaghetti sauce?''

Even when The Voice, now and then, is reciting the record, or for 10 seconds, addressing an issue, this disembodied sound track must represent a further abstraction of the political process. It was bad enough when policies were first neglected in order to ''package'' the candidate as an ''image.'' But now, it appears, even the candidate is fading out of the picture, like the smile of the Cheshire cat.

One would say: ''May the best voice-over win.'' But there is this dreadful feeling that it is all the work of one man, on leave from Walt Disney cartoons and a very lucrative margarine account. Could it be?