THE PUNCH, chpt 10
The big question is always how the hell did you get away with it? We aired all the dirty laundry out in the breeze and still we came away smelling like roses. It’s not as hard as you’d think. You just have to have a basic understanding of how information, rumors and lies become fact. Here’s the fifty cent lecture. I give it all the time. You just have to listen.
Before you go on the attack in a campaign, you need to find an outrage that has slid in under the fingernails of the culture. Once you do that, you wait for the Pythagorean Comma, that slight inevitable imperfection of harmony that you can use to your advantage and slip in your message.
Think about it like this, all Mass Media is like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir yelling down a mineshaft. What you get back in the echo barely resembles the harmonized yodeling of desert dwelling polygamists. It’s indecipherable to human ears. But at its core, it contains enough of the original tone to convince you that it’s still their voices.
Always remember that all messages resonate. They hum and bounce around the cultural repositories, picking up interference at the relay points. In order to be successful in planting your sound, you have to be able to manipulate the relay points. Because it is here, the point at which information is perpetuated by the cultural repeaters, your social news sites, your web aggregators, and quirkily titled web apps, that you can take advantage of naturally occurring weaknesses. Then you just slip in your attack with a million other individual voices and everything seems harmonized to your message. This is how you make it seem that your issue, your position has been alive in the world weeks before you ever placed it.
It’s pretty simple. The average voter is under constant assault, hit by hundreds of convincing points of view at any given moment. Because of that mental siege, the white noise free associates in the mind. It helps if you think about your client’s position as melding in the primordial ooze, where it bonds with fragmented bits of other messages. Then you can begin to understand how no message, no position is ever original. This is where creative analytics comes in to muddy it up even more.
To be an effective communicator in the media badlands, you must be a sponge. You make yourself vulnerable to the sales pitch and learn. Getting someone to pull onto a car lot and walk out with a Korean minivan is not that much different from getting a mom with three kids to give up her few free moments in front of the DVR and physically show up at an Iowa school auditorium in January to raise her hand for a Candidate.
Every successful campaign is about this relationship: what do you want from a product and what are you willing to overlook? If you can figure out how a cheap import minivan staved off buyer’s remorse long enough to get someone locked into 62 months of payments, then you’ve found the key. Because I can give you a hundred reasons not to buy something, but it only takes a couple good reasons to wipe away your doubts. And that’s what you’re after. Once you see how someone else has done it, you can strip it all down to a mathematical essence, to a collection of plotable points.
You have to tailor your message to closely match the plot points of other successful car ads, public service announcements, banner ads, cough and cold pitches and celebrity gossip. Seriously, this allows you to couch your position in the zeitgeist and adds the last layer of profundity necessary to rewire the human brain to your view of things. Once a pattern of perception forms in a viewers brain, the higher level functioning stops trying to make sense of what it’s being shown or told. It just comfortably accepts it.
But all that is academic. You have to put something into action in order to see if your hypothesis is tenable. Our hypothesis was that America was already discussing race again, we just wanted to follow the logic out to its logical conclusion. At first, we tried to stay above the fray, but even in the post-race glad handing following the President’s first win, polls still showed that race was a factor in the decision process of potential voters. It was only a matter of time.
The whole story of the Hammer’s transgression, the infidelity, the miscegenation, the very idea of a black bastard son being pushed toward success by the careful knocking down of obstacles by an estranged father, even that smacked of affirmative action. Race was now front and center. The other side wanted the issue brought out into the light. We merely maneuvered the spotlight in the right direction, because we weren’t really about race baiting, but if it got the conversation headed in the direction we were willing to accept means for the ends.
At the time, I thought we were pretty slick. Looking back, Frank and I never talked about it, but had to have known about the Cormac story before he sent me down to South Carolina. Regardless, we successfully orchestrated the character assassination of one of the most powerful contenders for the highest office in the land. With the help of insurgents on the other side of course, but fuck ‘em. They couldn’t have done it without us.
Unfortunately, because of this, some of the old party faithful, those who stayed loyal to the Senator’s husband from the halcyon days of yore, made their play for control. The first moment I realized that some of the old guard had grabbed the reigns was at a media meeting we had in the Senator’s office in DC. This was a TV and Radio meeting, but because of my success with viral marketing, informatics and my ability to synthesize demographic info from voter touch points into a usable framework, I was there to filter what it all meant.
It was me, Senator Linn, Frank the actual campaign manager and a couple of people that were clearly from the Senator’s husband’s line of supporters. But the only one of her husband’s old cronies that mattered was Mikheil Kapanadze, 5’9” ½ with lifts. He wore his hair severely combed back across the top of his head and kept two modest silver hoops in his left and right ears as a nod to his old pirate raider days.
The halls of Congress were full of stories about this guy, Mike the Panda, they called him. When he was at the wheel of the Senator’s Husband’s team back in the late 90s, Mike would walk the halls around the offices of Congress with the smooth menace of a panther. He wore loud tailored suits, like the kind middle aged black men wore to Church on Sunday’s around Howard University. His shoes were always buffed out to a mirror shine. It was all part of this character, this menace he tried to push out.
He was hungry back in those days and unstoppable. He only chased after straight men, the type of American, clean cut farm boys who smiled when they were nervous. In his day, he had many a dough faced Midwest aide pressed up against a wall. I don’t know how many careers it helped, but I do know there was a line to get into that position.
Since the scandal though, I heard he toned it down. He worked as a consultant now, in the private sector doing your mid-level PR and image control for a couple oil companies, and a kosher wholesaler who ran into some trouble with the yids. But at that TV and radio meeting in the Senator’s office, when he started talking, you felt him getting his swagger back. He wanted to claim his place at the table.
“He’s weak, weak on the economy, weak on Social Security. Just look at the epileptic hand job he did with health care. Ask the average voter about him and they will bring up change. That he’s different, he don’t look like the same old politicians. But they still don’t have a clue about who this guy is. He’s got two books, a miniseries, and an f’in board game out there. But ask your average voter about his positions and you get either blank stares, or broad rants about red communism and Black Nationalism. I mean the man’s been in office for three years.”
The Panda paced the floor and punctuated the air with broad strokes of his arms. He moved from one side of the voting bloc to the other as he pitched the premise behind a forty-five second spot. The consensus was that we needed a different direction to come at the President, and that meant running a new type of ad in a couple of the Super Tuesday states, along with Iowa and New Hampshire.
“The idea here is that we play on the things the voting public knows about the guy, while drawing attention to where he stands. Here, I’ve blown smoke long enough. Let’s just let the thing roll. You’ll know what I’m saying when it’s over.”
We all crowded around the monitor on the Senator’s desk as the video started. It began with images of manufacturing, assembly lines, lots of metal being welded together with sparks arcing across the screen, followed by circuit boards being soldered under giant magnifying glasses at long rows of work benches.
Then the voice-over started, “Americans are a people of strivers, of builders. A people who make things that work. Built with pride and stamped made in the USA.”
The screen filled with an exterior shot of a factory, smoke stacks and walls of windows along the side, and out front a flag pole. The camera pulled back and revealed--gasp!--a Chinese flag. The screen went black with white letters, read by the narrator, “But those days are ending.”
A montage of photos rolled by and stuttered like daguerreotype stop-motion animation on the screen. There were images of the President, his hands clasped with Chinese business men, accompanied by the narrator, “why does this administration support China’s efforts to buy controlling interests in US companies?”
It was followed by an image of the President in traditional Punjabi Indian dress his hands in namaste.
“Why does this administration continue to earmark aid to manufacturing development in India?”
Next there was an image of him in African dress with ceremonial spear and shield.
The Narrator’s voice boomed. “Who will put a stop to this man whose idea of change is to savagely dismantle the foundations of American prosperity?”
The screen filled with video of the President playing pick-up basketball. “This is no time to play games with our future. We are all responsible for strengthening our economy. This minstrel show has gone on long enough. Stand up with Barbara Linn and say no to change for the worse. It’s time to wipe the black face off of bad leadership.”
The Senator leaned back in her chair. Everyone literally took a step back from the screen and Mike seized on it.
“You see? You understand what I’m getting at? There’s this immediate gut reaction. Is he really the man for us? Is he even one of us? It’s almost sickening when you see it laid out like that, isn’t it?”
And so it was. Mike thought he was clever, playing off the race issue. It was sloppy. Anyone could see what he was doing, or wanted to do. He just blanketed it in the psychic resonance of the Former Speaker’s story. But it did get a reaction, you couldn’t deny it.
The Senator knew, I believe it to this day, no matter what the campaign position was on the fall out, how this thing would play out. It dragged the whole contest to some kudzu infested front porch out in the low hills country. It reeked of spittoons and burning crosses. But Mike kept pushing and found his rhythm.
“We’ve got numbers. We’ve done the research, Focus groups on all the people we need to turn out for us. Hands down everyone agrees. It’s shocking to see the Candidate of Change once we strip him of his sheep’s clothing. People aren’t afraid to cite race as a factor in their decision making process anymore.”
Frank, always a man who rode the crest of emotion in a campaign, who lashed himself to the polling numbers, no matter where they led him, put out the first tentative stamp of approval.
“If it’s testing half as good as you claim, I don’t see why we don’t run it in a couple of markets. Marco can get you the info on the local channels, demographics and audience. He’ll help get this thing in front of the right people first. Let’s take it out of the lab and loose it on the world. But what do you think Barb?”
Frank still called the Senator Barb, it was a familiarity that he kept up with people no matter how far they may have rose above him.
“This thing has teeth Mike, it does. But do we need to start biting at him now?” The Senator asked.
“He’s got momentum,” Mike said qualifying it, “not like we’ve got, not with the punch and all our grass roots momentum and the general breaking of the mold, but even that stuff has a shelf life. We’ve got them listening. Now we’ve got to differentiate our side from his. This is just a step. And like Frank said, we just have to get this in front of the right people. We’re not talking about saturating the airwaves, just delicately placing it, stirring the pot to see what rises.”
“Do you think you can get that kind of precision guidance?” Frank asked looking at me.
All the parties in the room waited for my answer.
“I mean,” he said after I didn’t answer, “I don’t think there’s a numbers man alive that can get that kind of clarity without some collateral blow back.”
He was giving me, giving us, an out. I could have ended it there, just by agreeing. But rather than seeing it for what it was, a way to adjust course away from the cliffs. I took it as an insult, a challenge.
“I could hit your grandmother on a Thursday afternoon walking down the street with a Metamucil commercial, if I crunch my data hard enough, don’t worry about that,” I said blustering with a misplaced bravado.
The Panda ran with it, “well let’s get this thing signed off on. Senator, do we have a green light on this?”
“Even if we get this thing out on a limited play,” I pressed, “once this hits, it’s going to mushroom, crawling out of all the deep, dark places we send it. Are we ready for this? Do we want this kind of scrutiny?”
The Senator spoke up, “I agree, it does have something, something moving about it. I just don’t know if it’ll move our way.”
Mike ran his fingers through his hair freeing a few strands that fell down over his brow, “Look, we didn’t start the debate in this country. The race card was played on another table, not at ours. This isn’t a matter of race, not in this campaign. It’s a matter of difference. It’s Senator Linn and the President, period. We’re not unmasking some secret, some hidden infidelity,” Mike looked right at me as he spoke.
“Rumor has it that it was our friends on the other side of the aisle who put that car on the track. We are drawing a stark contrast with this, that’s it.”
He stood up and spoke to the Senator directly, “look point blank. In order for you to win the nomination, you must be willing to draw that contrast without liberal white guilt, without constantly looking back and wondering if we’ve gone to far. I assure you that it goes just as far as it has to.”
The Senator was sold, “OK, let’s take the chance. I want this thing running in Iowa. I need a three day window between when it airs and when I’m on the ground. I don’t want this thing ran during the middle of family dinner on the same night I’m doing an event.”
“Plus, I’m not putting this out under our umbrella, we need to create a 501 and make like it’s their baby. Playing this in Iowa won’t isolate it in any way, but it’ll give us time to watch for reaction. And if there’s any scuttlebutt, we’ll pull it. I don’t have to tell you what that means if we have to backtrack. There will be changes.”
From then on we were stuck with The Panda.