• U.S.

It Just Wasn’t That Simple

2 minute read
Richard Zoglin

For a presidential candidate who scarcely seemed to exist outside the TV studio, it is fitting that Ross Perot’s most enduring legacy may be in the realm of media, not politics. Not only did he help make talk shows like Larry King Live the venue of choice for national campaigning, he also revitalized the TV infomercial.

In an age of sound bites and imagemakers, the paid political program has acquired an earnest but dreary air. The form has survived primarily as a weapon for fringe candidates like Lyndon LaRouche and as an election-eve ritual for major-party candidates, who by then are usually preaching to the converted. Perot, however, made half-hour political ads the centerpiece of his campaign — with astonishing success. His first program, a lecture on the economy that aired in early October, drew a higher rating than the baseball play-off game it preceded. Though ratings dropped for subsequent broadcasts, Perot’s month-long mini-series still did better than many network prime-time shows.

Perot’s inexpensively produced ads — usually featuring the candidate with a pointer and a set of charts — were easy to make fun of. They were frequently sloppy: a Perot graphic in one referred to the “Forbes 500” instead of the Fortune 500. They used hokey, pseudojournalistic techniques: an interviewer in a pair of biographical ads set up the candidate with questions like “Ross, can you remember the first time that you spoke and people paid attention to what you said?” Often they were downright wacky. In his election-eve effort, Chicken Feathers, Deep Voodoo and the American Dream, Perot scoffed that most of the jobs created in Arkansas under Governor Clinton were in the poultry business. “If we decide to take this level of business-creating capability nationwide,” he said, “we’ll all be plucking chickens for a living.”

But their very crudeness was the source of their appeal. Perot’s infomercials were an antidote to politics-as-usual slickness — proof that voters will sit still for a straightforward discussion of issues. They were, moreover, a startling break from the programming-by-commi ttee blandness that dominates network TV. Like those late-night ads for cellulite treatments and baldness cures, they had the tacky verve of a one-man band. The notes were occasionally jarring, but you sure knew who was making the music.

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