Just recently the Association of Independent Creative Editors held a contest for editors in the advertising business. The challenge was to edit a new trailer for a popular film, placing it in an entirely different genre. Forrest Gump became a stalker-thriller. Platoon became a love story. The winner of the contest was Kevin Halleran who created a trailer for The Sound of Music, advertising it as a horror movie à la Village of the Damned. The voice-over of the trailer began rather forebodingly, "A land of innocence, a woman of faith (Julie Andrews) and then an unholy evil (Von Trapp children)." The trailer highlighted previously non-pivotal scenes that would help lend a quality of suspense, such as Mother Superior telling Maria that the children's mother died several years ago, Captain Von Trapp informing Maria that she is the "12th in a long line of governesses," and the children sedately singing "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens ." Halleran's editing strategies manipulated a classic family music into a woman-in-peril horror film that could have well been directed by Roman Polanski.
These editing strategies, which the contest boldly exposed, are used freehandedly by the film industry to market their movies to a general audience. And it works. The trailer narrative for The Butterfly Effect implies that it is about an occasionally shirtless college student, played by Ashton Kutcher, who travels through to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, only for complications to arise which his love will undoubtedly surmount. Had the film been accurately marketed, would people have gone to see a movie in which Ashton doesn't remove his boxers and deals with the psychologically lingering effects of child molestation? All that one loses in this misrepresentation is $7.50 and 90 minutes of his time.
However, the stakes are higher when these editing strategies are applied to the realm of national politics. Rather than a story situated in an imaginary plane being distorted, a nation's history is being revised. This week the Bush campaign announced the launch of an aggressive advertising campaign to get Bush re-elected that is estimated to reach a cost of $60 million by Augustthe most expensive in presidential history. It should be noted that a typical Hollywood movie costs $30 million to advertise.
The four commercials in the pipeline are intended to portray Bush in a positive light to combat the criticisms flung at him by Democrats. The commercials tell viewers that Bush isn't responsible for the waning economy but that economic crisis was beginning once he stepped foot in the Oval Office. In addition, the commercials incorporate visual images of the 9/11 attacks to convey that Bush held a nation together at a time of attack. The commercials unsurprisingly end on the positive note that better times are ahead for the American people, but only if they vote for Bush. These advertisements are designed to trigger a four-year amnesia in the minds of voters making them forget Bush's debacle of a presidency. Suddenly, he is the underdog that rose to the occasion and united a nation, kind of like Seabiscuit.
Were a novice in national politics to watch these advertisements, Bush would seem like a swell guy. What medical reform bill? Isn't the occupation in Iraq a success? What proposed Constitutional amendment on marriage? Granted this is hardly the first time television has been used as a vehicle for one's political career and image. Eisenhower set the trend of televised press conferences in 1955. A dashing Kennedy consolidated the political support of television audiences in the 1960 presidential debate when the flu-ridden Nixon literally turned off audiences, although those that heard it on the radio thought that Nixon had won hands down. And lately democratic presidential candidates have been using television spots to demonize Bush and deify themselves.
Some would say that the Bush advertisements are harmless, completely within his prerogative, and that one should always exercise skepticism toward propaganda. However, these advertisements are not meant to engage one in dialogue but are meant to persuade. They threaten to reduce political autonomy to catchy slogans and bullet points. Furthermore, the encroachment of well-edited advertisements on political thought coincides with the debate on the effects of advertisements on the physical body.
Within the past decade, the fast food and soft drink industries have come under attack for placing advertisements for their products in schools, securing television spots after children's shows, and depicting healthy-looking people consuming their burgers and beverages. The question these debates raise is whether these strategically edited advertisements are influential enoughespecially after being played repeatedlyto supersede an individual's personal choice (electoral, cinematic, dietary, etc.).
The current media landscape we find ourselves operating in only threatens to get worse. It is quite plausible that 50 years from now, the presidential candidates will have a promotional and merchandising deal with Burger King or MTV. Right now though, the question is, what genre will the Bush presidency be edited to occupy? A comedy (Bush during his press conferences)? A teen sex romp (Bush twins)? Or a corporate pot-broiler (Cheney and Halliburton)? The point is that his campaign, necessitated by the media landscape, sees compartmentalizing his presidency as the best method to sell him to the American public. Unfortunately, the genre they are marketing is a warm, uplifting drama purely designed to manipulate emotions and not to stimulate reason.