Political campaigns

Steve Cottrell shows don’t say an effective tool for political campaigns

St. Augustine Record – USA TODAY NETWORK

The best advice for budding authors can be summed up in a familiar three-word adage: “Show, don’t tell.” Authors should appeal to the emotions and imagination of the reader, rather than simply providing bare facts. To “tell” a description, you could write “Joe is blind”, but if you want a description that will “show” the same person, you could write “Joe tripped for a second, his white cane hitting the fire hydrant which encroached on the narrow sidewalk.

Show, don’t tell is also an effective tool for political campaigns. Maybe you’re old enough to remember a 1964 campaign ad for Lyndon Johnson that featured a three-year-old girl standing in a meadow, counting aloud as she plucked petals from a daisy, followed by a narrator counting until a nuclear bomb explodes on the television screen and we heard LBJ say, “These are the stakes: creating a world in which all of God’s children can live, or go into darkness. Either we have to love each other or we have to die. It was meant to remind voters that Barry Goldwater had said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.

The 60-second spot was so shocking it only aired once nationally, but is now considered by many political buffs to be the most effective campaign ad ever produced.

Steve Cotrell:Will the sales surtax measure be satisfactory for St. Johns County voters?

Election results:St. Johns County penny sales tax was overwhelmingly rejected

Or maybe you remember the 1988 TV spot for George H. W. Bush which featured convicted black felon Willie Horton, who, while on experimental leave from a Massachusetts prison, raped a white woman and attacked her boyfriend? The ad was brutally racist and portrayed Massachusetts Governor George Dukakis as a crime-soft presidential candidate.

These are two examples of extreme “show, don’t tell” national campaign ads –– one from each political party –– but they can also be an effective approach for local campaigns.

Several years ago, wanting to help a friend get elected to city council, I had her pose in the middle of a potholed street alongside a respected longtime resident. They knelt behind a large pothole, holding pieces of broken asphalt in the palms of their hands as they stared sternly at the camera. Then, a letter with the photo was sent to voters with a catchy title: “This is unacceptable!”

A few days later, we snapped another photo – this time showing the contestant and her teenage daughter walking through waist-deep grass and berry bushes that had salvaged a short trail that cost $12,000 two years earlier but was not in use. Showing how it had deteriorated due to mayoral negligence gave the candidate another “This is unacceptable!” mail.

Next, we featured a policeman standing next to a graffiti-affected elementary school wall. We made sure the officer wasn’t in uniform, but he was the most popular cop in town and didn’t need his blue shirt, badge, belt, or name included in a third mail with a “This is unacceptable!” title.

The candidate won the election by using a “show, say nothing” approach to highlight three important local issues: infrastructure, waste of taxpayers’ money and public safety.

I remembered the show, don’t tell concept as I watched recent TV commercials, read emails, and received glossy mailings in support of the Penny Plan — the proposed sales surcharge of a cent who suffered a resounding defeat on November 8.

Rather than show, don’t tell, the ad campaign was primarily tell, don’t show. I don’t know how much money has been spent promoting the Penny Plan measure, although the six figure average wouldn’t surprise me. But given that there was no organized opposition group, his humiliating defeat –– 37% yes, 63% no –– was a political boost.

After such a deadly defeat, a similar measure is unlikely to appear on a St. Johns County ballot anytime soon, but if it does, those supporting it need to remember three words: Show, don’t tell.

Show a house on fire with firefighters trying to control the blaze and remind voters that a surcharge would lead to better fire protection. Show a congested traffic intersection (take your pick) with cars backing up in all directions and remind voters that a surcharge would help remedy the problem. Show young people walking down a path along a busy road with no sidewalks, carrying books and backpacks as they walk to school, and explain why more sidewalks are needed to protect children and make life easier for the elderly.

In other words, produce TV commercials and direct mail that show, don’t tell, because tell, don’t show the Penny Plan approach certainly didn’t work, did it?

Steve Cottrell is a former small-town mayor, president of a chamber of commerce and editor of a weekly newspaper.