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How You Look, How You Sound, What You Say

The headline in yesterday’s released Pew survey says it all: “Obama’s Trip: Seen but not Heard.” In an election season where the simplest macros reign (it’s a change election, it’s the demographics, stupid, etc.), another longstanding advertising maxim rules the day: it’s the images and not the content of what you say that people remember.

Lesley’s Parable from 1984 is not one to forget. Lesley Stahl’s nearly six-minute, hard-hitting CBS piece contained image after image of a smiling Reagan and enthusiastic, flag-waving crowds. Delighted, Michael Deaver called Stahl to thank her. “Nobody heard what you said” was the famous comment. In subsequent focus groups, Stahl discovered fewer than 25% of the group could recall what was said in the piece they had just watched.

This is why, while 90% of Americans had heard about the trip and 62% of Americans had heard a lot about it according to Pew’s findings, slightly less than half report having learned anything about Obama’s foreign policy views. Only 15% reported learning a great deal about those views. But they sure did see the images of a smiling and confident Obama in front of massive, American-flag waving crowds. Likewise, I’m sure the McCain ads showing Obama playing basketball with the troops with voiceover about how Obama didn’t visit the troops sent one clear message – hey, Obama visited the troops!

The further Pew finding, consistent with past polls, is that the press has shown pro-Obama bias. Though it inspires derision from Democratic corners (for example, I think a “marvelous ape” rape joke or calling his wife the C-word in public would instantly and justifiably end Obama’s campaign), the idea that the press is giving Obama the free ride is inarguably settled into the public consciousness. By a wide margin, among Democratic (by 18 points), independent (by 36 points) and Republican (by 70 points) voters alike, this is a settled issue.

Among an avalanche of other examples, here you have CBS unethically hiding an importantly dishonest McCain answer on the surge timing vis-à-vis the Anbar Awakening, you have AP Washington bureau chief Ron Fournier writing love notes to Karl Rove and having been in negotiations to join McCain’s campaign press staff, and it’s not even close among Democratic voters that the press favors Obama. That’s called utter failure of the Democratic blogosphere to influence the debate on press favoritism. Democratic bloggers and television analysts need to accept that if they want to fight this battle they need to scrap the entire ineffective strategy they’re using and start from scratch.

That’s if they want to have that fight. Conisder Stahl’s focus group lesson and the one from Obama’s Europe trip. They may just want to sit back and let the images trump all the yapping that isn’t registering anyway.

Update – Tom in comments makes a good point about McCain’s “The One” ad. Go here and watch with the sound off. Consider the imagery, body language, smiling shots of Obama in front of happy crowds and put yourself in the shoes of one of Stahl’s focus group people not listening to what she said. Would you be sure this was an anti-Obama ad?