WASHINGTON — Washington--Most political news media consultant apparently have concluded that this year's off-year election campaign is nothing to laugh about.
With television political commercials getting such a bad rap fotheir increasingly negative tone, it might have been expected that the folks who make them would turn to humor as a way to defuse criticism that has mounted to a crescendo this fall. By and large, they haven't.
Although here and there a humorous ad has been aired poking fun at an opponent, the war of the television commercials has mainly been fought on a somber battleground, hitting political foes with straight attacks on their records and positions.
The reason, many veteran political consultants and television commercial-makers say, is that the public mood is so serious, and so disaffected from politics and politicians generally, that it would be risky to make light of the state of affairs for the sake of political gain.
"I think America's too nervous to laugh at ourselves right now," said Ray Strother, a prominent Democratic media consultant. "What we're afraid of is that people will think we're too frivolous."
Mr. Strother said that during the Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial primary, he prepared a series of 10-second television spots for former Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti in the form of a "Looney Tunes" cartoon, printing a quotation from John Silber, the eventual winner, and then playing the signature tune from those cartoons after it. In the end, he said, the spots never were used because the campaign's strategists decided they would be taken as too flippant about a serious election.
Scott Miller, another Democratic political ad-maker, said his colleagues "are reading the mind of the electorate as so black that they are tiptoeing." He said voters were so disillusioned with politicians that "everybody's trying to be as bland and straightforward as they can possibly be," to combat voter skepticism.
Mr. Miller told of a focus group -- selected voters sitting around discussing candidates and the state of the country -- of older blue-collar Democratic voters in a Northeastern state absolutely rebelling against commercials that were the least bit manipulative or evasive. Mr. Miller said one such voter after hearing an ad that said a candidate "fought for senior citizens' legislation" demanded to know what "fought for" meant -- did the candidate vote for a specific bill and did the phrase mean it failed?
The ad-makers and candidates, Mr. Miller said, are driven by "the fear they feel" of wrathful voters, so "it's not a good time to trivialize. And nothing would be as flat as a bad joke right now."
Don Ringe, a consultant for Republican candidates, said that by and large this season voters were "too uptight about [Saddam] Hussein, about taxes and the budget. In 1986 and 1988, things didn't seem quite as tense." Another Republican consultant, John Deardourff, said voters were so fed up that "they want more answers to the problems," not trivial laugh lines.
All this is not to say that the airwaves are entirely tickle-proof this fall. One of the big laugh-getters of the season is an ad for Republican Sen. Daniel R. Coats of Indiana to illustrate the importance of legislation he has pushed to bar the interstate shipment of trash, which has been plaguing Indiana landfills.
The ad shows a man in an undershirt puffing on a cigar and holding a large plastic bag of garbage. He drops it as he says: "G'morning. I'm from New Joisey. I think I'll drop this garbage right here. Have a beeaauuteeful day!"
Such ads, several consultants say, may produce a laugh but not necessarily a vote. Mr. Coats' opponent, Democratic State Representative Baron Hill, ran ads in August by Joe Slade White of New York poking fun at Mr. Coats' heavy use of the frank, showing letters pouring out of a mailbox and raining down on two old ladies under umbrellas. The ads got a lot of press comment, but Mr. Coats' big lead in the polls was not significantly reduced.
David Axelrod, a Chicago news media consultant, said voter cynicism had persuaded political ad-makers to be "super-scrupulous" in their commercials, using a lot of type and headlines as documentation of charges, because if they didn't, "people will be intolerant of the message." Newspapers examining and critiquing ads also have led to the more cautious approach this year, he said. So whatever politics is today, it's no barrel of laughs.