One of my mentors in the advertising game, Tom Brigham of Brigham/Scully in Los Angeles, showed me a basic piece of advertising research: The Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting. You know how you reach for the mute button when the seventh repetition of the Levitra commercial comes on? In one football game? Thank the Ebbinghaus Curve.
Hermann Ebbinghaus published his Curve of Forgetting in 1885 in an article titled “Über das Gedächtnis.” The curve illustrates, crudely put, that a given piece of learning gets forgotten by half its audience in 24 hours; retained audience is reduced in each 24-hour interval by half again. Advertising researchers say it that way, anyway, and for advertising purposes, it serves.
When I was in advertising, and making my first sale, the one where I sold myself and my services to the client, I’d say it this way. Repetition sells. How many times have you heard, “Aw, I tried advertising once and it didn’t work.” Of course not. (I’d pull out old Doc Ebbinghaus.) You know your audience. Now pick your medium for reach and efficiency. Then select a frequency rate that will sell for you. Because if you don’t repeat that ad, your audience is half gone in a day — and a day later, it’s virtually all gone.
What does the Ebbinghaus Curve mean for political advertising? Lots and lots of it, at an increasing pace. Because political advertising differs in one very important way from ads for beer or Levitra. Political ads aim to affect a single event, not long-term consumption. So political advertising can make outrageous claims, with the advertiser virtually never held to account. Even the worst advertising violations in the commercial world get settled with consent decrees: Okay, I won’t do that anymore. It takes more than a week to obtain a consent decree, and the election’s scarcely more than a week away.
In other words, the Kerry and Bush advertising teams can say absolutely anything and, absent instant public outcry, get away with it. And they will. These two guys loathe each other.
That loathing was displayed most clearly in the now-infamous Vice Presidential debate. John Edwards brought up Dick Cheney’s gay daughter, paying the Cheneys a smarmy, self-serving compliment in answer to a question about gay marriage. Cheney, invited to make his entitled 90-second response, simply thanked Senator Edwards for “his kind words about my family.”
“That’s all?” asked moderator Gwen Ifill, incredulously.
“That’s all,” said Cheney, looking off into middle space, neither at Ifill nor Edwards.
This was the stiff upper lip high-toned British freezeout. Subtext: Get away from me, you horrid little man.
We don’t know much about manners anymore. Most people missed it and continue to miss it.
But there you have it: the conflict of a generation, mine, unfortunately. Bush and Cheney, the establishment, cannot believe the public would give any credence to two such palpable phoneys as Kerry and Edwards; thus the at-times inexplicable Bush-Cheney complacency. Kerry and Edwards want to destroy their fathers, a lifetime passion burning all the more powerfully for being frustrated for 30 years.
This is going to get incredibly ugly. The election will turn on which campaign successfully cuts the other candidate’s balls off, by fair means or foul. The fabulists of foul belong almost entirely to the Democrats. But their ammunition has gotten old and unstable. It may blow up in their faces. And the Republicans, awakened, may be able to get in a killing shot.
The closer to November 2, the better for blood. Remember Ebbinghaus.