Imagine our surprise when Pat Boone called us on the telephone Tuesday afternoon. We immediately recognized the famously mellifluous voice, but to avoid any possible confusion with some other Pat Boone he identified himself as “that ‘Love Letters in the Sand’ guy,” so we’re sure he was the real deal. It was only a pre-recorded and robo-dialed pitch on behalf of Republican Sen. Pat Roberts’ re-election campaign here in Kansas, so we didn’t get a chance to chat, but we appreciated the call.
The message stressed Roberts’ record on issues of importance to senior citizens, an important voting bloc and the only one likely to have heard of the octogenarian crooner, so we wondered if we’d been selected for the call because we’re presumed to be part of that demographic. In this high-tech age of marketing techniques political advertisements are tailored to appeal to very specific audiences, and we’d be slightly offended if the Roberts campaign has prematurely put on us on the senior phone list. We’re no spring chickens, and plenty old enough to use such an antiquated cliche, but we’re still young enough to prefer Little Richard’s raucous original rendition of “Tutti Frutti” to Boone’s more sedate cover version and aren’t yet benefitting from any of the federal largesse to oldsters that Roberts has apparently been protecting.
Those high-tech marketing techniques are well suited to the modern media landscape, which has been fragmented into a multitude of segregated niches. For years we have noticed the different political ads that run on the country stations, which have a good ol’ boy-sounding narrator touting some Republican or another’s staunch support for Second Amendment rights, and on the rap stations, where an Ebonics-speaking narrator warns that the Republicans are itching to gun down innocent black youths on the streets and can only be restrained by some Democrat or another, and now that there a gazillion or so cable television serving small slices of the public you’ll find the same method being applied there. If you log on to certain web sites you’ll likely be hit with certain sorts of advertisements, and on distinctly different web sites you’ll see a distinctly message. Sports magazines with a mostly male readership and fashion magazines with a mostly female readership consistently show similarly different political advertisements even when they’re touting the same candidate. If you’ve ever signed a petition opposing abortion your mailbox is probably full of fliers praising some Republican’s pro-life position, and if you inked an abortion rights petition it will be all about some Democrat’s enthusiasm for the procedure. We’re too old for texting and “tweeting” and the rest of the newfangled social media, but we presume that they are also being exploited with the same scientific specificity.
Mass buying occasionally pops a Democratic advertisement up on the Republican web sites we prefer, youthful hipsters such as ourselves get the occasional call from Pat Boone, and the inevitable ineptitude of political campaigns will also make the methods imperfect from time to time. An old school chum of ours is running for the state House of Representatives in our district and has an add running on the local right-wing talk radio station warning that his Republican opponent is intent on cutting taxes and state spending, and although we don’t support his candidacy we still like the fellow enough that we’re tempted to tell him his charges probably aren’t going to scare the typical Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity listener as intended. Somehow we have wound up on the mailing list of a local abortion rights group calling itself “Trust Women,” and the return address on their frequent envelopes always gives us a slight chuckle when we think back on a romantic history that has taught us to be just a bit wary of the fairer sex. For the most part, though, our politics are now played out in specific markets with a specific message.
None of which is conducive to a unified America. Rather than explaining what a candidate can do for middle-aged lesbian Latinas or gun-owning white twenty-somethings or cross-dressing tax protestors or whatever other group that might be watching a certain cable reality show or visiting a particular web site or signing some weird petition or another to chat up the comely young woman with the clipboard, a campaign should be making a case for what he can do for the country at large. The identity group politics that the modern marketing techniques seek to exploit, offering this or that preference or subsidy at the expense of that other hated group, are the cause of much of the country’s current and considerable troubles. The solution will require sacrifices from everyone, and needs to be explained in terms that can be crammed into a 30 second spot that could have run on the old Ed Sullivan Show back when everyone in the country was tuned in. That was back in the Pat Boone days, though, and we’re probably just pining for the old days like old men.
— Bud Norman