[EDITORIAL NOTE: If you have written any blog posts on political issues this week, be sure to get links to me by the end of today for the Sunday Election Issues post. If you're wondering what I'm talking about, see this post.]
All too frequently, our culture keeps elders out of visible participation in media culture. Young and beautiful rules.
But I realized recently there's a surprising exception to this norm: a particular genre of political ads. Take, for example, this ad from the No on Prop. 8 campaign which is fighting the initiative to eliminate California's constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.
An attractive older heterosexual married couple plead directly with the viewers: "don't eliminate marriage for anyone," including their gay daughter. I think it is probably pretty effective. What do you think?
This ad is not unique in showcasing elders speaking to values. A story: in 2003 I had the privilege of working on part of the campaign to defeat California Proposition 54. This was a deceptive measure that would have prevented the state from collecting racial demographic information about people who used state programs. Proponents sold it as encouraging "color blindness." A coalition of civil rights advocates worked to defeat it because we feared its consequences: if no demographic data could be collected, it would become impossible to discover if very different populations were getting a fair shake.
In the 1990s, California had an unhappy history of voting for propositions like this. We were experiencing rapid racial diversification and many people weren't entirely comfortable with that, so we were susceptible to appeals to sweep racial classifications under a rug. But on this one, opponents pulled out a sweeping 64 percent victory.
How? We figured out that both the majority white electorate and the emerging communities of color would respond to the same pitch. The message was "by voting on this you'll make a life-and-death decision affecting every Californian. Proposition 54 would block information that can help save lives. It's bad medicine."
We had funds for just one TV ad to deliver that message. So we tested three sets of messengers. One was an attractive middle-aged female nurse. When opinion researchers measure who is trusted by the most people, nurses always rank very highly. We also had available to us many members of the cast of the show ER - then TV's most watched medical drama. So we tried out having them deliver the lines. Finally we tested Dr. C. Everett Koop, the retired Surgeon General of the United States and internet medical entrepreneur. If ever there was an archetypal grandfather, Koop fit the bill. I may not like him much, but I don't deny that.
Our focus groups found Koop by far the most believable messenger, so up he went and we blanketed the state with our ad. (Sadly, this was before YouTube, so I can't show you.) And we won, pretty much everywhere.
So why are visible elders so effective in some political ads? I have some theories.
Obviously, good political ads need to be attractive to elders because we vote much more reliably than other age groups. So it is not surprising that ad creators would show us some of our own.
But also, in a limited way, elders do bring a special authority to some elections that are really contests between conflicting visions of society's values. Most people, at least for the few minutes during which they cast their ballots, bring to elections a kind of civic communal consciousness that may be largely absent from most of our lives. If we vote, we do it in a mood of slightly solemn seriousness. (We often do this with jury duty as well I think.) And elders, despite our youth-oriented culture, bring a certain experiential authority that meshes well with that momentary communal consciousness.
And so, when campaigns are trying to urge people to come together about something that makes them anxious, elders make good spokespeople. And we elders get to see ourselves on TV in those moments.
Here's another specimen of Koop doing his grandfatherly curmudgeon bit for another campaign. Prop. 86 would have socked smokers with a cigarette tax, using the proceeds for health services. Koop couldn't beat the tobacco money that fought that one, but he gave it a good try.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, David Wolfe explains how he found a novel remedy for a malady that afflicts so many, titled Oh, My Aching Back.]