People don’t like change when it comes to politics.
They’ve widely rejected anything that seems new and inventive, because it makes them feel uncomfortable. While advertisers and marketing professionals have been using Twitter for more than five years now, public affairs campaigns are just now starting to test the tool’s viability on a large scale when communicating with public opinion leaders. The same goes for using humor when talking about the serious issues being debated by lawmakers.
Traditionally, people don’t like their politics to be entertaining. However, we’re starting to see politicians using comedy as a way to make light of flaws in their own public and private lives. President Richard Nixon can be credited as an early adopter of this practice with his appearance on Laugh-In in the 60s. What could be fueling this trend is the fact that more and more people are turning to non-traditional media to get their daily news. In fact, an Indiana University study found young adults see Comedy Central’s satirical news program “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” as substantive as network news.
Comedy works because it simplifies complex issues. It can also be used to trivialize an issue in order to avoid having to debate it. Take President Ronald Reagan, king of the one-liner, who was dubbed “The Great Communicator” and became famous for his use of humor during political debates. One of his most famous lines came after the assassination attempt by John Hinkley Jr. on March 30, 1981. He looked up at the doctors at George Washington University Hospital and said “I hope you’re all Republicans.” His humor worked, because it helped constituents connect with him, and it always had a hint of truth in it.
A recent example of humor in a campaign is the law in Washington State that would require life jackets to be worn by anyone who ventures more than five feet from shore in King County. Opponents of the bill, who feel that the government is overreaching, used the Republican argument against abortion and turned it around on this bill. Above is an ad posted on their Care2 account.
The suggestion that “you should see drowning as a gift” seems funny, right? Well, take that same logic and apply it to the abortion debate. Not as funny, is it?
Another example is the Senate campaign created independently by creatives at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. The campaign suggested we pay U.S. Senators to vote for background checks on gun purchases, leaving us all giggling until the campaign’s creators were threatened with federal charges for attempting to bribe a federal official. The campaign is still going today at www.bribethesenate.com with some modifications and includes a website that lists financial contributions from pro-gun lobbyists to the six Senators who are seen as swing votes in the Senate. Now, instead of collecting donations to be used as bribes, the site serves as a location where advocates can tweet the six lawmakers and ask them to rethink their decision.
Humor isn’t appropriate for all public affairs issues. There isn’t anything funny about human trafficking or schoolchildren who can’t read at grade level. It’s a delicate balance; the humor must be effective without being insensitive or, in some cases, skirting the legal limit. But as much as people want to take their politics seriously, we can all use a good laugh every once in a while.