Race for the White House: No Laughing Matter

Political Ads Need More Humor to Reach Voters

By Published on .

Evan Tracey Evan Tracey
I never thought I would miss Bill Richardson. This campaign season is truly lacking in the humor department. Suddenly I find myself nostalgic for last summer, when Gov. Richardson filled Iowa airwaves with his clever, self-deprecating job-interview ads. Since Richardson's exit from the race, ads feature nothing but ominous and forlorn messages about the economy, health care, cost of energy and other humdrum topics. And with almost $250 million spent on these ads, only one thing stands out: no laughs!

The most successful political ads make emotional connections. Too often, campaign ad gurus rely on fear, anxiety and anger to connect with voters. The rule at play here is it's easier to motivate by fear than by love. But using a little humor never hurts. It's a great way to point out an opponent's weaknesses, or better yet, to poke fun at a personal shortcoming. (Imagine if John Edwards had run an ad promising that he'll put at least as much time into the economy every day as he puts into his hair!) Humor also is an important tool for changing the tone of a race that has become too negative or serious due to inevitable accusations and counterattacks. In other words, throw a change-up instead of only fastballs.

With such serious subjects as race, age and gender woven into the 2008 campaign, clearly one of the campaigns should get a jump on the gang from "Saturday Night Live" and and stir up some laughs themselves. I understand that with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $4-per-gallon gas, home sales on the decline and food costs rising faster than Sen. Obama's internet fundraising totals, there's little (tasteful) comedic material to be had. But there's just as much material in our social matrix that warrants a little fun and games.

Surely one of the campaigns would have jumped on the candidates' self-imposed gaffes -- talk of dodging sniper fire, clinging to guns and God -- by now in such a way that would make us all chuckle. Instead, we're offered video excerpts of speeches and rallies, stock footage of windmills, solar panels and gas station placards and the typical, dull endorsement ad. No laughs to be found!

Here's my unsolicited advice for Republicans this fall: The GOP brand is in bad shape right now, so don't shy away from poking fun at yourselves. Voters may just get the joke and give a few of your candidates the benefit of the doubt. As for the Democrats, you're loaded with lots of good material this election year. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be to avoid public perception that you are one big, unfair bully. The key to success will be injecting a bit of humor in clever ads to get your point across.

As the campaigns pivot toward the general election, it is my one wish that they will embrace humor when producing their final rounds of ads. Stakes are high, but don't forget the average American voter would rather laugh than cry.

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Evan Tracey is the founder and chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company. See his complete bio.
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