Last month, George W. Bush, John Kerry, and their allies spent $35 million airing more than 30,000 television ads in 70 media markets across America. Except for a handful of spots on national cable, New Yorkers didn’t see a single one of them. Like 32 other states, New York is safely locked up, and neither party is likely to spend a dime here on advertising. Flip on the TV in the media capital of the world and you would hardly know it’s an election year. But in the seventeen states targeted by both candidates—including Florida, a pocket of the Southwest, a belt of America stretching from Pennsylvania to Iowa, and a few other scattered spots—the presidential campaign is in full swing on the airwaves.
The ads, in both their content and their production, reveal a lot about the two campaigns. Many of the spots run by Kerry are about the economy, while the eleven ads produced by the Bush campaign so far make it clear that the president is patterning himself after Ronald Reagan, 1984. Running its man as a tax-cutting leader facing a global menace, the Bush campaign sees Reagan’s Cold War reelection battle as its natural model.
Like the Reagan team, the Bushies get lots of input from the New York ad world. “I’m a huge fan of Madison Avenue,” says Bush ad-maker Stuart Stevens. “I think some of the most creative people are in that world.” Harold Kaplan of Young & Rubicam is advising Bush, as is Vada Hill, best known for working on Taco Bell’s talking-dog ads. In addition to these formal advisers, Stevens says, the campaign regularly bounces ideas off an informal group of New York ad-makers, just as Reagan’s did.
The Kerry campaign has nobody from Madison Avenue. His ads hearken back to Bill Clinton’s approach in 1992, when a few New York admen were consulted but had little influence with Clinton’s political strategists. Kerry is also being aided by a series of independent groups such as MoveOn and the Media Fund, which have financed a series of anti-Bush ads. (You can tell the difference between independent ads and the official campaign ads, because the candidates are obligated under the new campaign-finance laws to identify themselves in their own commercials and to say they’ve approved the messages.)
Out in swing-state America, the candidates debate the issues in 30-second chunks all day long; in Washington, there is a second debate among the professionals—about which ads are working and why. A recent Gallup poll shows John Kerry’s ratings plunging on the issues Bush’s ads attacked him on. But that hardly settles the question. Last week, the Annenberg Public Policy Center reported that after the first two weeks of intense combat over the airwaves, voters in the swing states had the same views of the candidates as they did before the ads started.
Odd as it may seem, the GOP has historically been closer to New York ad-makers than the Democrats. The ties go back to 1952, when M&M pitchman Rosser Reeves (who made up the phrase “It melts in your mouth, not in your hands”) sold Dwight Eisenhower on the idea of running spots before I Love Lucy. In the fifties and early sixties, Madison Avenue firms, fearful of alienating their pro-Republican corporate clients, simply refused to work for the Democrats.
This forced the Democrats to create their own media teams, and out of those experiments the modern political consultant—half advertising man, half political strategist—was born. With the rise of the consultant class in the seventies, much of political ad-making shifted from New York firms used to selling products to Washington firms specializing in selling candidates.