Public figures seek to appear 'likable,' 'relatable'

A mind-numbing $5.2 billion is being deployed for campaign advertising this fall to fortify the idea that the presidential candidates are “just like us.” Yes, even Mitt and Ann are down home folks and young Barack’s shoes had holes in them.

The “likeable” strategy is blatantly apparent on the crowded daytime talk show circuit with Katie Couric setting the tone last week by stressing her “Leave It To Beaver” upbringing with her syndie debut. By asking guests profound questions like “How is motherhood?” Katie was facetiously labeled “Miss Relatable” by the New York Times.

But will “relatability” guarantee ratings — or votes?

Katie, who chatted with Jessica Simpson on her first show (Jessica was likeable but marginally relatable) is competing with other gabbers like Jeff Probst, Steve Harvey and Ricki Lake. All are hopeful of stealing some of that old Oprah magic. But the competition is fierce against such stalwarts as Dr. Phil, Ellen DeGeneres and Anderson Cooper (again, a question mark on the relatable scale).

The ratings battle will shortly sort itself out but the political fight may go down to the wire, with TV stations in swing states pinching themselves over their good fortune. The polls show that almost every voter has already made up his (or her) mind, yet total ad spending is more than $1 billion higher than in the 2008 campaign. At a time when online media claim to be pinpointing prospective customers, the political advertisers are tossing huge sums at mystery voters who may not give a damn anyway. The cost of TV spots is up 34% in Las Vegas but down 4% in Detroit, reflecting the changing political temperature.

And, of course, the candidates are working so hard on likeability that positions are becoming even fuzzier. Even the crusty right wing Wall Street Journal felt impelled to warn Romney this week that his “move to the middle” on health care was not relatable, in its book.

In the post-Oprah world of daytime TV, of course, the only conversation about the “middle” relates to weight loss. On her debut show, Katie Couric, who once needled Sarah Palin about her reading habits, focused on Jessica Simpson’s weight and Sheryl Crow’s attitude toward her old boyfriend, Lance Armstrong (“I haven’t spoken to him in a few years,” was her riveting reply).

The daytime talkers all face a booking competition that can become as testy as some local congressional races. Movie stars, who aren’t that “likeable” anyway, are increasingly wary about TV interviews in general, unless they can peddle their movies on the early morning shows. Hence Steve Harvey will have to focus on his inspirational stories (he booked an aged cancer victim during his first week) and Ricki Lake to revisit plus-size models. Then there’s always a stray Kardashian.

As Piers Morgan has discovered, provocative guests are the key to ratings. It doesn’t matter if the guests are relatable or likeable so long as they’re bookable.

Meanwhile the “likeability derby” has taken the presidential candidates to some unexpected places. Romney, who doesn’t drink, was busily passing out hot dogs at a Nascar event in Richmond, Va., but abjured eating any. Obama on the other hand ordered a beer at a Gator’s Dockside sports bar in Orlando, Fla., and actually drank it with other customers. Aides confided that the President prefers martinis, but they weren’t that relatable. Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Cynthia Littleton wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson

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