Newspaper political ads of old were an art form all their own
I think I know why a growing number of people couldn't care less about local campaigns and elections.
Candidates may knock at your door, or maybe they'll drop off or mail a flyer. Usually, the message that is communicated is, "I'm wonderful, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, vote for me, blah, blah and so forth and so on, blah, blah, blah,"
It wasn't always that way. There was a time when politicians were actually entertaining, and the public just ate it up.
I don't mean that mayoral candidates were trying to channel Milton Berle or that school board candidates were apt to do the can-can at Third and Oak. What I do mean is they allowed us at least a glimpse of their true selves in what they said and how they responded to each other.
This is by no means intended to denigrate the real public service today's candidates, whether victorious or not, play in our communities. The elected positions they are running for are very important, and if they didn't choose to put themselves out there, where would we be? The biggest problem with candidates is we need more of them.
But why do they have to take themselves so seriously or act so darn cautious that they hardly say anything substantive at all?
It's obviously the old coot in me talking when I lament that things were better in the "old days" - the '50s,'60s, '70s and '80s - when candidates' preferred means of getting their message out was newspaper advertising. Now that was entertainment!
A bit of self-promotion, eh? Sure it is, but I hereby affirm, reaffirm and confirm that there is nothing wrong with promoting political advertising in local newspapers. This advertising supports the business operation of a newspaper, which, by the way, helps pay the salaries of local people.
That was a time when in the month prior to election day, the daily edition was packed with political ads. It was the best way for candidates to get their messages across. For the "big" races, like county commissioner, county judge or state legislature, it wasn't unusual for a candidate or a political party chairman to employ a local writer skilled at public relations to write the ads. There were also candidates who took pride in writing their campaign ad copy themselves. Some had a real knack for saying just what the voters wanted to hear.
Some candidates were very skilled in filling every possible bit of white space within the boundaries of the ad, even if the type had to be set so small that readers needed a magnifying glass to decipher it. Others ran huge ads with lots of white space that contained a mug shot of the candidate and a nifty catch-phase in big, bold type, such as, "A Big Man for a Big Job," "Unbossed and Unassuming" or "For Motherhood and Apple Pie, Against Taxes."
If you ever go back and survey the political ads of yesteryear, you will learn that some of them were veritable masterpieces. I'll guarantee you that even on days when there were political ads galore, people took the time to read each and every one of them.
The folks responsible for placement of the ads had to take special care lest competitors in the season's particularly hot race be placed side-by-side.
They might yell "right on" (or its equivalent) when someone took a well-timed crack at the all-powerful political boss or nod their heads in approval when an underdog candidate delivered a well-reasoned riposte to some local know-it-all who thought he deserved to stay in office forever. It was fashionable then for candidates for borough or city council and school boards to run as a team, and sometimes the team gave themselves pithy names - like on the order of "The Really Knowledgeable Ones" or "The Do-ers."
Even if a candidate for a township board or borough council could only afford a small ad, people gave him or her credit for at least caring enough to solicit votes in a newspaper with a general readership. Usually, most people didn't hold the meager size of the ad against a candidate, although occasionally you might hear someone grouse, "That cheapskate. He has still has his First Communion money and all he buys is that puny little ad."
The ads often came complete with photos of the candidates, and that was the best part. Some were smiling ear to ear like matinee idols; others looked serious, as befitting the dignity of the office and the solemnity of the electoral process. There were some candidates who were so pleased with how they looked in 1963, they kept on using the same photos in their political literature all the way through 1987.
Newspaper advertising, in its heyday, enlivened many a campaign by providing an avenue for candidates to engage in a schoolyard brawl while avoiding any imminent threat of actual bodily harm. A candidate's provocative allegation always led to an immediate retort, followed by a "who are you kidding" response and a "your grandmother wears dirty galoshes" follow-up. Much like a serial, readers kept paging through the paper day after day for the latest installment. In the end, it all made you want to help write the ending by going to vote.
Newspaper political advertising is indeed an art form all its own. There has never been a better way for candidates to get their messages out. Most people look goofy on television, flyers are thrown away unexamined, Facebook is lame, roadside political signs are insidious, phone calls are a pain in the butt and door-to-door visits are largely dreaded.
(Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)