Viewpoint: I vote for more upbeat election ads

Well, the leaves are turning, and the fleas have come indoors to find my dog, and the kids are picking chestnuts off my lawn, and there's also something else happening that seems to be a phenomenon of the North American autumn.Elections....

Well, the leaves are turning, and the fleas have come indoors to find my dog, and the kids are picking chestnuts off my lawn, and there’s also something else happening that seems to be a phenomenon of the North American autumn.

Elections. And, with them, election advertising.

Here in Toronto, the signs and brochures have appeared for all flavors of local candidates.

On my tv out of Buffalo, n.y., just across the lake, people are running with great energy and volume for governor and senator and judge and Peter-Jennings-knows-what-all-else.

And, they all have one thing in common.

They are all dreadfully, horribly, endlessly, tediously serious.

If they actually have communications strategies attached to them, the strategies must look something like this:

Communications objective – To elect me. Period.

Competitive Advantage – I am scrupulously honest and hard-working, while my opponent is an incompetent crook with his hands in other people’s pockets, and look what he’s doing in there besides.

Consumer Benefit – I will bring paradise to everybody except the people you don’t like.

Reason Why – Either a) I have never had the job before, so I know I can do it better; or, b) I have been in the job for 11 years, however, I have not quite yet been able to bring you paradise because of the jerks and incompetents surrounding me, but, this time, I will.

Tone and Manner – Appropriate to your local neighborhood funeral home, but not quite so wild and wacky.

I just don’t know why this has to be.

In almost every other field of advertising communications, the Bernbachs, Rineys, O’Malleys, Prouks and Harrods have proven that you can deliver a serious message – buy this stuff – without always having to take yourself and your communications so dead seriously.

In other countries, notably Britain, election advertising has been done with a light touch.

The Saatchi & Saatchi empire was originally built on a memorable political campaign for the Conservative Party.

I recall one spot that simply involved a couple of people standing in line for a movie, with the dialogue playing back and forth between movie talk and political talk.

Exchanges like ‘Do you remember the Labour Party in power?’ Answer: ‘The Labour Party in power! Yes! Wasn’t that the Marx Brothers?’

It was fresh, different, effective.

Here in Canada, I’ll bet the single most memorable political spot of the last 10 years (well, okay, not counting that one) was the Liberals’ anti-free trade spot in 1988.

It was the one exception to the rule; it was quite light in tone.

It showed u.s. and Canadian negotiators talking free trade and the Yanks saying, ‘Yeah, it’s okay except for this one line here,’ and erasing the border line between the u.s. and Canada.

It was also fresh, different and effective.

(Yes, I know the Grits didn’t win the election, but I also know the spot scared the color out of a lot of blue neckties.)

Alas, such moments are rare. Several years ago, I was involved in a local campaign on behalf of a maverick candidate named Elizabeth Milchem.

She was an underdog, she was anti-establishment, she was a gadfly on the rump of the council and wanted to fight it from the inside. Okay.

I went home and wrote a campaign line that was direct, memorable, on strategy, and short enough to fit lawn signs.

Its only defect was that it was maybe a little light-hearted.

It was: If you can’t lick ‘em, Milchem.

I took it to a meeting, and presented it to a committee, and got that famous reaction that all decent creative people know only too well.

Absolute silence. Punctuated by uncomfortable ‘heh-hehs.’ Finally, capped by, ‘Yes, John, that certainly is interesting, we’ll take it under consideration, perhaps even test it.’

Yeah, right.

Milchem played it straight, and Milchem lost.

Those two facts may not be related at all. But, then again, maybe they are.

I believe that in these days when ‘politician’ is fast becoming a synonym for ‘axe-murderer,’ that some daring soul would do very well by taking his or her campaign to Pirate Radio or Vaughn Whelan instead of to The Committee Enforcing The No-Smile Dictum.

I guess I have just a two-word slogan for everybody in Ottawa and Washington, and for their local and regional imitators.

Lighten up.