How Candidates in 2012 Can Rise to Top of the Media Trough

Hint: Advertising Will Be Key

By Published on .

When playing word-association games, if someone say "trough" the next word is usually "pig." However, for me, the reply would likely be "media."

In this age of ample, on-demand and a la carte information, the problem for political campaigns is that information is unequally dispersed, intermittently precise, often incomplete and without context. In other words, the trough is full to overflowing with political information, but quite a bit of it is, well, slop. Americans might be gobbling up media, but much of it is little more than junk calories.

This was evident in a recent Kaiser Foundation poll that found an astonishing 22% of Americans incorrectly believe that the 2010 health-care reform bill had been repealed in 2011, while another 26% were unsure or would not say it was.

Despite the hyperconsumption by viewers -- and because of the news media's desire to feed them the "hot" stories of the moment -- it is clear that Americans are more informed about some issues, like what Charlie Sheen had for breakfast today, and less informed about others, like the status of health-care reform.

But even if we had a politics-only trough, viewers would still be overwhelmed and campaign managers would still have their work cut out for them.

It might be helpful to visualize the contents of our media trough in layers. At the top, voters become informed through a cocktail of news and opinion. News about the candidates and campaign mechanics is available from any number of sources. News is reported and amplified in real time by traditional-media and digital-media outlets adding the political equivalent of color commentary coupled with the play-by-play pace in the race to report news. This information trough is filled further by a perpetual barrage of punditry supplemented by the social-networking sites and tools such as Twitter that allow for celebrity and peer punditry to be interjected into the formation of likely voters' points of view. This ballooning layer of immeasurable content is not just informing voters, but influencing them.

In this media environment, if you are involved in one of the professed "high profile" or "nationalized" races (i.e., the ones we all talk about), your voters will become, in essence, political insiders. On the other hand, if your campaign is not one of these high-profile races, and at the bottom of the trough, then you will receive less attention, analysis and context. Your voters have to dig for them or, more likely, will simply be influenced by the fragments that manage to sporadically bubble up through the top layer some time before Election Day.

This impact was seen in 2010 when so much attention was heaped on a handful of issues, personalities and races -- so much so, that I am certain many voters likely knew more about those running in races outside their own states than inside their local political arena. The best example of this was in Delaware's U.S. Senate race. After Christine O' Donnell so artfully declared herself to not be, of all things, a witch, the media outlets became obsessed and opened up a Christine O' Donnell spigot. This revelation, coupled with the added value of invoking the Tea Party, made this race irresistible to the media and opinion class, thus taking the race to national importance.

Although the metaphor of a trough -- where information at the top is abundant and comes complete with analysis and commentary, and facts at the bottom come in scraps -- is not news or even a leading-edge insight to anyone involved in the media business, it should still be at the forefront of the minds of all political communicators as we enter the 2012 election. In this environment of hyper-reporting and hyperpunditry, what happens in all the campaigns that don't reach the vaulted position of national importance?

This brings me back to the Kaiser poll, which found that 48% of Americans think, or at least are not sure if, the health-care bill was repealed. This number confirms that without a sustained information feed on a topic, fragments of information simply become facts in the minds of many. Political junkies pay close enough attention to understand that a repeal vote from one house of Congress does not mean the matter is concluded. But the casual observer who strolled past a TV news pundit, radio broadcast, blog or Facebook posting on or around Jan. 19 clearly thinks otherwise.

This new reality suggests that we have media challenges at each end of this attention gamut. At the top, voters are inundated with information and analysis and thus act more like educated consumers than political novices. At the bottom, voters may become more susceptible and influenced by fragments of information, thus making them vulnerable believers of false narratives or parody.

It seems to me that this is going to put a premium on the quality and amount of the unfiltered messages the campaigns will need to add to this trough. In other words, advertising.

If your race is part of the top of the trough, you will need to flood this environment with your campaign messages so that they can stick. (Or, to hop out of the trough for a minute, your ads will need to both be the clutter and cut through it.) This will increase the need to be on traditional outlets such as TV and radio, while also monitoring the new digital canals to reposition the popular narrative when it is against you or propel it when it is with you.

Those stuck at the bottom of the trough -- perhaps fighting in some congressional district that hasn't made national news -- will rely on advertising to simply inform and influence voters. Voters at this level risk missing important information about campaigns in their own backyard due to the media overcrowding the trough with other national or other state races that are more entertaining or, God help us, masked in witchcraft. (That's when they're not doing blanket coverage of the latest celebrity meltdown.)

I am sure there are some that say our nation is now better informed about important political and policy issues because of all this access to information, yet it seems to me that most consumers simply get what they're served by national media.

Either way, 2012 will be a challenging environment whichever end of the trough you find yourself on. And campaign managers will likely have to rely more on advertising rather than less.

Evan Tracey is president of Kantar Media's CMAG.
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