November 15, 2008

The Ad Age President Who ‘Killed Election Day’

Note: This column was originally posted at Pajamas Media on Thursday.

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Barack Obama’s presidential victory last Tuesday was a triumph of clever advertising, slick marketing, and clever subversion of the way elections were run in America for over 200 years.

I’m not saying that. Fawning advertisers, marketers, and writers at Advertising Age are.

On October 17, 2-1/2 weeks before the election, Ad Age named the Obama campaign its 2008 Marketer of the Year, beating out the likes of Apple, Zappos, and other household names that sell real products and services to consumers.

As to the marketing techniques, Ira Teiniwitz noted that Team Obama is getting plentiful plaudits, largely justified:

The genius of Obama’s team, led by Mr. Plouffe and senior adviser David Axelrod, and ad group GMMB, headed by Jim Margolis, was its recognition that brand integration has transcended mere marketing to become a blend of technology, targeting, staffing, outreach and fundraising.

But there’s no indication that anyone at Ad Age is even aware that one of Team Obama’s vaunted “technology strategies” involved deliberately disabling its card-processing Automated Verification System, more than likely enabling millions of dollars, if not tens of millions, in untraceable credit-card and prepaid-card contributions, much of it apparently from foreign sources, to pour into the campaign.

The flacks have also declared that Team Obama’s goal of “rebranding” the USA is already a mission accomplished. At least one less than objective observer is feeding the fanfare:

“Overnight it has become fashionable to be an American again, and the whole world is looking at us once again as this beacon of hope,” said Michael Kempner, CEO of Interpublic’s MWW. Mr. Kempner is a member of the Obama National Finance Committee and was once deputy finance chair of the DNC.

“The election and nomination process is the brand relaunch of the year,” said David Brain, CEO of Edelman Europe, Middle East and Africa. “Brand USA. It’s just fantastic.”

Apparently, no one at Ad Age thought to ask how it was that, during the era of the much-maligned Bush “brand,” countries like France, Germany, Canada, and others moved rightward. Also left out of the evaluation were the feelings of the liberated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, there was no discussion of the potential brand impact, if you will, of the nearly instant post-election belligerence and faux pleasantness, respectively, of Russia’s Medvedev and Iran’s Ahmadinejad, whose congratulatory letter to Obama said that “Teheran welcomes basic and fair changes in US policies and conducts.”

But it’s Pete Snyder’s post-election piece on the effect of “early voting” that takes the tone-deaf cake (bolds after the headline are mine):

How Obama Killed ‘Election Day’ and Became President
Axelrod & Co. Understood Time Shifting and Consumer Control

The simple fact is that Obama and his campaign chiefs understood two of the most significant (but little talked about) changes of this campaign cycle:

  1. The election timetable fundamentally shifted from being just about Election Day or even the last 72 hours (as was the rule of thumb for decades) to being decided as early as six weeks in advance.
  2. Due to the seismic changes in how voters get and process information that we marketers have seen for quite some time the voter, just like the consumer, is now in control and thus would be open to making his or her voting decisions earlier than ever.

….. Obama acted quite differently. Having opted-out of his promise to abide by campaign finance laws (which proved to be one of his shrewdest and smartest moves), he went for broke.

Let’s translate:

  • The fact is that Obama broke a promise he made throughout the primaries. He knew that his supporters and the media (but I repeat myself) wouldn’t mind. (Aside: Don’t you love the use of weasel terms like “opt-out” for what is really “lying”?”)
  • This broken promise enabled him to spend tens of millions more than any campaign in history. Complaints about spending, a media obsession in presidential elections for at least the past 30 years when the GOP had the funding edge, were conveniently non-existent this time around.
  • The increase in the number of states permitting early voting meant that millions of voters cast their ballots before a great deal of relevant information was in.

“Early voting” failed to increase turnout. So what was the point? Aside from enabling open and obvious vote fraud (how widespread we’ll never know), the point was to get as many Obama fans to cast their ballots before something came along — including, even in the absence of new information, the sober reflection many voters actually engage in during the final hours before Election Day — to change their minds.

In 2000, a previously undisclosed George Bush drunk-driving conviction became known in the campaign’s final days and raised legitimate questions (Was it serious? Was it a timed and coordinated dirty trick reflecting badly on Al Gore? Was Bush correct to have not disclosed it? My opinions: no, yes, and no; your mileage may vary). If early voting had been available in more states at the time, it’s likely that more than a few voters who voted early for Bush would have regretted that decision.

In 2008, millions of early voters cast their ballots without being aware of relevant and possibly vote-altering revelations about Barack Obama that came out during the final few weeks. These would include the untraceable card contributions mentioned earlier; Obama’s previously unreported January statement that his cap-and-trade plan would “bankrupt” new coal plants; and his “spread the wealth” statement to Joe the Plumber, combined with subsequently disclosed similar sentiments going back at least 12 years.

Not that you’ll ever get many voters to acknowledge that they made the wrong decisions (the marketers call that “cognitive dissonance”) — but given the fact that John McCain closed the polling gap significantly in the race’s final two weeks, it’s not unreasonable to believe that early voting cost him a point or two of the the six by which he lost.

Bush 2000 and Obama 2008 underscore my strong belief that no-excuses early voting is a dangerous travesty, and that voting rules should return to the traditional absentee balloting criteria of previous years. The idea that much closer future elections may be decided by less-than-informed, peer-pressured, convenience-focused, “time-shifting” (and, I would add, “thought-avoiding”) early voters who have, in effect, “killed Election Day,” should be troubling to many. I fear it won’t be.

Dallas Morning News Virtually Ignores Criminal Nature of School District’s Persistent Social Security ID Fraud

Those who don’t understand why paid circulation at major metro newspapers has been declining steeply for at least the past five years need look no further than yesterday’s disgraceful reporting by Tawnell D. Hobbs in the Dallas Morning News (DMN).

The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) has been committing crimes that would cause private companies performing similar acts to be raided and/or shut down: issuing fake Social Security numbers to foreigner with visas and/or illegal immigrants to get them on the payroll.

This is serious stuff. Yet Hobbs and her paper did everything they could to minimize the impact of the story, as seen in these excerpts:

Dallas ISD faulted for using fake Social Security numbers

Years after being advised by a state agency to stop, the Dallas Independent School District continued to provide foreign citizens with fake Social Security numbers to get them on the payroll quickly.

Some of the numbers were real Social Security numbers already assigned to people elsewhere. And in some cases, the state’s educator certification office unknowingly used the bogus numbers to run criminal background checks on the new hires, most of whom were brought in to teach bilingual classes.

The practice was described in an internal report issued in September by the district’s investigative office, which looked into the matter after receiving a tip. The report said the Texas Education Agency learned of the fake numbers in 2004 and told DISD then that the practice “was illegal.”

It’s unclear how long DISD had been issuing the phony numbers, and district officials didn’t know Thursday how many had been given out.

…. In recent years, DISD has hired people from various countries, including Mexico and Spain, to deal with a shortage of bilingual teachers.

….. The fake numbers were assigned as a stopgap to expedite the hiring process, the report says. The numbers were supposed to serve as temporary identification numbers until employees received real Social Security numbers.

….. In July, the district discovered that 26 of the false numbers were in use after matching DISD employee Social Security numbers with the Social Security Administration database. The numbers were already being used in Pennsylvania.

The following obviously relevant words and terms do not appear in Hobbs’s “coverage”: crime, immigrant, felony, identity theft, and fraud. Even the politically correct weasel word “undocumented” wasn’t used. Considering the subject matter, a reporter would have to work really, really hard to avoid using all of these words. But Hobbs was up to the challenge.

In an appropriately titled post yesterday (“Dallas school district committed ‘systemic’ Social Security fraud”), Ed Morrissey at Hot Air had some choice words for the DMN’s poor choice of words, and raised issues that the paper’s reporting seemed determined to avoid:

First, I love the headline on this article: “Dallas ISD faulted for using fake Social Security numbers.” Er, faulted? Social Security fraud is a felony, not a policy disagreement. For that matter, why didn’t the Texas Education Agency report the practice to law enforcement? Their silence arguably makes them accessories to the crime.

Instead of hiring qualified teachers with American citizenship or legitimate residency, DISD recruited people from Mexico and encouraged them to work illegally in Dallas. Had they wanted them to work legally, they wouldn’t have created a process for falsifying Social Security numbers.

Is teaching a job Americans won’t do? Are there no bilingual educators in the US? Or was DISD just unwilling to pay a competitive rate for those instructors and conspired to get cheaper labor through fraud?

Hobbs is following what has apparently become a key commandment of metro reporting: Thou shalt avoid or minimize the significance of any news that might put the city’s school district in a bad light — no matter now shocking, negligent, or criminal. This commandment is one of many that has led to tanking circulations at major metro newspapers. If the papers won’t give news consumers the unfiltered facts, why subscribe to them?

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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Worth noting: Circulation at the DMN declined 9.28% in the 12 months ended September 30. Five other Top 25 metro dailies had even steeper declines.