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Ad nauseam

By Terry Joseph
December 6, 2000

A NEWS release from the World Health Organisation (WHO) objecting to the content of a recent political advertisement is merely international reaction to a level of media recklessness about which most locals had already been complaining.

In the offending United National Congress (UNC) advertisement, People's National Movement (PNM) political leader Patrick Manning is being portrayed as a man afflicted with a rare disease, which impacts on his cognitive skills. It is neither funny nor creative.

In another advertisement, Manning is at the end of a rope, his handler ostensibly a member of the UNC, which reminds us in a third commercial that it reintroduced the contentious matter of capital punishment by hanging. "We executed drug lords," it says proudly, in the attempt to enhance its integrity as a no-nonsense outfit.

Then there is the thoroughly tasteless "Keith and Daphne" television series. It goes on and on.

It seems, therefore, that what the WHO should also urgently clarify is whether any truth resides in the widespread rumour of a stupidity epidemic that has selectively attacked the nation's advertising gurus, negatively affecting their sense of tact and causing them to shed any evidence of decency.

Mark you, this is not altogether new. As far back as the 1976 election, when Dr Ivan Perot's Liberation Action Party (LAP) sought to displace the PNM, his party mounted an expensive advertising campaign based on the politics of face.

Its political leader's good looks were compared with those of the PNM's Dr Eric Williams and assumed superiority proffered as a basis for mature voting decisions.

Not to be outdone, the hearing-impaired Williams shot back with the quip: "Next thing he will say is that he is also more deaf than me!" And with that exchange, a new level of advertising creativity had quietly descended upon the electorate.

The United Labour Front (ULF) was also one of the frontrunners in the fight to dislodge the PNM in 1976. It was in that year we first witnessed the application of a potentially perilous advertising concept of painting the party's message across busy roads, bridges and highways.

The PNM would later elevate that art to maritime levels, as evidenced in 1981. On the eve of that year's election, the incumbent party purchased the MV Tobago inter-island ferry and sailed it into the Port of Spain harbour at high noon, with its entire port side doubling as a billboard; vulgarly emblazoned with the words "Vote PNM".

The year 1981 also saw the coming of the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR), with its bells, pennants, buttons, flags and whistles and the rise of T-shirt advertisement. For all its razzmatazz, the ONR didn't win a single constituency, a trouncing helped along by Kitchener's calypso: "Not a Damn Seat for Them."

The call by the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) to "Vote Them Out" in 1986, utilised all media, produced some memorable commercials and routed the PNM. The dislodged party regained power in 1991, only to lose to the UNC in 1995.

Which brings us to the current scenario where, apparently, any number can play in the anxiety brought on by see-saw voting patterns experienced since 1986.

Politicians, a breed who invariably blame the media when public support wanes, have on this occasion gone all out to tap the power of the fourth estate, seeing it as the vehicle that will ride them to success at Monday's polls.

Specially commissioned calypsoes, the Keith and Daphne television series, print aplenty and radio jingles are among the preferred propaganda pieces, many of which are growing progressively more desperate and distasteful as the campaign waxes to a climax.

The PNM has had its own share of reversals, particularly with State-owned Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) demanding to see a release from UNC political leader Basdeo Panday for the use of his images in an unflattering commercial.

And with snippets from the hustings providing fodder for fast-food producers of commercials, Manning's call to his supporters to burn UNC T-shirts becomes advertising material, as quickly as does Panday's description of former stablemate Hulsie Bhaggan's physiog as a "pancake face".

Curiously enough, Panday's description ran concurrently with one of his party's TV commercials, which seeks to lure women voters.

Nor is it the only time Panday has used the politics of face on the platforms. A regular line in his campaign speeches says: "If elections were won on the basis of good looks, I would win all 34 seats in Trinidad."

By the same opportunity, he suggests that Dr Morgan Job would win both seats in Tobago, which says something about all Tobagonians. Nor can the PNM forget that their beloved Williams once described all of his potential candidates as "crapaud".

Meanwhile, the UNC has knocked Manning for his claim that he is (or was) The Father of the Nation, a sobriquet stolen from the charismatic Williams.

This, even as its candidate for Ortoire/Mayaro, Winston Peters (calypsonian Gypsy), likens himself to martyrs of the ilk of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, after being questioned by police for mere minutes, in connection with vote-padding allegations.

Going a giant step further, Panday has said: "In my father's house there are many mansions." He has also referred to an independent candidate as "This Filipino", in a tone that conveyed a lot more than geographical positioning.

Mercifully, midnight Sunday will mark the end of this pathetic political campaign and those advertisements the affected geniuses have produced.

And while we remain unsure about whether their condition was contagious, among the identifiable symptoms I have experienced while watching prime time television recently, were severe intellectual discomfort and outright nausea.

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