So, there is no secret that I favor the radical flavors of Libertarianism. I also value upstanding Libertarians that are serious about running. There was an interesting thing that happened in California November of 2018. Jeff Hewitt won the largest win in LP history. He did it with a radically aligned campaign staff, radical PR, and good old fashioned campaigning on a radical scale. But he was not just a Libertarian in a suit. His campaign put out some smack-in-the-face media that was far from traditional. His campaign literature and signs, all of it including more than a few billboards and such all featured him… with no tie on. A man with NO TIE won the LP’s biggest election in its entire 40+ year history. Wait… What? Take a look:
Satirical and other Shock Value Mailers
The Hewitt campaign marketing team painted him in a way that distinguished his run and did so strongly with wild media and raucous engagement as well. His mailers were something else altogether. Not your mother’s usual campaign material for sure! People that voted for him got oversized cards in the post that featured hobo clowns, a hand drawn Pinnochio parody, Immigrant children gripping a chain link fence, and a faux road hazard sign with a school toppling on children. Wait… What?
Take a look:
But that was not the best piece of media that campaign produced if you ask me.
The Radio Spot
Jeff Hewitts campaign didn’t stop with signs and mailers for out-of-the-box advertising. Nor were those mailers the most outlandish of their many stunts. They also had radio spots. During Jeff Hewitt’s primary run (He won two tough elections to get this seat), this radio ad played on a local political show. Hold on to your hats and you may want to listen twice. The idea behind the ad was to get a very specific response from the listener: Make them listen intently, and then cause them to ask, “Who is Jeff Hewitt?”
Take a listen for yourself:
Jeff Hewitt’s campaign really pulled out the stops on this one. It is hard to listen to the first time through. You don’t know what to expect, the audio has engine noises, the announcer is clearly a madman, Registrar of Voters? Cheering? Booing? Monster Truck? Wait… What?
Marketing is About Standing Out, NOT Fitting In.
The marketing team explained to volunteers on the Hewitt campaign the method in their madness. It was simple. The incomprehensibility of the commercial was crafted to resolve on a second hearing. The first listen through is a bit confusing, but the name punch at the end is magnified in people’s perceptions for it. People strain to understand, they become a little invested from the effort of it. Funny phrases come through but… JEFF HEWITT!
Reports have it that the first time the radio station played the commercial they were flooded with calls with slightly perturbed and moderately confused people who wanted to know two things: What did that damn commercial say? And, who is this Jeff Hewitt? The second time it played the calls were different.
If you haven’t yet done as I suggested, go listen to the spot a second time. You will notice that you catch it all and it is clear as a bell. The marketing guys did some hocus pocus on this one. Somehow the first listen is really hard to listen to, but the second time, the whole thing is clear as a bell. If you can explain the magic they pulled off, I would sure appreciate a message, because it floored me when I heard it.
On the second playing the radio station got a completely different reaction from their audience. It was all about, “Whoa! YES! That was hilarious! Who is Jeff Hewitt?” and Jeff Hewitt just happened to be in the studio to introduce himself and he charmed the hell out of that audience. This is the sort of out of the box hard core advertising that is difficult to buy. It takes a rare wit to do something like that and to pull it off. Whatever the magic, that zany, hard to listen to commercial with multi-layered irreverent anti-statist scoff made people look; and when they looked, Jeff Hewitt looked GOOD!
Humor is Powerful Especially for the Underdog
That leads me to a point about the use of parody, satire and zany humor in politics. It wins. Winning votes is not looking proper; it is getting attention, and then looking good when you get it.
Vermin Supreme is seeking the LP nomination for the 2020 election cycle. He sure gets attention. But could it turn into votes?
You bet it could. The media happens to love the guy and they give him a lot of attention. He has a Hollywood publicist who happens to work in some regards with the people running the Hewitt Campaign. Wait… WHAT?!?!
There is a secret there I am going to keep, but what many do not realize yet about Vermin Supreme is that he is a real pro. They know the meme. They know the pies. They don’t know just how respected a comedian he is among pros, and just how much the media appreciates political parody is something no-one has had an opportunity to see in a long time.
Humor and political parody has been a long standing tradition in American Politics. Since Tammany Hall, however, the landscape started to change hard against standing out. Elections became internally regulated in the Democrats and Republicans as the game shifted. Through the late industrial revolution and through most of the 20th century politics stopped being a circus. Channels to graft were too important to leave to chancy elections. Circuses were not welcome. In 1964 Goldwater managed one last circus, but on the Democratic side, the circus was so unwelcome. In the 1968 race Mayor Daley in Chicago sent in an army of homicidal police after the insurgent youth that had flocked to the city to support McGovern with grassroots demonstration. They were turned away from participating in the DNC convention with tear gas and beatings.
After the Goldwater insurgent win, the GOP conventions began to resemble church with everyone and everything under tight control… til Trump.
Trump is Proof that Clowns Win Elections (Not Joking)
Trump… Wait… What? That guy is a clown. He won. He was irreverent. He was grimy. He said outrageous things. Admittedly he wore a tie but you cannot tell me he was a distinguished and polished politico in any actual sense. His taste in decor and hair dye are beyond garish; actually comical his entire persona screams farse… yet he is President of the United States. Trump won for his ability to clown, hold an audience rapt in attention, and it did not matter what people thought. Entertainers win elections.
Libertarians are a natural for comedy. Our ranks have included some of the Greats in zany social parody and they have always brought their audiences with them. But the LP got stuffy after all of the infighting in the 80s and 90s. After the Koch Brothers left and took their football, after Ron Paul left and took his football, after Robert Anton Wilson, the Church of the Sub-Genius, Dr. Demento and all of those guys left and took their footballs, the party went clunk and is just now starting to recover.
Standing Out as Radical (and funny) is the LP’s Only Hope
That recovery did not come from platform realignments. California has a radical far-out 26 page monster of a platform. It did not happen because by-laws ordained the right strategies and focused the members. It did not happen because the party leadership got super professional and cleaned up the image of the party.
The party grew in California, and Jeff Hewitt won because for about 10 years before his run, his area was where a massive group of radical and talented activists had congregated. Activists that had stopped by-laws fights. Had slowed the roll of the LP Reform Caucus from gutting the platform. The had also developed some people of real marketing and entertainment talent to back up a spectacular and articulate candidate with amazing speech writing, entertaining funny and outrageous media, and a ground game that only activists of a very determined stripe can coordinate and pull off with the little money they had. BTW Hats off to the young people from all over that came and poured weeks into walking the hot treeless Mojave Desert streets of Riverside California!
The LP could use a good entertaining clown for a presidential candidate if you ask me. Humor wins. In today’s cynical drop-out, xbox, youtube, twitch watching voter pool, Vermin Supreme could very handily resonate with a sizable disaffected young voting segment; one that I think could surprise people in its size. The tactic surprised them in California.