If you polled a group of Americans, they would be unlikely to tell you that they are passionate about eating supersized portions of junk food, spending their credit cards to the limit and having their intelligence assaulted as every product ever made is marketed by a youthful, airbrushed supermodel in a thong bikini with a midriff that can only exist in nature through intensive workouts with a personal trainer, three meals a day made up exclusively of rice cakes and the occasional voluntary hunched-over heave.
Yet if you put a plate of chips, fries and Snickers bars on a table, we will munch it down like we’re extras in a Cheech and Chong movie. At this point, most Americans would probably drink shots of partially hydrogenated fat. Pretty much all of us are in debt up to our eyeballs. Even the wealthy figure out some way to overpay their credit card companies. And the pervasiveness (from destroying popular music to taking over sports to making it impossible for the average teenaged boy to function at all) of the hardcore midriff cannot be disputed.
Political and pop pundits love to tell us what we like and don’t like and then express shock when we somehow seem to behave in the opposite manner. Well here is a bulletin. We don’t think any of the television analyses are on the mark. We just like listening to them. In fact, we enjoy them even more when they are bad. Or better yet, bad for us.
So when we hear, year after year, that we Americans are tired of negative political ads, we just quietly giggle to ourselves. Sure, we say we’re tired of them. We say we want the focus of electoral politics to be all about healthcare, education, terrorism, jobs and whatever other issues to which we supposedly devote such a large portion of mindshare.
But we lie. We love negative ads. We love the game of politics much more than the substance of the issues. We are on every level a nation of substance abusers. We abuse anyone who focuses too much on substance and reward those who can come up with a really good (and ultimately meaningless) one liner. Think of all of the most memorable or effective moments in presidential debates. Reagan’s joke about the youth and inexperience of his opponent. Nixon’s flopsweat. Dan Quayle being reminded that he is no John Kennedy.
And remember the unbelievable, election-changing moment when one candidate introduced a new and exciting plan to reform education in this country? Oh, and remember that time when a personal attack went too far and backfired causing the electorate to abandon a candidate. Of course you don’t.
And we really don’t care all that much about the validity of the personal attacks. When it comes to politics, each of us becomes an individual Al Davis, sitting in a darkened room wearing an outdated sweatsuit and bad sunglasses muttering over and over in the direction of our television screens: “Just win baby.”
So while it may surprise some of the cultural and political experts that the attacks on John Kerry’s military record are starting to take a toll (even though almost all of the charges have been debunked and even though popular folks like John McCain have blasted them over and over), it really shouldn’t. A recent LA Times poll makes it pretty clear that more of us find ourselves questioning John Kerry’s Vietnam experience, his honesty and his suitability for the gig in the Oval Office.
Do we all sort of know that the ads are absurd? Sure. Would we acknowledge the fact that there is much more dishonesty on this issue coming from those who oppose Kerry? Of course. Would we be willing to admit that it is totally absurd to even compare the Vietnam era record of Kerry with that of Bush? Obviously. We couldn’t be that dumb, could we? That’s not really the point.
O.K., so you fought for a few months in Vietnam. Good for you. Come up with a way to turn that into a snappy one-liner or to use it to debilitate your political opponent, then we’ll talk.
We know we are far from immune to reacting to things in a way we know is nuts. We spend billions on weight loss programs and consistently gain weight. We say we want to talk about issues, but we obsess over gamesmanship instead. We admire truth telling, but we respond to lies. We speak of the future, yet fixate on the past. And sometimes, when we are really looking to throw the experts for a loop, we pretend that we don’t like negative advertising. The truth is that the only thing we like more than negative advertising is negative advertising that features a supermodel in a thong bikini and comes with fries.