Ad Wars

8 minute read
Richard Zoglin

WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK TO the 1992 presidential campaign. But first this message:

Hey, Mr. Candidate. Tired of getting knocked around on TV talk shows and debates? Had enough of those annoying follow-up questions and unpredictable viewer call-ins? Up to here with Larry King and Phil Donahue? Try the remedy four out of five media consultants recommend: the campaign commercial. It’s quick, it’s pointed, and if you spend enough money, practically everybody will see it. Most important, it puts you back in control.

The innovation of this year’s media campaign, as everyone knows by now, is the emergence of the TV talk show as the candidates’ forum of choice. Last week alone, George Bush and Bill Clinton each made appearances on Good Morning America and Larry King Live; running mate Al Gore joined Clinton on King’s show as well as on Donahue. But as Election Day approaches, a more time- honored media weapon is coming to the fore. The TV ad war is heating up.

For years, voters have been warned about the dangers of these 30- and 60- second political spots. Network newscasts alert viewers to the manipulative potential of the campaign ads they are seeing on those same channels. Major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post dissect ads with the scrupulous attention usually reserved for tax audits.

Yet this year’s political ads are surprisingly sober, businesslike and to the point. Gone, for the most part, are the warm, fuzzy “image ads” of campaigns past — candidates frolicking with kids on the beach. There is little of the slick propagandizing of such ads as the famous anti-Goldwater spot from 1964 (a little girl with a daisy, interrupted by a mushroom-shaped cloud). Even the biting sarcasm that characterized the ’88 campaign is largely missing: Bush’s ironic use of clips showing Michael Dukakis taking a tank ride, or Dukakis’ satiric depiction of Bush media advisers cynically discussing how to package their candidate (“Get out the flag, boys”).

Negative ads still abound, but they are generally straightforward and issue- oriented. One purpose of these attack ads, campaign insiders say, is to lay the groundwork for points the candidates can expound on later in the debates. Statistics (however dubious) are everywhere. Fittingly, Ross Perot’s first half-hour ad, which aired twice last week, was a no-nonsense lecture on the sorry state of the U.S. economy, filled to the brim with charts and graphs — not the kind of fare prime-time viewers would be expected to sit through. Yet it drew an impressive 12.2 rating (representing 11.36 million homes) and had a bigger audience than the National League playoff game that followed. Perot’s lecture was an effective delineation of the problem, but not the solution. That, aides said, will come in his next half-hour program, scheduled to air this week.

Meanwhile, Clinton and Bush have used TV ads to trade volleys over their own economic policies. The most controversial spot so far has been a Bush commercial that purports to show ordinary middle-class people whose tax bills “could” rise under Clinton’s economic plan ($1,088 for John Canes, a steamfitter; $1,191 for Julie and Gary Schwartz, sales representatives). “You can’t trust Clinton economics,” the earnest female narrator concludes. “It’s wrong for you. It’s wrong for America.”

Clinton has counterattacked swiftly. “George Bush’s plan? Attack Bill Clinton’s plan,” says one spot. A clip from Bush’s attack ad is accompanied by a quotation from a newspaper that has criticized it (“Misleading,” says the Washington Post). Clinton’s proposal, the ad repeats, would increase taxes only for couples with incomes in excess of $200,000.

Bush’s ad makes several unproved assumptions about what Clinton would do in office and ignores the Democrat’s proposal to cut taxes for the middle class — precisely the kind of folks depicted in the Bush spot. Yet the G.O.P. ad does exploit a confusing element of Clinton’s economic program: he has proposed raising taxes on couples earning more than $200,000 — representing, he has said, the top 2% of wage earners. The Bush projections are based on the 2% figure — which actually includes people with incomes of less than $200,000. The Clinton camp has acknowledged the slight discrepancy but insisted the Governor will stick to the $200,000 cutoff.

The war between the stats goes on, occasionally drifting into pointlessness. The Republicans claim that Clinton raised taxes and fees 128 times as Arkansas Governor (a figure that includes bogus items such as an extension of the dog- racing season). A Clinton ad boasts that Arkansas has the second lowest tax burden in the nation (a ranking that doesn’t take into account a recent $272.6 million state tax increase). A Bush commercial claims that “100 leading economists” say Clinton’s economic plan will mean higher taxes and bigger deficits. Clinton replies that “nine Nobel Prize economists” say his plan will create more jobs and raise taxes only for the rich. The viewer’s task: trying to figure out how many “leading” economists it takes to balance one Nobel-prizewinning economist.

Clinton’s TV campaign is being run by the Washington consulting firm of Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Grunwald & Associates, which has enlisted the help of three prominent Democratic media consultants: Robert Squier, Carter Eskew and Mike Donilon. The collaborative effort has been far more focused and efficient than Dukakis’ diffuse media campaign in ’88. Two other departures from four years ago: rather than concentrating on expensive network buys, the Clinton camp is placing ads on a state-by-state basis, with special emphasis on key battlegrounds like Michigan and Connecticut. And response time has been significantly shortened: Clinton’s reply to Bush’s tax-hike ad was on the air in 48 hours. “That kind of quick-response advertising has been going on in the Senate and gubernatorial races for more than a decade,” says Mandy Grunwald, who heads the Clinton media team. “It’s amazing to me that it has never been done in a presidential campaign.”

Some of Clinton’s ads have been cutting, such as one juxtaposing Bush’s optimistic pronouncements over the past two years (“The economy is strengthening”) with bleak economic figures (“Unemployment is the highest in eight years”). But Clinton advisers have heeded focus groups that show voters are uncomfortable with excessively negative ads. “We have been really straightforward,” says Grunwald, “because we think the facts speak for . themselves and because we think people are fed up with nasty politics.”

The Bush TV campaign was much slower than Clinton’s to get up to speed, partly because of the disarray in the Bush circle before James Baker’s return to run the campaign. In mid-September, Sig Rogich, a veteran Republican media consultant who earlier this year had been named ambassador to Iceland, was brought in as the campaign’s media guru. The ads he has devised, Rogich acknowledges, are intended to raise questions about Clinton’s “integrity and honesty.” One commercial, for instance, features a split screen of two presidential candidates, their faces obscured by gray dots. A narrator recites the contradictory views these men have expressed on such issues as the Persian Gulf War and Clinton’s draft activities. Both candidates, of course, turn out to be Bill Clinton.

Bush aides insist that the sparseness of the President’s TV ads early on was a calculated decision to save money for the latter stages of the campaign, when many voters are presumably making up their minds. “Our bucks will be worth a lot more bang in the last four weeks,” says senior Bush adviser Charles Black. Since the Bush campaign is estimated to have about $15 million more to spend than Clinton, the President’s TV onslaught could be heavy in the homestretch.

Perot’s TV profile will also jump significantly in the final weeks. In addition to his half-hour infomercials, Perot has begun airing his first three 60-second spots. They are characteristically simple and unadorned: a sonorous narrator, accompanied by a scrolling text, talks about the country’s economic problems and Perot’s readiness to solve them. (“It is a time that demands a candidate who is not a business-as-usual politician.”) The ads, produced by a team headed by Texas ad man Dennis McClain, are polished yet inexpensive (cost: about $5,000 apiece, compared with $40,000 for Bush’s tax-hike ad). Perot is closely involved; he scripted and extemporized the entire half-hour ad that ran last week. Says senior aide Orson Swindle: “We haven’t deviated one iota from our original plan — to detail the issues and discuss them forthrightly.”

That’s one campaign promise all three candidates would readily agree with. The surprise of the political season so far is how much, even in 30- and 60- second bites, they are sticking to it.

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