TV ads feel different this cycle, and are

Alessandra Stanley has an interesting essay in today’s Times Week in Review section that looks at the humor in many political TV ads this season, suggesting that

 “In a culture where growing numbers of viewers say they get their news from “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” and at a time when anything shocking or amusing on television can be downloaded and e-mailed instantly, candidates are co-opting the YouTube revolution.”

She is on to something here.  Surveying the ads this cycle it is clear that many more of the most memorable ads we’ve seen is a candidate, or other “real” people, speaking directly to camera.  Think of Harold Ford's great ads, or the Tester/Schweitzer ad mentioned in Stanley's piece, the wonderful ads from Women's Voices Women Vote or Michael J Fox. They are attempting to be more real, more intimate, more authentic.  And they connect. I think humor has been used this cycle not as an end in itself, but as a way of connoting that the message is real, and “not political.”

This new attempt to connect to people in more meaningful ways I think has come for two reasons.  First, as she suggests, the broadcast era of political communications is exhausted, and a new rapidly changing digital and personal age is emerging.  This new age is still very nascent, and what we are seeing is the first of a new wave of efforts to connect to an audience that is no longer as open to traditional 30 second spots or broadcast media norms.   These direct to camera ads are in essence an acknowledgement that it is getting much harder “to break through.”

Second, people are deeply unhappy with the current direction of the country, are seeking a “new direction,” and want to better understand what is happening to the country they love.  The Bush era, with its failed government, extraordinary spin (lying) and disconnect from what people perceive to be the reality of the day, is leaving people wanting “straight talk,” authenticity, realness, leveling.  They want to better understand what is happening, and are looking for leaders to show them the way – and not manipulate them.

Both of these trends taken together would lead one to believe that what voters want more than anything else these next few years is a more direct, honest, authentic politics.  They know the country has gone off course, and are looking for a real and better path forward, and leaders who can take us there.  The Bush era has also given them new tools to detect “truthiness,” or the appearance of authenticity and realness as opposed to its actual existence.

Above all else I believe what this means is that in the next few years the two parties and their leaders will need to say what they believe and believe what they say, or will suffer their own “macaca” moment – a moment when the mask comes off, reveals the true person underneath and shows that it has all been a big show.  “Political positioning,” or playing to the polls, isn’t gonna cut it in what Stanley calls the “YouTube revolution.”  This is a time for real vision, leadership and powerfully held beliefs.