Moderated through wisecracks and unconventional wisdom by online diva Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, the panel--titled "Politically Correct: Getting It Right On The Campaign Trail"--was a fair and balanced mix of experts from the left and right, including former BBDO chairman Phil Dusenberry; The Kaplan Thaler Group's CEO Linda Kaplan Thaler; vice president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Michael Turk; John Hlinko, vice president of marketing and creative engagement at Grassroots Enterprise; and consultant Bernard Whitman, president, Whitman Insight Strategies.
Unlike those who run political parties, the five panelists agreed far more than they disagreed. All despaired over the poor quality of political advertising, the power of fear to win votes, the difficulty of building a candidate's brand in a short time, and the lowest-common-denominator banality of negative ads.
"Political advertising is run by political hacks," Dusenberry said, who disparaged New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Keane, Jr.'s campaign. "They dictate the advertising. And that's why the advertising sucks."
Thaler noted a glaring irony: Politicians can claim anything they want about an opponent--and no one raises an eyebrow. But "if I were to make a claim against Wonder Bread, I could go to jail."
A majority of the session was devoted to complaints about how marketing is demeaning democracy, but it also offered suggestions about how to change the pattern.
Whitman said, "We in the political class assume we can put out a message, and voters will come to us. Actually, we need to figure out how to plug into their lives."
Turk, who had the most experience and success in new media political marketing as eCampaign director for Bush-Cheney 2004, gave concrete examples of how "technology can now move campaigns." He pointed to the GOP's success with micro-targeting voters, based on the brand of liquor they drink, the car they drive, or the cable channel they watch.
Hlinko agreed with the expanding power of online political marketing, but downplayed the value of social-networking sites. All agreed that more time, money and attention should be spent on new media at the expense of the old.
"Online versus traditional advertising--stop wasting time on this debate because both are going to survive," Huffington said. "It's like that old argument of Ginger versus Mary Anne. I say, let's have a three-way."