Whitman's millions can't buy her a room in the Governor's mansion

AMC’s “Mad Men” featured a subplot in which an idle rich kid dreams of transforming the sport of jai alai into America’s national pastime. Honchos at the fictional ad agency think he’s crazy but can’t resist taking the client’s money.

In a way, this parallels the recent U.S. election cycle, particularly in California, where two wealthy businesswomen, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, waged unsuccessful campaigns for governor and senator, respectively.

One can easily argue that Whitman’s largess in particular — setting a U.S. record by spending more than $140 million of her own money in futilely seeking political office — represented something of a test regarding the power of advertising: How much can TV sell a product with which consumers (or in this case, voters) aren’t terribly familiar, while simultaneously tearing down her competitor? And what does that say about the medium in general — and its claims of delivering unmatched return on investment — if it can’t?

Politics has produced no shortage of quirky millionaires and billionaires running on corporate resumes, among them past presidential hopefuls like Ross Perot and Steve Forbes. Still, Whitman is an especially interesting case study, in part because of the staggering fortune tapped in losing to what was perceived as a rather weak Democratic opponent: Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, a 72-year-old political warhorse who saw his chief rivals for the nomination, mayors Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, implode amid sexual indiscretions.

Of course, cynics will say Whitman was her own worst enemy, and in hindsight should have set aside part of her considerable expenditures to deal more charitably with a former nanny, whose allegations about the one-time eBay chief employing her as an undocumented worker administered a blow to her candidacy.

There’s no escaping, however, that political campaigns are now conducted primarily on television — especially in a vast geographic expanse like California. And since advertisers spend billions to sell products via TV, it’s worth asking what that says about the 30-second spot’s ability to influence behavior when candidates ante up so extravagantly — as Whitman and WWE wrestling impresario Linda McMahon did in Connecticut — only to prove unable to close the sale.

Even before final Election Night results were in, Whitman had become something of a political punchline. “I could’ve lost that race for $80 million,” quipped CNN political analyst Alex Castellanos.

Days before the election, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez observed that Whitman’s personal spending could have bought pizza for every California resident — suggesting such an investment might have been a wiser means of allocating her “Meg-a-millions.”

Various theories have circulated as to why prominent self-financed candidates like Whitman, McMahon and New York gubernatorial contender Carl Paladino were, er, wrestled to the mat.

Analyst Nate Silver, blogging at the New York Times’ Fivethirtyeight.com, noted one problem involves the fact business success doesn’t fully vet a candidate for the scrutiny of politics or prepare them to address voters — and that leveraging a CEO resume in lean economic times “is not the unambiguously positive credential that it can be during boom years.”

A more salient point, though, was Silver’s contention that beyond a certain level, advertising can yield “diminishing returns,” and once candidates achieve name recognition and lay out a platform, profligate spending “may even annoy or confuse voters.”

Does that same dynamic potentially apply to more conventional products? If so, it’s a potentially sobering notion for media buyers and broadcasters to contemplate.

Not that you’ll hear many TV execs express skepticism about the ad-saturated nature of modern politics, which for a recession-strapped industry remains the biennial gift that keeps on giving, and giving.

Indeed, it’s hard to fully do justice to local television’s enabling, avaricious role in perpetuating this corrupt, fundamentally flawed system. Stations have every incentive to absorb the gobs of money that flow from political advertising, and almost none to provide the sort of thoughtful, probing coverage that would expose the hyperbole and outright lies they obligingly disseminate in a substantive fashion.

Any way you slice it, there’s no denying Whitman squandered a jaw-dropping amount of cash and came away empty-handed — an outcome that feels especially conspicuous, perhaps, thanks to the winner-take-all rules of the political game.

Maybe they’ll have better luck the next time somebody mounts a campaign for jai alai.

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