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Why Romney's 'Mad Men' Campaign Is Failing

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Last time, I talked about why Mitt Romney didn't care if, as has happened so many times, he was caught lying and flip-flopping. Since then, we've seen his five-network sprint trying to explain Bain Capital, indicating maybe he's starting to care now. Here, I'll talk about why he should.

It comes down to this: the Internet only looks like TV.

In the 1960's, Republicans figured out what TV could mean for political campaigns. As with TV ads for consumer products, imagery would matter a lot more than the reality: you sell the sizzle, not the steak, as the old ad adage (see Ad Age) has it. Joe McGinniss witnessed the transition, and described it in chilling detail in The Selling of the President, 1968. McGinniss quoted Roger Ailes, who worked for Richard Nixon's '68 campaign (and went on to run Fox News):

This is the beginning of a whole new concept... This is it. This is the way they'll be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers.*

It was by controlling his image on TV that the deeply unpopular Nixon finally was able to win the presidency. Ever since, Republicans have campaigned on the lessons they learned about TV back then. For a long time, those lessons served them well.

The trouble is, TV is no longer our culture's dominant medium. It's being replaced by the Internet.

People tend to understand new technology in terms of the technology they grew up with. To people who grew up in the '60s, the Internet just looks like a more advanced, fancier TV. But there are two big differences, which pose big problems for anyone trying to run a Mad Men campaign in 2012:

  1. Unlike TV, the Internet has a memory.
  2. Unlike TV, the Internet makes sharing easy.

TV content used to disappear after each broadcast. That was good for Mad Men campaigners: you could say all kinds of stuff, flip-flopping your head off -- even outright lying -- and within about 30 days, almost no one would remember.

It was also good for Mad Men that TV was hard to share. At first, you couldn't even record it. When VCRs came along, it was still a bother to make more than a few copies. So if you happened to capture unflattering footage of a candidate, the impact was limited to you and a few friends.

But now, almost everything that ever appears in the media stays there forever. And anyone can share it, with an unlimited number of others, instantly and for free.

To those who did grow up with the Internet, these points are so obvious as to hardly need saying. But I don't think they're obvious to Mitt Romney and his team, who often seem like time travelers from decades ago, down to the all-too-perfect Etch-A-Sketch gaffe for which Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom will forever be known. The Etch-A-Sketch is a TV-like toy that dates from 1960.

In asserting that a candidate can safely reverse himself between the primary and the general election, Fehrnstrom is exactly right -- in 1968. And he would still be right in most of the election years since. But he's wrong now, in a way that is proving fatal to Romney's campaign.

Because of the Internet, Romney's reversals of position all exist at the same time, right now and forever, in an eternal present. And because there are so many of them, and because they are so dramatic, they have come to define him. Romney is the Mad Men candidate taken to the absurd extreme: entirely marketing-driven, completely hollow. The fact that even Romney's persona is so amazingly TV-like -- with his bland, anchorman's good looks and sitcom dad mannerisms -- only makes it worse. Sadly for his throwback backers, I'm sure they thought it was an advantage that he appears at all times to be emanating from a Burbank sound stage.

One ad industry wag realized he might as well complete the circle of (artificial) life and turn Romney into an actual product: Mitt Flops, billed as the "politically expedient footwear". Each pair comes imprinted with two of Romney's contrasting postions, for example on abortion:

On Mitt's LEFT foot, he's Pro-Choice and Roe v. Wade should be left alone. On Mitt's RIGHT foot he's Pro-Life and Roe v. Wade should be overturned. It all depends when you ask the question.

Based on the past practices of Romney's ad consultants Russ Schriefer and Stuart Stevens, they think they can husband their cash, let Obama spend his and wait till the general election to do a TV blitz introducing a new, improved Romney. After all, no one remembers the old detergent once the new, brighter one comes out, right?

Yes, they do, nowadays. In what's known as comparative advertising, one product is pitted against another: Brand X vs. Brand Y. Thanks to the Internet, Romney is both. All the Obama campaign has to do is show that ad, over and over.

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*1988 paperback edition, page 155.

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