Sunday, February 3, 2008

Monetizing the Campaign

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the 2008 campaign is the amount of "free media" being used by the candidates. From the overwhelming number of debates to the 24/7 campaign coverage on the cable networks to appearances on popular talk shows to the use of YouTube and other internet vehicles, free media has swamped paid advertising.

There are several consequences to this. First, the productivity of campaign dollars is vastly magnified. In short, it takes less money to run a successful campaign this cycle than in any recent cycle. This is an odd solution to the campaign finance reform problem. Just when it appeared that money was the end-all and be-all in politics, it turns out that good media relations vastly magnifies the bang for your buck. Higher productivity means that less money is required to run a campaign, which in turn means that the impact of lobbying dollars is diminished. This is wholly a good thing.

Another beneficial result is that the public is paying attention. Turnout is high. The candidates are under intense (albeit superficial) scrutiny. This has the possibility to get real debate of the issues before the voters. At the very least, no nook or cranny of the major candidates' characters will go unscrutinized. If this continues all the way to the end of the election, a much bigger chunk of the electorate will feel like they've got a real stake in the outcome.

But the most interesting development is that the mass media have finally learned how to make money off of the campaign. The cable networks simply wouldn't be providing this kind of coverage if it wasn't selling advertising. It's too early to say whether the networks are making money because the campaign is interesting or the networks have found a way to make the campaign interesting and are therefore making money. Either way, something fundamental has changed.

But there's a dark side to all this. The mass media suddenly have unprecedented power to influence which candidates succeed and which fail. Since the networks mostly know how to market celebrity, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee have received huge amounts of attention. One can argue that a major chunk of their success can be attributed to the fact that they could be made into stars. If they're stars, they are, by definition, fun to watch and therefore they cause eyeballs to watch advertising. In contrast, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani were deemed less marketable by the media and have consequently gotten less coverage both in terms of quantity and in favorability. This was particularly pronounced for Giuliani, who eschewed the early states and therefore didn't play into the "horse race" narrative that so fuels media coverage. As a result, he was completely ignored and withered away--very dramatically, of course.

Ironically, the rise of the blogosphere has only magnified the importance of the mass media. There's just enough interest on the internet to whet the public's appetite for a compelling campaign narrative. Just like the online communities for shows like Lost has fueled their popularity on broadcast TV, the political blogosphere has succeeded in turning the presidential campaign into a highly-rated reality show.

No comments: