‘SNL effect’ sways voters whether they like it or not
This article is part five of a series on informed voting
The most memorable line spoken by Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential campaign is something that she never said. The catchy quote, “I can see Russia from my house!” became for many a compelling piece of evidence that Palin was not experienced or even intelligent enough to guide our nation and certainly not enough to represent the United States on an international scale. And yet the words were not a product of Palin at all, but rather forged under the fluorescent lights of some writers’ room at NBC. If this sentence proves anything, it is the overwhelming power of mass distortion and persuasion that satire and the media hold.
Palin’s particular misfortune came as a result of the late-night variety show Saturday Night Live and an unfortunate (for her) resemblance to former SNL cast member Tina Fey who actually delivered the line above. However, Palin is not the only politician to have fallen victim to SNL. In fact, the program has influenced the reputations of many prominent politicians and actually airs a separate segment on Thursday nights during election season dedicated solely to political satire. It would not be a stretch to associate George W. Bush’s reputed intellectual inferiority with his portrayal by actor Will Ferrell or to connect the negative perception of former New York governor David Paterson to Fred Armisen’s at times controversial impression of him. Many simply laugh these sketches off as trivial and funny, not even stopping to consider that they could actually be anything more. However, while these impressions may be funny, they are far from trivial.
In fact, Reuters published a press release shortly following the presidential election in 2008 saying that roughly 10 percent of all voters polled on election day reported that their vote had been influenced by an SNL sketch in one way or another. This is an incredibly important statistic and has actually earned SNL’s political influence the term “The SNL Effect” within the political community. A report for the Washington Post back in 2008 even reported that Al Gore’s own staff forced him to watch SNL coverage of himself when he was running back in 2000 to see how the public perceived him. At times it seems that SNL has more control over a candidate’s image than the candidate himself.
So what should our reaction as responsible voters be? Are we to ignore this barrage of politically-charged spoofs? Should we turn off our TVs and burrow deep into the ground, waiting until Nov. 6 to finally emerge, painfully readjust our eyes to the light of day, and cast a thoroughly unswayed vote? The candidates surely don’t hope so. In fact, the 2008 season of SNL saw surprise cameos from presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain themselves as well as from running mate Sarah Palin. It is clear that the candidates have become privy to the SNL effect and the program’s startlingly powerful hold on their public image and are trying to take some of the power back. This power struggle between candidates and comedy is sure to continue this year as SNL has already begun to exaggerate and recreate, presenting the public with a caricature that they are sure to accept.
However, before you all reach for your shovels and order a month’s supply of granola bars in a quest to avoid the SNL effect, know that running from the media is not the answer. First of all, it is not the answer because it is impossible. If you intend to stay above ground and be a part of modern society, you cannot avoid being influenced by the media. You cannot avoid every advertisement, evade every poster and dodge every news report. But more importantly, attempting to do this is not the answer because to be an informed voter you must know what your fellow voters are seeing, hearing, and laughing at. It is your job as a responsible citizen to understand the perceptions of public figures and the issues most closely associated with them. In fact, even SNL for all of its satire, does a very good job of highlighting what is important in an election. In fact, if you watch the Weekend Update segment of the Saturday night broadcasts, the “reporter” will always present one clear, unbiased fact and then will deliver a comical one-liner that spins the fact as hard as it can. Bam! As an informed voter you now know the basic event or issue as well as the public perception of it — both equally important.
And so the response to the SNL effect and similar media distortions is not withdrawal from anything with an on button. Instead, the answer is to embrace these media sources, equipped with a realization of the startling effect that they can have and the knowledge of what they can actually tell you. Thus, my assignment for all of you this weekend is not to read a long report on our nation’s current economic state or page through Obama’s autobiography. Instead, I want you all to slip into your pajamas, grab a midnight snack and tune in to SNL. I promise you, it will be funny and it will not be trivial.