Forbes has big bucks, but so did the Edsel

January 14, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Steve Forbes, magazine publisher and author of a munificently funded presidential campaign, brings to politics some of the brio of another wealthy American publisher, James Gordon Bennett, who liked mutton chops. A lot.

A regular at a Monte Carlo restaurant that prepared his chops perfectly, he arrived one evening to find his favorite table occupied. So he purchased the restaurant for $40,000, evicted the diners from his table, devoured his chops, then, as a tip, gave the restaurant back to the owner.

Although Mr. Forbes has a lively sense of fun (his motorcycling, balloon-riding father Malcolm certainly had one, and the apple does not fall far from the tree), his lavishness, unlike Bennett's, has a civic purpose. In his campaign, which has a record-smashing ratio of advertising to organizing, he is spending pots of his own money to disseminate his own ideas.

This scandalizes liberal ethicists whose political fastidiousness makes them favor government regulation of campaign giving and spending -- government rationing of political communication.

Mr. Forbes' rapid rise in polls (to second place in many states, behind Bob Dole, and first in Arizona) will be deemed proof that Americans need protection from manipulation by advertising.

The would-be protectors misunderstand advertising, including political advertising, and hence the Forbes phenomenon.

Although advertising is communication unusually candid about its motivation, Americans love to loathe it. As society becomes more complex and opaque, as social processes seem more impersonal and autonomous, and as elites of ''experts'' become more annoying, more people are tempted to think that some ''they'' is manipulating ''us,'' using, among other dark arts, advertising.

''Do we move ourselves,'' asked Tennyson, ''or are we moved by an unseen hand?'' Advertising is about as unseen as a calliope. However, the average person reportedly spends an average of only 2.5 seconds per magazine page and can recall only about two of the approximately 600 television commercials he sees each week. Viewers with remote controls, mute buttons and VCRs with fast forward buttons see fewer and fewer.

If all beer advertising ended, would Americans drink much less beer? Budweiser advertises not to make people thirsty, or to get people to buy Bud rather than Buicks, but primarily to increase jTC market share. Still, advertising is indispensable to a market economy because it serves consumers' efficient choices, supplying information about the existence and price of goods and services.

Liberal critics of advertising (their basic text is John Kenneth Galbraith's 1958 book ''The Affluent Society'') have argued that advertising is so powerful -- meaning Americans are so manipulable -- that big corporations with big advertising budgets can substantially control consumer preferences, and hence can produce demands for whatever products they want to produce. (Mr. Galbraith's book appeared a year after the Edsel.)

Spirit of the nanny state

Therefore production does not satisfy ''real'' wants, it creates ''artificial'' wants. Therefore consumer sovereignty is a chimera, and the displacement of market forces by government choices displaces only frivolous things. Liberalism's disdain for advertising, and for the average American as manipulable, radiates the spirit of the nanny state.

Political advertising in the ''candidates market'' plays a constructive role similar to product advertising. It has enabled Mr. Forbes to make his existence known to a particular group of consumers (likely Republican primary voters) and attractive to a significant number of them.

Advertising rarely produces impulsive action (people do not buy beer in their living rooms) and Mr. Forbes has not yet closed the sale of himself to voters. Anyway, his advertising has a high informational, as opposed to emotional, content. He is not charismatic, but more than any other candidate he stresses today's most popular reform, term limits, and the most intriguing reform, the flat tax.

It is said that half of all product advertising is wasted and no one knows which half. Such advertising is usually disseminated broadly in search of a narrow segment of consumers, the ''heavy users.'' (For example, a small portion of the public buys a large portion of all beer sold.) In that sense Mr. Forbes' advertising has been wasteful. It also has been effective. But it may already have reached the point of sharply diminishing returns.

By bombarding Iowa and New Hampshire with advertisements, Mr. Forbes has found a market niche -- Republicans who are ''heavy users'' of economic ideas. However, his rise may have a low ceiling because of ''consumer resistance'' among cultural, as distinct from economic, conservatives.

The principal purpose of advertising for a new product is to get consumers to try it once. For a new political product, one try -- one vote -- by enough voters spells success. But Mr. Forbes is an accomplished capitalist, and hence a realist, who knows that a significant portion of new products fail, and that in the marketing of presidential candidates, all but one product fails.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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