When you've got them by the feelings, their hearts and minds will follow. Or so the medialogues running the Carter and Reagan TV ad campaigns must think. They're selling the candidates the way TV sells soft drinks, long distance phone calls and bath oil beads; by how good we'll feel when we choose them.
And how bad we'll feel if we vote for the other guy.
How will Carter make us feel? Safe. How will Reagan make us feel? Safe. This isn't so much a campaign as a pacification program. So far, neither side has gotten very drastic though it's been an important part of the Carter feely-weelies to make us feel much unsafer with Reagan than we would with him.
The Carter ads say, sure, things are rotten, but at least you haven't been blown to kingdom come.
As the stars of TV commercials, both Carter and Reagan are assimilated into a mythical advocacy menagerie that includes the likes of Mister Whipple, Madge the Manicurist and Charlie the Tuna. However, each is trying to behave more like Robert Young for Sanka, springing forward with a yummy sedative that will make us feel good even if we are essentially being told that there isn't much hope for a great deal of change for the better.
Probably the most noticed of the Carter ads, created by Gerald Rafshoon and associates, has been the "California Man-in-the-Street" series, in which residents of the state in which Reagan served as governor say they're uneasy with the idea of him serving as president.
These commercials are buzzword medleys meant to capitalize on Reagan's alleged trigger-happiness, an image he got in part by appearing in good guy-bad guy Hollywood movies. We hear the Californians speak of Reagan with words and phrases like "war," "risk" "uneasy" and "shoots from the hip." Most of all, there are fear words: "scares me," scary," "afraid of him."
Carter hasn't been appearing in the negative ads -- only in the positive, chummy, feelgood ones. This kept him presidentially aloof from the stench of battle. But on Sunday night on ABC -- opposite Reagan on CBS in some time zones -- Carter himself made reference to his opponent, noting that confrontation in a nuclear age is "not just another shoot-out at the OK Corral."
The anti?Reagan ads (and speeches) must be working, because Reagan spent the first third of his half-hour talk claiming his views on brinkmanship "have distorted" and said "I hope it will be recorded that I appeal to our best hopes, not our worst fears," though the Carter ads have reported otherwise.
When Carter spoke of nuclear war, the camera moved in for a tight (and badly framed) close-up. But the Reagan camera kept a more respectful and flattering distance, trying to offset the "Grandpa Goes to Washington" Reagan image. Reagan spoke from a hokey, leathery study that looked like the setting for a "100 Beloved Melodies" record offer or a folksy chat about diarrhea.
Reagan can't help looking in these ads like the elderly gentleman who comes on the screen to sell life insurance to people over 65.
Feelings of blessed assurance are imparted in the commercials not so much by spohisticated imagery as by the candidates themselves. They are both soothingly telegenic creatures. Reagan's voice is almost evangelically restful, his manner all come-unto-me and snuggly.
If there's any resemblance between the President Carter in the TV ads and the one who's been living in the White House, meanwhile, it must be coincidental. The commericals invent a new, improved, dewy-eyed and illusory Carter who's as lulling and mellow as hot tea.
The ads aren't selling a national leader. They're selling a national Valium. Carter, who has a tranquilizing yet authoritative television manner, comes across as a combination of Mister Rogers and John the Baptist.
He's at his best playing this preposterous role in five-minute group raps taped and edited on location with apparently real people. At an old folks' home called Woodland Hill, Carter and the elderly hunker down for a soulful chat in which Carter sympathizes with problems but really doesn't promise to do anything about them. Oh, but he's so sensitive. Like Phil Donahue.
One old man tells him, "Mr. President, we have the utmost confidence in you." Carter ads, brazenloy enough, are appeals to blind faith even though the man has a four-year record on which one might think he would be running.
To a group of middle-class women in another group-rap ad, Carter almost concedes the lack of dazzle in his performance. "It takes a while for a leader" to get used to his office, he says, vowing, "I think I'll be a better president in the next few years." Thus those who don't stick with him are quitters.
Also, it is indicated, it would hurt President Carter's feeling to be kicked out by an ungrateful nation.
Obviously being Rafshooned is even better than being Sassooned. You come out smelling at the very least like a rose. Buzzwords in the pro-carter ads include such comforters as "trustworthy, competent and tough," refer to Carter's "quiet manner and deep understanding" and to his dedication, his foresight, his stability and his good sense. Nothing much about his performance in office but then, why bring THAT up?
Like Carter, Reagan is a master of the TelePrompTer. In his long Sunday night soliloquy, there was only near-fluff, and much of the ad (perhaps all of it) was shot in one long take. Reagan also calls upon his actor's training to get misty on cue, near the end of his talks when it's time for a "shining city on a hill" croon. His Sunday night closer was an anecdote of sorts about looking into the faces of young people in Kansas City and feeling all warm and lumpy about it.
But Reagan's ads, supervised by the elusive Peter Dailey, have not been as well-produced as Carter's and Rafshoon and other Carter aides have been able to pull the neat trick of putting the challenger on the defensive instead of the incumbent.
Reagan's ads have also run into some of the same kind of trouble as Reagan's occasional flub-a-dub ad libs. Former California governor Pat Brown, whom Reagan succeeded in office, called a press conference last week to denounce a commercial that claimed Reagan rescued the state from bankruptcy.
Brown accused the Reagan forces of "jimmying the truth" and "deliberate lies" and said the claim made in the ad was "simply not the truth" and "absolutely untrue."
Reagan's ads tend to be on the oldfashioned side and sometimes downright corny, but this may be a deliberate attempt to capitalize on his traditionalist, next-door-neighbor pose. It doesn't seem very imaginative though, to illustrate economic problems with the static charts and graphs of one Reagan ad; a few citizens grumbling to the camera about hard times would make the problems that much more personal and immediate for viewers.
A new series of "Reagan Reports to the Nation" looked like it might imitate Carter's give-and-take sessions with constituents, but in a spot taped at a Chicago school, Reagan did all the giving and a roomful of zombified, immobile students did all the taking.
There have been some oddball Carter ads as well, most prominently a five-minute "Commander-in-Chief" spot designed to counter the impression that Carter is mushy on defense. He's seen in a Pattonesque role during elaborate military maneuvers, with so much stock footage of hardware and weaponry that it looks like the country is preparing for the imminent arrival of Mothra or Godzilla.
For the most part, though, Reagan and Carter, the commercial pitchmen, have remained almost inscrutably low-key and mellow -- like "beautiful music" radio stations. An attempt to force Reagan into a nag-nag Karl Malden posture (What WILL you do?") died at the hands of Reagan's Country-Time Lemonade charisma. The dubious honor will fall instead to independent John Anderson, who has bragged that his TV commercials which have just begun to air, will win him the election during the last two weeks of the campaign.
Both the Carter and Reagan ads are going to get more numerous and, inevitably, more aggressive in the time remaining. After all the icky, friendly persuasion of the feelgood spots, this may, incredibly enough, be something to look forward to. Because polls do indicate that when it comes to the presidential election, millions and millions of voters currently aren't feeling anything at all.