As long ads, conventions work

GOP extravaganza, now under way, borrows lessons from TV's infomercials.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

While George Foreman's TV pitches may not be crucial to America's civic health, some observers argue that the conventions certainly are - that they are must-see TV.

"Yes, they're contrived. Yes, they're pseudo-events. But when the major political parties of the most powerful nation on earth put on infomercials, what's important is the way they decide to present themselves to us - no matter how campy it may be," says Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York.

"The news is not what happens at the convention," he says, "but how the party puts together its vision for how it fits into the mythology of the Republic."

If a new mythology is the goal, then an infomercial-like style is the way to get there, says Mr. Frederiksen, head of the Frederiksen Group in Falls Church, Va.

"There are two elements to getting a person to take an action," whether it's buying home-storage systems or voting for a candidate.

"The primary driver is emotion," which is where the bunting, bands, and rousing speeches come in. He cites Mr. Clinton's 1992 "The Man from Hope" video as a prime emotion-grabber.

"But people don't act on emotion alone," he says, which is why there also has to be "a reason to believe." In pitching an exercise device, this might include scientific evidence that it works - or testimonials from people who've used it.

He notes that Republicans are loading their schedule with testimonials from "average folks" - including a blind mountain climber.

Also, an infomercial must deal with the "barriers" to people buying the product, such as its high price. "The strategy can range from ignoring barriers to hitting them head on to using emotion to overwhelm them," Frederiksen says.

This year, the Republicans seem to be tackling head on their oft-perceived image as the party of white men. They're giving prominent convention roles to people like Texas Gov. George W. Bush's top foreign-policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who is African-American, and his nephew, George P. Bush, who is Latino.

Finally, says Frederiksen, the delivery must entertain. If the parties forget this, "it'll be all message, no audience."

Networks as political kingpins

Meanwhile, others say the parties have had help from unlikely sources in infomercializing conventions: TV networks. By announcing specific coverage time slots, networks allow the parties to shove controversial events or speakers out of prime time and onto the sidelines, says Martin Plissner, author of "The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Politics."

Also, by pushing to sign off at 11 p.m. on Thursday, they enable the parties to schedule the nominee's speech to end at about 10:52, so it won't be dissected by talking heads - and will pass unfiltered to the public.

Yet Americans aren't ultimately taken in by all the spin, says Alan Schroeder of Northeastern University in Boston. "Having been subjected to so many TV commercials, we're pretty good, when conventions come around, at separating steak from sizzle."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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