It should be apparent why few people watched the Republican National Convention last week and why an equally small number will tune in next week when Democrats put on their show in the show biz capital. And it has nothing to do with lack of drama.
In fact, it's so simple that it's amazing convention planners haven't been able to figure it out: Americans have been spoiled by the outbreak of truth in advertising, and won't watch anything less.
In an age when everything from college bowl games to the weather forecast have been openly brought to us by a sponsor, anything that doesn't come with a corporate name attached just doesn't cut it.
Remember those quaint old days when we got up on New Year's and just watched the Cotton Bowl? Now it's the Q-Tip Cotton Bowl, the Minute Maid Orange Bowl and the Ben Gay Master's golf series. And the weather is brought to you by Totes.
So how can you expect voters to get excited about an election if democracy can't even attract a big-name sponsor?
The irony, of course, is that both conventions have attracted all kinds of sponsors. But for some strange reason, they want to keep it hush-hush. Go figure.
This was especially strange for Republicans, who always bray about making government operate like the private sector.
Just imagine if Texas oilman George W. Bush had come out wearing a Quaker State jacket and Valvoline cap, and unveiled the slogan, "Change your oil every 3,000 miles and your president every four years!" Millions would have tuned in to see that.
Or suppose the GOP had let the Disney Corp. burnish its image as experts in fantasy by putting mouse ears on Dick Cheney as he explained his voting record?
It would have been much more honest than what actually went on in Philadelphia, or what will occur next week in Hollywood, as corporations stealthily buy access by sponsoring luncheons and parties - but do it all in private. They fete lawmakers, committee chairmen and top advisers and then ferry them around town in free Cadillacs and SUVs. Some corporations have even stopped giving soft money, finding this direct aid more effective.
But the soft money is still there, too, as evidenced by the $250,000 contributions it took to get into the well-guarded "Republican Regents" events or the $350,000 admission fee to the Democrats' private "Leadership 2000" shindigs next week.
Firms like General Motors, Microsoft and UPS are financing access in all sorts of imaginative ways while collaborating with the parties to hide the fact that they're buying themselves a candidate. The public sees red, white and blue balloons in the convention hall while greenbacks speak loudly in the private parties.
But the question is, "Why the secrecy?" With 15,000 reporters on hand, why pick this moment to get shy about democracy?
After all, if there's anything Americans love as much as honesty, it's getting something for free. If we could plainly see who's buying our government for us, it would make the whole process all the more appealing for TV viewers.
That gives Al Gore a unique opportunity to one-up the GOP and put the genius of advertising to work for the Democrats. When Gore gets to the obligatory part of his speech - you know, the part where he tells about being personally moved by some constituent - he can lower his Southern drawl, look earnestly into the camera, and tell the audience that "AT&T reached out and touched me."
It would be the perfect acknowledgment of the phone giant's $1 million contribution to each convention - and it would make an unforgetable Kodak moment.
And while the Republicans talked of inclusion, Democrats could walk the walk by having morally-straight VP nominee Joe Lieberman saunter over to the Playboy Mansion for the Democratic gala being put on by the girlie mag.
You don't think openly embracing that kind of sponsorship would entice viewers? When it comes to getting the public aroused, it's like Bill Clinton always says: Honesty is the best policy.
Yet the candidates seem afraid to openly wrap themselves in sponsors' logos, no doubt because they underestimate the American public. Just as the Europeans act like grown-ups when it comes to sex and politics, we are sophisticated when it comes to money and politics. We already know what goes on behind the scenes, and we don't care - as long as we don't have to pay for it.
The good-government nags may want public funding, but the rest of us just want a good show. In an age when we're used to product placement and direct sponsorship of parades, concerts and public buildings, why should democracy be any different? If we want to end the apathy, let's end the charade and make the conventions as honest as everything else on television.
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