Bill Moyers examines the power of professional pollsters in shaping public opinion. In the hands of campaign consultants, the sophisticated techniques of market research become tools of persuasion and politicians wind up finding out what we think, so they can tell us what they think we want to hear.
WATCH A CLIP
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Yesterday the pollsters asked us whether we approved of the President’s performance. Tomorrow, they’ll ask us what we want to see on the evening news. Pollsters want to know everything and they spend over $2.5 billion a year to find it out. It’s worth all that money to them because it makes money. It even makes presidents. But, does it make a democracy? The basic text of our political system, the Federalist Papers, anticipated a government of reflection and choice.
Forget it. Fifty years ago, Dale Carnegie wrote a new bible for American politics and caned it How to Win Friends and Influence People. In it he said, “When dealing with people, we are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.” This famous evangelist of persuasion went on to say that the an of human engineering, as he called it, requires an ongoing appeal to the emotions. The opinion industry lives by this gospel that it s easier to motivate the heart than the mind, easier to stir up our feelings than our thoughts. Vanity, love, anxiety, hope — these sell cake mix and toothpaste and foreign policy, too. Tell us how you feel, say the pollsters, politicians, advertisers and Journalists. Tell us what you want, wish, value and fear. Ten us how you feel so that we can make you feel better. And tell them we do.
MAN: You know, for a democracy to work, you have to put up with surveys because leaders, capitalists, people in charge have to know what Americans are thinking and what they’re buying and what they’re not buying. So, surveying
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] To find out what Americans are thinking and buying, and how they feel about their purchases, companies like Proctor & Gamble, Anheuser-Busch and Kellogg’s have enlisted 3,500 families here in Au Claire, Wisconsin. Fred and Cheryl Poss and their children Nicholas and Cherianne are among those who take pan m behavior scan. From a hilltop post, behavior scan sends special commercials to the test families. A company called Information Resources Incorporated designed this system to help advertisers find out which television commercials convince consumers to try their products.
CHORUS: [TV commercial] — a double pleasure is waiting for you. Doublemint Gum.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Computer units on the home television set then record for behavior scan which ads each family watch.
ACTOR: [TV commercial] If you love to travel —
FRED POSS: There you go. There’s a good one. Mega-force. It’s controlled at a place remote from us by people whom we don’t know. So, obviously since their
Intentions are not known to us, there are times that we’re being experimented upon.
CHERYL POSS: I think I’m aware of the fact that they’re directing commercials at me.
NICHOLAS POSS: Is this a good commercial, Mom?
FRED POSS: That’s a mini-drama. It’s a whole story. I can’t help but kind of get caught up in the little drama. Here’s my kind of favorite commercial.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Advertisers know that we remember and we react to stories that touch a personal chord. Feeling’s the thing.
CHERYL POSS: Commercials that appeal to the emotions do have an effect and especially I see myself as a working mother and there’s a commercial with mom making cookies from scratch. You know, and the little chocolate chips are dancing on the shelf and I’m thinking, that’s what I should be doing. And we operate on so much guilt as it is, they’re saying, you know, do this or you’re going to feel even worse.
FRED POSS: And a commercial that speaks to that — that hits them where they live — is going to be very powerful, very persuasive. If I can get this cake, cake mix, this instant thing that I can put in my microwave and get all this affection, at least for a little while, they’ll buy that product. I don’t think we need any powdered drinks.
CHERYL POSS: No. No. No. Suddenly Salad. All righty.
FRED POSS: Have you ever tried that before?
CHERYL POSS: Not-This is new. A new adventure.
FRED POSS: How do you know that it’s good, Nick.
CHERYL POSS: Pan of the reason we joined was the novelty — seeing the new products. So, if I’ve seen an ad and I see it on the shelf, my reaction is, yeah, let’s give this a try.
FRED POSS: I don’t think your favorite would have spinach.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Cheryl and Fred know that behavior scan keeps a complete record of everything they and the other test families buy.
CHERYL POSS: Well, we were going to get two.
FRED POSS: Okay. By golly, I kind of like the opportunity to vote thumbs up or thumbs down on the way some of the things are sold to us.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Each purchase is a vote.
CHERYL POSS: I have a Hotline number: 318071.
FRED POSS: Nicky, watch out.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Their personal number is entered into a store computer which sends a list of every purchase to behavior scan headquarters in Chicago.
FRED POSS: What’s the best choice here. What do we want to tell Big Brother who is listening to this choice.
CHERYL POSS: Well, we have no idea where that data goes once it enters that computer. I would, at some point, like to know how these results of their surveys are being used.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Behavior scan tracks the products bought by a family to the TV commercials watched by the family. This establishes a vital connection for the hidden persuaders in the advertising industry.
JACK HONOMICHAEL, Columnist, “Advertising Age Magazine”: What you Ire seeing there is being done by people who are trying to get the advantage on their competitor. They literally believe knowledge is power.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Jack Honomichael writes the market research column for Advertising Age magazine.
JACK HONOMICHAEL: There’s no such thing as knowing too much about your perspective customer, their dissatisfaction with the products that are on the market, their-what they’re looking for, latent needs that haven’t been filled. It isn’t trivia. To them, it’s life blood.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Latent needs: the need to look beautiful; to feel younger; to be popular; the need for security or status or success; the need for love. Madison Avenues has made an industry out of the heart’s desire.
PAULA DRILLMAN, Director of Strategic Planning, McCann-Erickson Advertising: I think people have emotional attachments, different types of emotional attachments, perhaps, but some type of an emotional bond to almost any product you can think of.
Okay, my name is Paula Drillman and I’m your moderator for today and we’re going to be talking about a lot of different things this morning but before we stan —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Paula Drillman is director of strategic planning at the McCann-Erickson Advertising Agency. She has invited these ten women to a focus group to find out how they bond emotionally with cake mix.
PAULA DRILLMAN: Today, we’re going to be talking about baking. How many of you bake? Raise your hand. Everybody bakes except me. So, you’re going to have to help me out cause I don’t know all these things. You’re going to have to educate me. Okay.
We have to identify who is the prime prospect for our particular product and then we have to find out what are the Psychological motivations. And, if you can accomplish that, then, we think, you’ve hit the gold mine. It’s that emotional bond that you create. It’s how people feel about your brand.
I want everybody to tell me the first thought — I’m going to go around the room — that comes to your mind when I say to you, how do you feel when you’re baking. Rebecca.
WOMAN: I’m a good housewife, I bake.
PAULA DRILLMAN: You’re a good housewife.
2nd WOMAN: I feel good ’cause I know that whoever is going to be walking through the door is going to have a big smile on their face. From the hall, they smell it. They try to figure out which one is it, you know. And then they come up and they’ll say, “Oh, what’s that? Is that the chocolate chip or is that the peanut one?” And, you know.
PAULA DRILLMAN: So, you feel good…
2nd WOMAN: I feel good —
PAULA DRILLMAN: — about yourself?
2nd WOMAN: Oh, yeah. Well, not so much about myself but I know that they’re going to come home and they’re going to be happy.
PAULA DRILLMAN: The motivation could be almost any emotion you can think of, they felt better about themselves as mothers. And then how does it make you feel?
3rd WOMAN: Very good. Very good.
PAULA DRILLMAN: In what way?
3rd WOMAN: That I’m — Well, that I’m doing something a little extra special.
PAULA DRILLMAN: A little extra special. Diane.
4th WOMAN: For me it’s fun because I usually do it with my 5-year-old so it’s a project when we do it and it’s a lot of fun. She enjoys it and so do I.
PAULA DRILLMAN: If you’re baking with your child, the end benefit of that goes way beyond whether the cake is going to be moist or not. The product part of the equation should get just as much emphasis — equal emphasis — as the emotional part of the equation. The challenge for creative people is to find a brilliant execution that does both seamlessly so you can’t even-as a consumer, you don’t know they’re telling you two things but they’re all together in one brilliant execution.
GIRL: [TV commercial] I’m going right upstairs. I’ve got a lot of homework.
2nd GIRL: I got my lot of homework, too. Oh, what’s that?
ACTOR: [singing] Chocolate fudge and chocolate mousse —
ACTOR: [singing] — can’ t help myself. It’s nothing —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Advertising aims at our affections — the persuasion of the heart. Mother and daughter, father and son.
FATHER: [TV commercial] How did it go on the new job, son? SON: Not bad. You know, they asked me to a meeting today.
RICHARD WIRTHLIN, Pollster For President Reagan: The son versus father interaction. The pride taken in producing an honorable bill of worth. Those are fairly strong and good messages. You persuade by reason but you motivate individuals by tapping into values that run much deeper.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Richard Wirthlin has found in those values a lot of strong messages for clients like General Motors, General Foods and Mattel Toys. But, when he was named Advertising Man of the Year for 1980, it wasn’t for any product you could drive or eat or give to a 4-year-old. Wirthlin was honored by his peers for his role as director of consumer research for Ronald ! Reagan. This is what Ad Age called his marketing campaign.
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: What we did in 1980 was measure attitudes toward the issues and attitudes toward the candidate but go beyond that and see if those could be linked in any reasonable rational fashion to peoples’ values. And again, it’s in this higher level of values and emotions where you really do understand what things are driving behavior.
RONALD REAGAN: We didn’t discover our values in a poll taken a week before the convention.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] No, the polling, the research, had actually taken years. Wirthlin had been prospecting the public psyche looking for what glitters.
RONALD REAGAN: I believe that God put this land between the two great oceans to make it a brilliant light beam of freedom to the world.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The language of values is the language of emotion.
RONALD REAGAN: There’s no sweeter day than each new one because here in our country, it means something wonderful can happen to you.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] A language in which issues were spun round with feelings.
RONALD REAGAN: Just let me know and I’ll be there as long as words don’t leave me and as long as this sweet country strives to be special during its shining moment on earth.
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: The view that we took was let’s view the electorate, not in terms of demographics — age, income, occupation, race — nor in terms of geographic. units, but in terms of the values that are driving people’s motivations. You tap into emotions.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Reagan’s America, as mapped by Wirthlin, was to be found not in states or regions but in the precincts of perception. Reagan was blue, Mondale red. In April of 1984, sympathy and caring were in the red camp, Democratic territory. So, Wirthlin set out to close the feeling gap.
WOMAN: [TV commercial] I know that President Reagan is a caring man, that he cares about old people and —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] If old people, women and minorities worried that Reagan’s policies hurt them, Wirthlin could change the perception without Reagan having to change the policies.
MAN: [TV commercial] Vote my conscience, huh? Okay. President
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] By August, Wirthlin could color Reagan sympathetic but the President still had another perception problem.
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: We identified this issue, the difficulty of convincing a fairly sizable block of Americans, that he wasn’t dangerously at the edge of using military force to the detriment of our country.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] A sizable block, in fact, did think Reagan might get us into a war. Voters were worried by a saber rattling in Central America and by his militant rhetoric toward the Soviet Union.
RONALD REAGAN: Let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modem world.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Wirthlin answered the problem with an ad.
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: You can change perceptions. That’s what communication is all but. Three creative teams came back with about 12 different ads. We then viewed those ads. We selected three of them. We tested them in focus groups and while there was risk with the bear ad, we felt it was worth the risk.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It was a message to make an adman proud. A brilliant execution.
ANNOUNCER: [TV commercial] There is a bear in the woods.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] First, Wirthlin identifies an ambiguous situation. We know the enemy is there but we don’t know his intentions.
ANNOUNCER: [TV commercial] Some people say the bear is tame, others say it’s vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who’s right, isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear, if there is a bear.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Then he offers the ambiguous, but costly, solution more sabers, less rattle.
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: It was a message by parable and the viewer had to read into that something that was never very clearly articulated.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Wirthlin knew the message would move voters because it had already moved a test audience. It’s an old Hollywood technique. Success is what the audience will watch
DAVID POLTRACK, Senior Vice President, for Planning and Research, CBS: Most everyone on this side should have a yellow ticket.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Politicians now test their performances using the techniques created by entertainment executives for rating dramatic performances. Mr.
DAVID POLTRACK:Okay, if I can have your attention now. Now, I’m going to play an audio tape which describes the pushbuttons. It only takes about two minutes and then we’ll get right into the screening.
ANNOUNCER: You cannot, as a rule, talk back to the producer but perhaps what you didn’t know is that television producers want to hear your opinions just as much as you want to express them.
DAVID POLTRACK:And the research tells you, hopefully, not only where this show stands but, perhaps, what it is about it that is keeping it from being successful.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] David Poltrack is senior vice president for planning and research at CBS. His department looks for those new programs that can establish the same kind of emotional bond with the audience that has brought other shows back for season after season.
ANNOUNCER: As the World Turns —
DAVID POLTRACK:[voice-over] I think television has a responsibility to reflect the values of the constituency it serves and to provide a communication link that allows for those values to be shared.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] CBS decides which values will be shared in their primetime programs by running them by a test audience. They gather a roomful of tourists passing through Los Angeles and outfit each one with a pair of push
MAN: Please take the pushbutton with the green top in your right hand and the one with the red top In your left hand. By pressing the buttons, you’ll let us know what parts of the program are good and what parts are poor. Now, just relax and view the show.
ACTOR: [TV clip] Drop your gun, police.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Twenty-five pairs of thumbs produce a second by second graph of audience feedback. Network executives can pinpoint exactly which
moments left the audience cold and which caught fire. The device is so simple
and so graphic that it’s a natural for news division.
ANNOUNCER: — studio there and NBC’s Connie Chung has been watching them watch the debate with a handheld meter in which they’ve been registering their reaction.
CONNIE CHUNG: There are 90 people behind me, an audience that was invited here, registered voters. They were each given a meter like this one. If they thought that Bush made a favorable or a good point, they would turn their dial to the right
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] NBC displayed the test results at the bottom of the screen.
Governor DUKAKIS, Massachusetts: He says he wants to give the wealthiest one percent of the people in this country a five-year, $40 billion tax break.
ANNOUNCER: It’s called Consumer Choice Analyzer System.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] A local Seattle station used it to rate their senatorial debate.
ANNOUNCER: About how each candidate is doing every second of ,he debate. Our survey group of 48 people chose Slade Gordon as the winner in last night’s debate, 56 percent of those surveyed liked his style over Adam’s 38 percent.
2nd ANNOUNCER: What we have here, friends, is a horserace.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The producers like it so much that they use the Consumer Choice Analyzer System when choosing a new anchorman.
ANNOUNCER: KOMO News 4 is next.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Political fundraisers, like William Bateoff, use the system to evaluate political candidates.
WILLIAM BATEOFF, Political Fundraiser: I think that this is a way, maybe, to help the Democratic Party, or Democratic candidates, become stronger in dealing with the media.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] And Richard Wirthlin used it to improve Ronald Reagan’s performance. In this tape, paid for by the Republican National Committee, Wirthlin graphically traces the emotional ups and downs of people watching the State of the Union address.
RONALD REAGAN: And there’s one lesson that has come home powerfully to me, which I would offer to you now. Just as those who created this republic pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor so, too, America’s leaders- —
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: Individuals have a handheld device and they give an instant response to what is being-what they’re seeing and what they’re hearing.
RONALD REAGAN: An America whose divergent, but harmonizing, communities were a reflection of a deeper community of values — the value of work, of family, of religion and of the love of freedom that God places in each —
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: People have a small device. It has A, B, C, D, E and F. If they feel good about what is being said and supported, they push the A button, somewhat B.
RONALD REAGAN: Tonight, then, we’re strong, prosperous, at peace and we are free. This is the state of our union.
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: If they completely disagree, they push the E and the F buttons.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] As the line rises or falls, the speech writer can see where her prose soars or where his ideas plummet.
RONALD REAGAN: Our funding request for our Strategic Defense Initiative is less than two percent of the total defense budget. S.D.I. funding is money wisely appropriated and money well spent.
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: It’s that you can see precisely what words, phrases, ideas are getting support and which are being rejected.
BILL MOYERS: [interviewing] Right down to the precise words?
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: The goal is to discover those power phrases?
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: It’s to fine-tune your communication messages. That is, it’s to develop what we call power phrases that capture the essence of what you want to communicate in the most compelling and positive way.
RONALD REAGAN: This may be the most radical thing I’ve said in seven years in this office —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] And once the research identifies one winner.
RONALD REAGAN: There are a thousand sparks of genius in 50 states and a thousand —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It can write another.
GEORGE BUSH SR: Even a thousand points of light, this is my mission and I will complete it.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] What works is what sells so naturally polling tries to find out what we’ll buy. Sparks of genius, points of light, it’s all just a market strategy. When Ronald Reagan met with is advertising team in 1984, he said, “I understand you’re selling soap and I thought you’d like to see the bar.” Well, that old cliché is true. There Isn’t much difference nowadays between selling a product and selling a president. Political personalities and political ideas are just merchandise in the marketplace. What we buy, of course, is not always what we get.
[voice-over] For nearly 20 years, Americans have been asking for clean air and clean water. For 20 years, American politicians have been talking about cleaning up the environment. For 20 years, the environment has been getting worse. It was an issue again this year in the New Jersey governor’s race.
STANLEY GREENBERG, Political Pollster: Let me tell you about what this is all about cause this is called a focus group. It is a- political pollster for the Democrats. While he works with these voters in Paramus, New Jersey, his colleagues are watching from behind a one-way mirror.
BILL MOYERS: Stanley Greenberg is a political pollster for the Democrats. While he works with these voters in Paramus, New Jersey, his colleagues are watching form behind a one-way mirror.
STANLEY GREENBERG: Our goal was really to talk through, I mean honestly and openly as best we can, about the subjects and really get into the kinds of things you feel about the subject.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The participants were told that this would be an opportunity to discuss community concerns but Greenberg knows which concerns he wants to hear about.
STANLEY GREENBERG: We know there are two issues and they’re both off the chart in New Jersey. People are upset about the environment and threats to water. Voters are upset about insurance rates out of control. We know they’re concerned about both of these.
WOMAN: With car insurance the way it is, it’s the complete pits.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But which of the two will draw the most votes.
2nd WOMAN: Industrial waste and human waste- everything else.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The test is being run on swing voters represented by these ten women. Each is a political independent and comes from a household with an annual income of $60,000 or more — potential Republican territory. But Greenberg hopes their feelings about one or the other of these issues might draw them to the Democratic column on election day.
3rd WOMAN: Right now car insurance for me is just an annoyance. It’s not a top priority for me, it’s just a minor annoyance. I’d rather see them addressing more serious issues like life, living and breathing.
4th WOMAN: Well, I think it’s only going to get worse in the New Jersey turn- pike and the use of toxic wastes and —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The environmental disasters they speak of, they see on their daily commutes, on the local news, in their own backyards.
3rd WOMAN: There are hotspots all along the New Jersey turnpike. In this area, we are one of those hotspots for cancer. .
STANLEY GREENBERG: And the goal of the group is really to find out where’s the emotion, you know, where do they really respond.
What’s your greatest fear when you think about the environment?
3rd WOMAN: That in ten years we might not be sitting here.
4th WOMAN:Want to know what I wrote? I wrote death. Mostly death of the human population.
WOMAN: Death in the world.
2nd WOMAN:They’re destroying everything in sight and it primarily has happened In the past 50 years. One, of course, it has to be the environment. That’s your life.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It’s been a long time since scientists sounded the first general alarm on the dangers of pollution. Now, the threats of toxic waste and acid rain and infected beaches are everyday events. But, our politicians are still asking us how we feel about the environment because our feelings make good ad copy and our fears are potential votes. And, it’s easier to write an ad than to save a beach.
STANLEY GREENBERG: You can address a problem with media. If you try to do something in your media that offsets that problem so that you get filmed on the beach showing you care about the environment.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It’s the political equivalent of the swimsuit competition. A peek at a promise that is rarely fulfilled. When market research becomes voter research, when politics becomes yet another commodity in the marketplace of goods, it’s hard to know what we’re buying — a political process or an empty spectacle, a political dialogue or an emotional orgy. This was the 1988 election.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: With the wind at our backs —
GEORGE BUSH SR: Tonight is the night —
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: — and with courage in our hearts —
GEORGE BUSH SR: I mean to run hard —
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: — The race to the finish line begins.
GEORGE BUSH SR: To stand on the issues —
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: — because we are the party that believes in the American dream.
Pres. GEORGE BUSH SR: I’ll try to hold my charisma in check.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] 1988, it went on like that for months producing a turnout of just half the eligible voters. Only a few citizens showed much enthusiasm for the race.
ANNOUNCER: Next President of the United States —
PAUL TAYLOR, “Washington Post”: H.G. Wells once wrote that campaigns ought to be the feast of democracy. Instead, we have campaigns that turn out to be Junk food.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Paul Taylor reports for The Washington Post. In the spring of 1987 he talked to voters in Knoxville, Tennessee about what they wanted to hear from candidates in the upcoming campaign.
PAUL TAYLOR: The mood, at that time, was extraordinarily pessimistic. This was a time where the Iran-Contra scandal was unfolding. It was fresh in peoples’ minds.
RONALD REAGAN: Let’s start with the part that is the most controversial. A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.
PAUL TAYLOR: Reagan, a man who this community had voted for by roughly two to one, had fallen off his horse in the eyes of a lot of these voters and there was sort of an initial gasp, my God, how could he have done that, sell the arms to the Ayatollah, sell arms to the Satan. And there was this sense of moral decay and there was also this worry about the future and this sense of anxiety and a lot of people talked about the deficit. It was a symbol of the fact that we couldn’t keep our financial house in order. It worried them.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] And that worried Bush pollster Robert Teeter. He told reporters that his candidate would talk about what was on the public mind.
ROBERT TEETER, Bush Pollster: I do think the campaign, as we get closer to the end, will focus more and more on the major two Issues that presidential campaigns are usually about and the voters want it to be about, which is the national security issues and the health of the economic issue.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] That’s not the way it turned out. Throughout the fall campaign, voters did tell independent pollsters they were most concerned about the deficit. But, the campaigners managed to hijack our attention with issues they tailored for the occasion.
PAUL TAYLOR: The pollster in a campaign is supposed to find the issues, frame
WOMEN: [chorus] Pollution —
3rd WOMAN: Toxic waste. What they do to food.
5th WOMAN: Where we’re going to put it. Landfills and — By me, we’re recycling. God, they think that’s the biggest inconvenience in the world but we have to start thinking about this, you know, where we’re going to be putting all this stuff and I think that that’s something —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Greenberg directs the group to a vote. Do they want a candidate who cares about the environment or one who cares about insurance?
STANLEY GREENBERG: Why don’t you cast your votes on your paper.
WOMAN: You have to vote for one of them, right?
STANLEY GREENBERG: Right. Okay. How many voted A? Almost everybody. Okay. Tell me why candidate A.
6th WOMAN: Well, because the environ- once the environment is gone, it’s all over. you can always work with things that are financial. I mean, you can always get a grip on these but once the environment is gone, it’s gone and there’s no getting it back. That’s not something that we can go out and change it once — We can always change these other things.
7th WOMAN: If you’re dying of pollution, the effects of pollution, you really don’t care how high your taxes are. I mean, that’s it.
8th WOMAN: I’d like to see one candidate address all issues but if I have to pick the issues, serve the issues back out to the voter. If you thought in 1988, in the summer or spring of 1988, what are going to be the issues m this presidential campaign, who would have thought that the campaign, we in the campaign would talk about furloughs and flags. We did.
GEORGE BUSH SR: I pledge allegiance —
CHILDREN: [in unison] To the flag
MAN: Of the United States of America —
PAUL TAYLOR: And that’s the power of the pollster.
MAN: One nation, under God —
CHILDREN: [in unison] With liberty and justice for all.
GEORGE BUSH SR: I think that symbolism of our country — one nation under God — is good.
Gov. DUKAKIS: His administration gave nearly 16,000 furloughs.
GEORGE BUSH SR: I will not turn loose first-degree murderers. Flag sales are doing well and America is doing well.
PAUL TAYLOR: The George Bush campaign went out and discovered that those were hot button issues. They went out. They conducted a focus group in New
GEORGE BUSH SR: They just look at me and say New Jersey and you, perfect together.
PAUL TAYLOR: And the focus group leader, with the pollster whispering into his ear, said, “Well, let me tell you a few things about Michael Dukakis.” And they clicked off three or four things — flags, furlough, Boston Harbor, taxes — and they turned around public opinion in that room.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Bush campaign consultants told Taylor about the New Jersey focus group. They referred to the group as a market test of material they had been storing in their campaign research bank. The campaign was so proud of their research that they also leaked their story to CBS News.
ANNOUNCER: After conducting interviews with focus groups, the Bush campaign believes Dukakis is on the wrong side of a number of issues that appeal specifically to conservative Democrats.
LEE ATWATER: We had two groups of 20 Democrats who supported Reagan in 1984 and were supporting Dukakis in 1988.
ANNOUNCER: CBS News obtained a tape of one of those focus groups where Dukakis’ position on crime was spelled out.
WOMAN: Are you in favor of the policy of giving weekend furloughs to convicted felons for good behavior?
MAN: No, it would be bad.
WOMAN: I’d like to ask him why.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Teeter’s focus groups uncovered the hot buttons, those emotional issues that could divert attention from the realities facing America. Those 40 test voters made his day.
GEORGE BUSH SR: You see, I like what’s been tested and found to be true. For instance, should public school teachers be required to lead our children in the pledge of allegiance? My opponent says no and I say yes.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Then the networks validated the candidate’s message with the polls.
ANNOUNCER: The pledge — it’s also working for Bush. Seventy percent disagree with Dukakis on the issue believing teachers should be required to lead students in the pledge.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Teeter’s contrived controversies were working. Pollsters know public opinion,’ as one of them put it, is the great gorilla in the political jungle. Their job is to make sure the beast is their friend and to make him mad at their opponent. They know television is where this happens because politics is now played out on this screen, side by side with the commercial and the sitcom. So, political pollsters look for messages that are short enough, visual enough and emotional enough to stir the heart’s passion.
[voice-over] Market forces favor sentimental symbols like the family — easy to invoke, hard to define, impossible to oppose. Television has profited from the glow of the family for decades. This year, the networks put more family shows than ever in their Fall lineup.
ACTOR: Well, look who’s here, the young ‘uns.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Family values can make a primetime hit.
BILL COSBY: [“The Cosby Show”] [crosstalk]
BILL COSBY: She said that she is married.
2nd BILL COSBY: Yeah man, I got married, you know, tied the knot. Duh-duh, duh-ta-dah.
BILL COSBY: Duh-duh, duh-ta-dah?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Love and togetherness can sell almost anything, even high-tech — families and high-tech, high-tech and babies.
ANNOUNCER: He knows that. I know that.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Nowadays, family ties even sell stock.
ANNOUNCER: Because a Dean Witter broker earned the trust of David Moore more than 40 years ago, we were given the chance to earn his son’s trust 30 years later and the trust of his grandson today. More important
BARBARA LIPPERT, “Ad week Magazine”: Sometimes I think advertisers forget the distance between symbols and reality. Here, you’re clearly having a religious experience by watching a Dean Witter commercial.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Barbara Lippert reviews television commercials and write social commentary for Adweek Magazine.
BARBARA LIPPERT: It’s interesting that since the crash of ’87 financial services — financial service advertisers — really have not known what to do in their advertising. Now, they’re again only relying on personal continuity, the feeling of family, the feeling that life will go on. And that’s all they can say. They’re really selling the thin air that surrounds the boat.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Politicians, like advertisers and network programmers, want to be considered just part of the family.
MAN: That’s the highest anybody has ever been.
PAUL TAYLOR: I think it’s appropriate that modern-day political campaigns should be about values when-What people may find annoying about them is the symbols people use to express values and often times those symbols are hollow, aren’t real.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But that’s the kind that work in politics today. By showing himself with his family, the candidate is saying he’s for our family. The images invoke love and warmth and security but are silent about jobs or education or health care. This is territory worth fighting over.
RONALD REAGAN: They’re going to steal our words and slogans, words like community, family, values.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: And we believe especially that the strength of America comes from the strength of our families.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Symbols and slogans. Slogans and symbols. The monologue of televisual values becomes the conversation of democracy. .
BARBARA LIPPERT: As people get more used to watching television and live their lives filtered through that TV screen, they get more passive about everything and they’re not involved in the political process the way they would have been, maybe, 30 or 40 years ago when the only way they could have gotten information was by reading newspapers, by asking questions, by doing some investigation. And, instead, they’ll read these TV commercials and make a decision on emotion.
BILL COSBY: [TV commercial] This man was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in a Massachusetts prison. Then, this man let him out of prison on a weekend furlough.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The emotions evoked are not always so lofty as love and hope. Sometimes fear and loathing will do.
BILL COSBY: [TV commercial] Michael Dukakis, Ted Kennedy’s Governor.
RALPH WHITEHEAD, University of Massachusetts: It tells a skeptical electorate, you’re right, you should be skeptical. It’s-It’s a buyer beware advertising. It’s watch out for this product…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Ralph Whitehead teaches Journalism at the University of Massachusetts. He writes about American political and popular culture.
RALPH WHITEHEAD: One of the interesting things is that through some sort of, you know, unwritten compact, there is not a lot of negative advertising in the consumer marketplace. There’s comparative advertising, you know, the Pepsi challenge, Coke fights back, Ford trucks versus Chevy trucks. Imagine what it would be like if Mobil went after Exxon and said, “Hey, Mobil is not desecrating the waters off Alaska.” It would be incredible what they could do. The And, I wonder, sitting down and watching television at night would be a more emotionally turbulent experience.
BARBARA LIPPERT: Twenty years ago was the selling of the president. That was the first time that people realized that this was packaged and that the president was packaged, as it was put all the time, like a bar of soap. Twenty years later, people have gotten to the point where the analogy seems unfair to soap because products have more purity now than politicians. People know that if you’re influenced by a commercial for Jell-O or toothpaste and you go out and spend $1.57 and the Jell-O or the toothpaste doesn’t live up to your dreams, you’re out $1.57. With candidates, though, the stakes are much higher. You’ve elected this person for four years.
ANNOUNCER: [TV commercial] The president — the heart, the soul, the conscience of the nation.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Round and round it goes — fortune cookie politics, bumper sticker television.
PETER HART, Political Pollster: I have a responsibility to get my candidate on television and if I can explain it through some little quip and you’re willing to run with it, then, I’ll do so.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Peter Hart has polled for Democratic candidates, including Edward Kennedy and Walter Mondale. To Hart, television schedules were even more important than campaign stops.
PETER HART: It’s a whole different type of coalitions. You don’t find the coalitions on the basis of neighborhoods anymore. You find it in terms of television audiences.
BILL MOYERS: [interviewing] Television audiences?
PETER HART: Sure you do. I’ll tell you the most important poll in America and that’s the Nielsen Poll.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
PETER HART: Why. If 40 million Americans choose to tune in on a certain night to Roseanne, it’s telling us that that is connecting somehow.
BILL COSBY: Pardon my language.
BILL COSBY: You sewer mouth.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This is why politicians hitch their hopes to another start. Roseanne Barr is the most popular female performer on television today with a TV cue rating of 39. TV cue is a measure of how well known and how well liked a performer is. If an advertiser, or a pollster, wants Roseanne’s fans to buy a product or a candidate, that rating is valuable information. Celebrity news anchors have ratings, too. Connie Chung has a TV cue of 22 and Sam Donaldson rates a 19. Tom Brokaw also had another kind of rating, a thermometer reading of 67 out of a possible ‘100 from the Reagan White House.
[interviewing] You took thermometer readings in the White House?
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: Thermometer readings are a very quick, but I find, effective way in getting an idea of whether people feel warm and positive or cold and negative toward a wide variety of institutions and individuals and we then can tell from the thermometer how an individual stands among a variety of those kinds of subgroups.
BILL MOYERS: Among Protestants?
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: Among Catholics, the Mormons, Baptists?
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Wirthlin compiled ten pages of data on exactly who likes Brokaw. The anchorman was a favorite among single women. Democrats and Republicans liked him equally well. He was least popular among agnostics and very popular among Protestants.
[interviewing] Why would you want to know how Tom Brokaw stands among Catholics or Protestants?
RICHARD WIRTHLIN: Clearly when you look at communication and communication strategy, it’s always helpful to know who has credibility with what groups and what messages you want that group to hear.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The pollster can choose the anchorman to go with the emotion. If the message is, I’m warm.
GEORGE BUSH SR: I think it’s important that the American people know that I’m a caring person.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Then a sympathetic ear is required.
GEORGE BUSH SR: How would you like it if I judged your career by —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] If the message is I’m tough, then a controversial figure helps. By exploiting the tested popularity of others, the pollster is protecting the popularity of the boss.
RONALD REAGAN: Go out there and win one for the Gipper.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Wirthlin tested dozens of organizations and individuals but his favorite subject was his own celebrity candidate who often scored in the warm and positive 60s.
RALPH WHITEHEAD: Reagan’s great capacity was that he could look at this object, this, you know, this black eye and see it as a person, as if it were, you know, Nancy, or his Mom, I don’t know, sitting there. You know, it’s not. It’s a black machine. It’s like staring into your VCR. It’s like looking under the hood of your car. Poor guy like Mondale who looked at that machine and he said that’s a machine. It was like looking into his tackle box. It just didn’t move him.
MAN: I don’t think that’s what America is all about.
RALPH WHITEHEAD: There was a whole generation of politicians who found it very tough to adjust to that. Reagan could look into a machine and treat it like a person and people felt, well, Reagan’s warm.
RONALD REAGAN: Whatever time I’ve got left, it now belongs to someone else.
PETER HART: That’s how you reach people. That’s what it’s all about. You-You don’t see candidates in neighborhoods anymore, maybe for a picture backdrop
BILL MOYERS: As a prop of stage?
PETER HART: Yeah, but they sure don’t ~o there in order to shake people’s hands and talk to them on a one to one basis. You never see them on a stoop. You never see them in that kind of a dialogue. Why? They’re reaching you right through television.
RALPH WHITEHEAD: It’s still just a puff of electrons. I mean, in compared to what politics when I was a kid where there was a flesh and blood person standing at the screen door at 7:00 at night. You knew who they were. They were a neighbor or they lived up the street. They had a political agenda. They wanted to talk to you. They knew who you were. They knew your name. They were listening to you. You owed them a favor. They had helped your cousin to get a summer Job. That person, that precinct worker in 1950, was a much more compelling presence than this 30 seconds-30 second blip on your TV set.
GEORGE BUSH SR: Thank you all very much.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The electronic campaign, negative ads, ten-second sound bites, photo opportunities, televised messages and televised debates those elect one candidate over another. But, in choosing among the candidates, are we really picking a president, a leader?
GEORGE BUSH SR: We can now speak the most majestic words a democracy has to offer. The people have spoken. My friends, we have work to do. We have more will than wallet but will is what we need. We will make the hard choices.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But candidate Bush’s campaign did not prepare America for those hard choices President Bush says we have to make. Whether it’s going to Mars or waging war on drugs or bailing out the savings and loan industry, he continues with Congress the Illusion of the ’80s, nothing really has to be paid for.
GEORGE BUSH SR: We will turn to the only resource we have that in times of need always grows, the goodness and the courage of the American people.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It matters not what we do about reality that decides the character of a nation, it’s how we feel.
GEORGE BUSH SR: I do not fear what is ahead for our problems are large but our heart is larger.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Having won on flags, furloughs and family, his standing depends on the continuing confession of emotions.
GEORGE BUSH SR: We Bushes cry easily. We wear our emotions on our sleeve sometimes. It’s what you feel in your heart. We’re a feeling people. We feel these things in our heart. It is a country. We’re emotional and that was very emotional, very warm and sentimental and. If you really feel sad then you should act sad. It was so moving. People would like to have their President say this is what he feels.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] The pollsters call that resonating. In touch with his feelings the politician hopes to touch ours as if our mutual oath of office, his as leader, ours as citizen, were to feel good. George Bush’s campaign song, remember, was “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It may one day occur to a future president, once again, to tell us what tie or she thinks. But, in the meantime, the concern of politics today is not the state of the nation but the state of our emotions. That IS not the conversation we really want to be having with our political leaders.
R.W. APPLE JR, “New York Times”: People want to take part in this exchange of notions that forms political ideas. People think they know something about the world. They think they know what their own needs are and what their neighbor’s needs are.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] For a generation, R.W. Apple, Jr. has covered campaigns for The New York Times. Since last year, he’s been covering the voter. Listening to our thoughts in a conversation can be a very different experience from invoking our passions in a focus group.
R.W. APPLE, JR: The focus group members get wrenched into a position where they have to choose among three things and if forced to choose A, B or C, they’ll choose A, B or C. But, in a more natural situation where they’re allowed to talk with the minimum intrusion from the outsider, just bat it back and forth, the reality is more diffuse and more complicated and that is, after all, the way the world is. It’s the way your life is. It’s the way my life is.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Last June he met with this group in Shelbourne, Vermont: a university professor, a machinist, a newspaperman, a lawyer, a sheep farmer.
Mr. APPLE Jr.: I might begin by saying that a prominent senator said to me the other day that it was quite mad for anyone to think that average voters had any views on foreign policy at all because It was a subject much too important to be left to them. This is-this is a viewpoint that is heard from time to time in Washington. The first thing I’d like to Know is whether you think that the world is truly different than it was two or three years ago.
WOMAN: Well, you perceive it as different. Your percep-We clearly perceive that It is different. But, with an inherent distrust of the media, you’re never quite sure whether that perception is created on hype or that perception is, in fact, a result of real change.
R.W. APPLE, JR: They are cynical about politicians and journalists and the news media and Hollywood. Walt Disney Studios and ABC News are the same thing. All of that is them — manipulators, maybe liars, certainly spinners.
MAN: Since Vietnam, you’re going to have a hard time selling us on the notion of leave it to the experts. They know what they’re doing.
2nd WOMAN: No. On China, I think Bush knows a lot. But, it’s not-That’s not all I’m saying.
MAN: So did Westmoreland.
R.W. APPLE, JR: That leads us to the obvious next question. Is President Bush doing what he should. For example, let’s start with China. Has Bush been tough enough on them?
2nd MAN: I think he ought to be doing a heck of a lot better job standing in front of a television camera basically saying what’s happening over there is
3rd WOMAN: What’s the point of taking the high moral ground? I mean, that’s what Jimmy Carter did and did that really do much for our foreign policy. 2nd
MAN: Doesn’t matter whether it does any thing —
R.W. APPLE, JR: It was quite clear that they thought that was a multi-faceted question, a difficult question for Bush and for them.
2nd MAN: Have you heard him say it like that?
3rd MAN: Yeah but, Nick, you got to be careful, you know, It really-I wonder if the United States ought to be urging Communist students to stand in front of tanks when all they’re going to do is get killed. I wonder —
R.W. APPLE, JR: And I listen to the different views around them and in some cases modified their views to some degree. This suggests, again, to me, rather grown-up behavior. It suggests to me a grasp of political reality.
4th MAN: I mean, the way I see it is that I think the governments are about a foot behind the ping pong ball and the people are, maybe, half a foot ahead of it.
5th MAN: Gee whiz, what a surprise .
R.W. APPLE, JR: And I spent the period between Labor Day and Election Day last year having precisely these kinds of conversations with people high and low, people educated and uneducated, right across the country. They, in every case talked about more issues, talked about them in more subtle and more substantive ways than the candidates did in their television commercials. Now, if they can talk about them, they can certainly listen to them.
PAUL TAYLOR: The voters cannot leave. The voters can vote. The voters can send messages to leaders. But, the voters, as a body, cannot-the only way they can exercise their independent free will is to vote for leaders. They don’t like the way the conversation is structured but they don’t have the ability to sort of stand up and say, “Time out, this doesn’t work. I don’t like it. This isn’t nourishing. This isn’t satisfying.”
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Because it is less and less satisfying, more and more Americans are tuning out, choosing not to participate in so demeaning a dialogue. Running campaigns in a nation on the pleasure principle is wrecking the polity of America, destroying our ability as a cooperative society to face reality and solve our problems. The President s popularity polls remain high although the same people say they don’t expect him to do anything. Maybe his popularity remains high because he doesn’t do anything. Behind the charm and smiles, behind the one-liners, the pretty pictures, the manipulation of emotions, the government rots, its costs soar, its failures mount from the folly of Star Wars to the scandals of H.U.D. But, on the bridge of the ship of state, no one’s on watch and below deck no one can see the iceberg but everyone’s feeling good. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 14, 2015.