Jokes aside, I'm interested in the intersection of advertising and politics, if only because I've had the following scrap of conversation too many times in the last few months:
So anyway I was surprised to have two different pieces of media back up my half-cocked theory about all good advertising being fear-based in the same week. Unfortunately I don't have clips, but Exhibit A is Roger Dodger, about a womanizing ad exec in New York. (It's not particularly recommended.) Exhibit B is the premier episode of TNT's Trust Me, about a contemporary advertising firm in Chicago. (It's, eh, okay so far. For a much more entertaining and poignant take on Chicago advertising, read And Then We Came to the End by Roger Ferris.)
Liberal Friend: Blah blah George Bush blah "Politics of Fear" blah blah so terrible.
Me: All political agendas are based on fear to a certain extent.
Friend: Nope. George Bush is unique in preying on the fear of the weak-minded electorate.
Me: False. Social security is popular because people are or are made to fear not having enough retirement savings. Protectionism is popular because people are or are made to fear losing their jobs to foreigners. Ditto immigration restrictions. Gun control and gun rights are both sold on the basis of people being made to fear their personal safety, depending on whether you fear too many guns or too few. Energy independence rests on the fear that foreigners will turn off the taps one day. Don't even get me started on the Drug War. We're made to fear our kids being uneducated, our lungs being filled with second hand smoke, our ice caps melting, our planes being blown up by shampoo and shoes, our factories being closed, our toys being made of toxic paint, our food containing trans-fats.
Friend: Yeah sure but Bush is the worst offender of making people fearful.
Me: False. He relies on a standard trick that not only underlies most of politics, but forms the basis of most non-infomercial advertising. Fear your kids won't love you, fear you aren't attractive enough, fear you aren't getting laid enough, fear you'll get sick, fear you'll get laughed at, fear your family isn't safe, fear you're missing out on a better deal.
Oh, yeah, politics. Here are some takes on fear and politics in the stimulus game:
The intermediate-level textbook theory says that at times like these we need a certain kind of policy to steady the economy’s nerves and lubricate consumption and investment. The economics says we need confidence. But political reality says we need panic. So we try to induce panic so that we can later induce confidence. This seems an extremely awkward and implausible approach, but that doesn’t keep anyone from trying it.Michael Moynihan:
President Obama excoriated those politicians employing the "politics of fear" during the 2008 campaign and, from the inaugural platform, asked Americans to choose "hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord" when confronting the current financial crisis. But now that Republican lawmakers have objected to the stimulus package and recommended deeper tax cuts, Obama is telling that such intransigence will lead to economic "catastrophe." The AP, via Huffington Post:
"Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the essential," Obama said as Senate Republicans stepped up their criticism of the bill's spending and pressed for additional tax cuts and relief for homeowners. He warned that failure to act quickly "will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession."
At what point do politicians bear some public accountability for their public statements and the effect those statements have on the economy? I almost want to ask Obama and Pelosi — what is the minimum size of pork-spending bill you will accept so we can just go ahead and pay the money and get you and your cohorts to shut the f*ck up on trying to convince everyone we are in the Great Depression. Because, to some extent, such statements can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Seriously, the biggest stimulative effect of passing this stimulus bill will be, almost without doubt, that it will end the felt need for Washington weenies to create an atmosphere of panic.Jacob Sullum:
[...] I strongly believe that public pronouncements of doom, starting last October with Henry Paulson and continuing now to almost daily excess by Obama (today’s statement: the economy is in a “virtual free fall”) have measurably contributed to job losses in this country. Many people who are on the street without a job today can probably trace their unemployment to “just in case” cuts made more in response to government assurances of doom as on actual declines in output. [...]
As you can see, we have had far more job losses relative to output losses than any major post-war recession. This does not mean that more output losses are not coming, but it means that, perhaps unique to this recession, job losses are preceding rather than following output losses — in other words, job losses are occurring more than in any other recession based on the expectation of output losses, rather than in reaction to them. I wonder who it is that is setting these expectations?
Wow, using panic to achieve political aims and in the process accelerating job losses. And they say we libertarians are heartless!
President Obama's pro-stimulus op-ed piece, which Matt Welch skewered earlier today, displays the panicky, scare-mongering rhetoric we have come to expect from a politician who entered office less than a month ago with a reputation as a calm, cool, and rational weigher of facts:NB The above Wilkinson post also had this splendid line about Paul Krugman: "Krugman’s often unbearable stridency seems to reflect an attempt to overcome the problems of democratic disagreement and incentive compatibility through sheer force of will–as if the deep reality of politics is no match for the rhetorical gifts and gold-plated reputation of Paul Freaking Krugman."
What Americans expect from Washington is action that matches the urgency they feel in their daily lives—action that's swift, bold and wise enough for us to climb out of this crisis.
Because each day we wait to begin the work of turning our economy around, more people lose their jobs, their savings and their homes. And if nothing is done, this recession might linger for years. Our economy will lose 5 million more jobs. Unemployment will approach double digits. Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse....
Every day, our economy gets sicker—and the time for a remedy that puts Americans back to work, jump-starts our economy and invests in lasting growth is now....
These are the actions Americans expect us to take without delay.
Unless he has unpublicized psychic abilities, Obama doesn't really know what "Americans expect." He is telling us what we should expect, based on his own highly uncertain economic predictions. "This recession might linger for years," or it might not. "Our economy will lose 5 million more jobs," or possibly a different number. Obama hedges his bets by saying "unemployment will approach"—but not necessarily reach—"double digits." That much will be true if unemployment rises at all. As for sinking deeper into a possibly irreversible crisis, I'm not even sure what that means. The economy will never recover? We'll experience our first 100-year recession?