Faustian bargain: Sponsorship may mean better vote counts

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If our archaic, mid-20th century voting machines could be replaced in the next four years by state-of-the-art computer touch systems such as ATM machines or the Mobil Speedpass, but you had to endure a brief commercial message at the start of the process, would the tradeoff be worth it to avoid the unholy mess we've gone through since Nov. 7?

No more chads-whether hanging, dimpled or pregnant-with which to try to divine the intent of the voter. No more hand recounts. No more absentee ballots (if you can get money or charge gas from anywhere, you can vote from anywhere).

All marketers would want for helping to support this vast upgrade of voting accuracy is a moment or two of your time and attention and for you to know they're a "proud sponsor of the election process," or some such appropriate wording.

What's wrong with that? And what would be so wrong if corporate sponsors helped pay to update our worn out air traffic control computer system? Who would object if a fast and accurate new system depicted the computerized symbols for each plane as brand icons of the various sponsors? What's so bad about using the Golden Arches or the Pillsbury Doughboy to represent the positions of airplanes coming and going in the sky? It's surely no worse than Austin Powers' nemesis, Dr. Evil, shooting a Big Boy into space with the good doctor frozen inside.

Outlandish? Maybe so. But the point is corporate sponsors would pony up the dough in a New York minute to overhaul these absolutely crucial voting and air traffic systems, while federal and local governments will continue to sit on their hands rather than appropriate the necessary funds -in spite of the horrendous experience with current technology (if you can call it that).

The nation's schools have been willing to make such a Faustian bargain. Many allow TV programs complete with commercials into classrooms in exchange for much-needed video equipment. The TV shows and commercials don't seem to have stunted the kids' growth, and the schools receive stuff they couldn't have gotten any other way.

My argument is our society is better off having the things we need to function more efficiently even if they're tainted by commercialism. If that's not acceptable, then we had better be willing to ante up the money to pay for what we need. So far, we don't seem to appreciate the urgency for such drastic steps. That's why we continue to siphon money from people who can least afford to contribute it-through legalized, state-run lotteries-to fund social programs nobody wants to pay for through taxes.

If Al Gore had run a better campaign, we wouldn't have become aware that voting, as we do it now, is not an exact science, and we wouldn't be going through all this soul-searching, which in the end will turn out to be an exercise in futility. Vice President Gore was Burger King, lurching from one persona to another, and Gov. Bush was Wendy's, with good old, slightly bewildered, Dave Thomas staying consistently on theme-whether you liked the theme or not.

Fred Danzig, former editor of Ad Age, and a man I have known for almost (gulp!) 40 years, believes today's political advertising can't hold a candle to campaigns of old. Fred wrote to comment on the "Daisy" ad run for Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 campaign, and he contends "this year's dumbed-down version of DDB's 36-year old `Daisy' spot reminds me that today's politically jazzed advertising `communicators'-whether with agencies or free-lance-still haven't been able to top their predecessors: Bernbach, Dusen- berry, Riney and their ad hoc units. They've sort of reverted back to Rosser Reeves."

Fred also made the point that DDB never wanted to take credit for the "Daisy" commercial. "We know how creative people like to take credit for their prize-winning and/or famous ads, yet when it comes to `Daisy' only Tony Schwarz seems willing to jump up and down and cry out `I did it!' DDB, which used Schwarz as a `supplier' when it created the spot, continues to avoid the subject. `Daisy' remains an agency orphan. In the media coverage that `Daisy II' received this fall, wasn't it strange that DDB's reaction wasn't sought?"

Fred doesn't hold out much hope that local officials would support computerized voting, sponsored or not. "They like it the way it is," he told me, "because they can control local elections. It's only when their cover is blown on a national level that it bites their behind."

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