As long ads, conventions work
GOP extravaganza, now under way, borrows lessons from TV's infomercials.
It's true. The Republican political convention, which officially begins today, will be largely a pre-scripted, zero-suspense, four-day commercial - complete with balloons, confetti, and flag-waving delegates.Skip to next paragraph
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But if these quadrennial confabs have evolved into glorified sales pitches, they nonetheless still serve a purpose. Conventions not only signal the public that it really is time to clue in to the campaign, but for many voters, they also afford a first prolonged look at the presidential candidates - if only a prepackaged one.
As many as 22 percent of voters make their choices during the conventions, and the political parties know it. Their answer - to pour as much as $40 million each into these political shindigs - is a testament to a simple fact of this age: Infomercials work.
"As a society, we're much more used to advertising in general - and to being fed it in small, digestible bites with a little entertainment mixed in," says Lee Frederiksen, a former professor who now heads an infomercial firm. "It's one way we cope with the massive amounts of information coming at us."
The infomercial style, which mixes emotion and reason in a high-intensity TV sales pitch, is proving to be an increasingly popular - and effective - way to sell. It has helped former heavyweight champ George Foreman make nearly $200 million on barbecue grills (his "Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine). And the "Torso Tiger" infomercial hit, which advertises an exercise machine, nets nearly $1 million a week in sales.
Even mainstream firms like Apple Computer and Philips Consumer Electronics have recently joined the rising tide of informercial product pushers. And there's that fast-spreading new mall store called "As Seen On TV," which sells informercial tchotchkes.
Infomercial numbers have skyrocketed. In the month of April 1998, 250,000 such spots graced America's TV airwaves. One year later, according to the Infomercial Monitoring Service, there were 300,000.
Less drama than 'Sesame Street'
Meanwhile, network TV coverage of the political conventions has been in virtual freefall. In 1972, the three major networks put out more than 180 hours of coverage. In 1980, they had 100 hours. In 1996, 29 hours. This year it'll be even less - although cable channels and Web sites will have more extensive coverage than ever.
One reason for shrinking network coverage is the dearth of convention drama - and the fact that the front-loaded primary system determines the nominee months beforehand, leaving little midsummer intrigue.
Yet the conventions still play a role in American political life - and in who wins the election.
In 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis trailed Vice President George Bush by 15 points going into the conventions. Afterward, Governor Dukakis trailed Mr. Bush by 15 points - and never regained the lead.
In 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton trailed Bush before the conventions. Afterward, Bush couldn't catch up.
In fact, since 1960 no candidate who has trailed his opponent after the conventions has won the election, according to Harvard University's Vanishing Voter Project.
So, given the big stakes and shrinking prime-time coverage, the parties script every convention minute - just like in infomercials.