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.
But over the years, Republicans retained their vestigial ties to Madison Avenue. One reason is that Republican presidential campaigns have more often leaned toward the values of product advertising—how much of a difference is there, anyway, between selling a washing machine and selling an idea like tax cuts?
Well, there are a few differences. In politics, the budgets are puny and the turnaround time lightning-fast, while in the product world, the pace is leisurely and the spending extravagant. And Madison Avenue executives never work on product campaigns with the kind of ruthless mathematical rules of political campaigns. “Imagine a product that had to get 51 percent market share on a specific date,” says Carter Eskew, the Gore campaign’s media strategist. “And if you failed to get 51 percent, your product would be removed from the shelves. That’s the difference between the two worlds.”
Steve McMahon, who made Howard Dean’s ads, puts it this way: “The advertising they produce is meant to communicate an emotion or feeling, and what we do is move public opinion.”
But for Reagan, and now Bush, there is nothing wrong with a little emotion. Stevens looks at the gap between Washington political firms that practice the art of issue-oriented persuasion and New York ad firms that specialize in triggering emotions, and he sees lessons to be learned. “I can convince you better than someone from Madison Avenue that eating hamburgers at Burger King gives you cancer,” he says. “But they are making you feel emotional and involved in eating hamburgers. That’s pretty impressive. I think people who can make you feel emotionally involved about eating hamburgers have something to teach you about defending the country or improving education.”
In 1984, Madison Avenue reached its apex of influence in presidential campaigns. Reagan’s advertising all-stars, known as the Tuesday Team, included Edward Ney of Young & Rubicam and Sig Rogich of R&R, Kenneth Roman and Hal Riney of Ogilvy & Mather, and Philip Dusenberry of BBDO. The anthemlike spot that opened and closed the campaign, “Prouder, Stronger, Better”—popularly known as “Morning in America”—was a lyrical montage of Americans raising flags, going to work, moving into new homes, getting married, and raising more flags. Except for one photograph at the end, Reagan doesn’t even appear in the ad. “Nineteen eighty-four was the first campaign where it didn’t look like political ads,” says Pacy Markman, a former Madison Avenue ad-maker who worked on Coke’s account for several years and whose firm, Zimmerman & Markman, now produces spots for MoveOn. “I took Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ ad and put a Coca-Cola soundtrack behind it, and it worked perfectly.” Ed Rollins, a top Reagan strategist, once bragged that the ads had helped make ’84 an “issueless” campaign.
Many of Bush’s ads mimic this Reagan strategy. Though some of the spots seek to destroy Kerry’s credibility while shielding Bush from obvious lines of attack, the campaign’s emphasis is on above-the-fray, positive commercials. “Safer, Stronger,” one of Bush’s first ads, is, as the name implies, a direct descendant of “Prouder, Stronger, Better.” There are no facts or accomplishments transmitted, just imagesÂ—a stock ticker and a flag-draped stretcher from ground zeroÂ—that recall the challenges of the recession and 9/11. Text across the screen proclaims TODAY, AMERICA IS TURNING THE CORNER. The tagline simply emphasizes continuity: PRESIDENT BUSH. STEADY LEADERSHIP IN TIMES OF CHANGE. Even in Reagan’s famous ad, a voice-over cited a series of facts about interest rates and other economic indicators that had improved from the Carter years. But Bush’s first few positive spots this year are unique in the history of presidential advertising in that there is no informational content whatsoever. They are truly issueless. In that sense, they represent a striking resurgence of Madison Avenue’s influence in presidential politics.
Bush’s negative spots are more Karl Rove than Y&R. They are fiendishly clever in characterizing John Kerry as a tax-raising flip-flopper who is soft on defense. But in these same ads, Bush isn’t trying just to define Kerry but to disarm the senator issue by issue. In “Differences,” a visually unremarkable attack ad that claims Kerry will raise taxes, Bush’s strategists add a secondary point that Kerry “voted against giving small businesses tax credits to buy health care for employees.” The idea is to preempt Kerry’s future attacks on a key Bush vulnerability, the growing ranks of the uninsured. In “Troops,” the Bush team not only hammers Kerry for voting against the $87 billion supplemental funding for Iraq but specifically mentions that the bill contained money for body armor, higher combat pay, and health care for reservists, three areas that Kerry has attacked Bush for underfunding. Bush’s most recent ad, “Wacky,” done in the style of an old Laurel and Hardy movie, is the most artful preemptive strike. Anticipating criticism for high gasoline prices, Bush says Kerry supported a 50-cents-per-gallon tax hike. Even Democrats are impressed. “They thought, What are we vulnerable on?” says Markman. “We are going to get nailed on gas prices being high, so let’s do an ad on John Kerry wanting to raise gas taxes, and then when they come back at us, it’ll look defensive.”
One of the dangers for any incumbent president, and the issue that undid Bush’s father, is appearing detached from the concerns of average Americans. An attack now coming from Kerry and his surrogates is that Bush is not “on your side.” So in “Wacky,” the voice-over notes sarcastically, “Maybe John Kerry just doesn’t understand what his ideas mean to the rest of us.” With this, Bush has taken his own vulnerability and turned it on his opponent. “That last line is very powerful,” says Mandy Grunwald, who made Clinton’s ads in 1992. “They are trying to drive a wedge between John Kerry and the middle class in this country. They are doing it a thousand ways with cultural issues. That’s the first time they’ve done it with an ad. They want him to seem aloof and French.”
Kerry would like to imitate Clinton, whose 1992 campaign made an art of rapid-response, low-production spots handled by consultants. Even in 1996, when Clinton ran a campaign more similar to Reagan’s ’84 reelection bid, ads resembling “Morning in America” were shelved in favor of spots that touted Clinton’s accomplishments. One ad simply showed a series of fast-moving screens filled with text—no voice-over and no images, just a laundry list set to a drumbeat: BRADY BILL SIGNED. HIGHER MINIMUM WAGE SIGNED. COLLEGE TUITION TAX DEDUCTIBLE. $500 CHILD TAX CREDIT. CLEAN AIR AND WATER. INTERNET ACCESS FOR SCHOOLS. ECONOMIC GROWTH. 10,000,000 NEW JOBS.
Kerry was distracted from following this route by Bush’s early attack ads, which forced him to rush out spots like “Bush Misleading America,” a response to Bush’s “Differences.” The ad argued that “John Kerry has never called for a $900 billion tax increase.” Switching from defense to offense, the ad then charged, “Doesn’t America deserve more from its president than misleading negative ads?” This touches on a central theme in Democratic ads this year: undermining Bush’s credibility. A political ad-maker once referred to this strategy as destroying the aircraft carrier rather than trying to shoot down all the planes.
Kerry’s spots are now in the hands of Bob Shrum. (Another ad consultant, Jim Margolis, recently lost a power struggle with him.) Unlike Democratic admen of the previous generation, who came from a television or an advertising background and moved into politics, Shrum, a champion debater, started as a speechwriter, a press flack, and a political strategist before he learned how to shoot ads. His work, which includes some of the toughest attack ads ever made, favors stark, informational content. (One notorious Shrum ad made for a Texas primary questioned whether Governor Ann Richards had snorted coke.)
Shrum has had his greatest success winning Senate races, and the fear among some Democrats is that his spots are too small-bore and issue-based, lacking a big theme. In one of Kerry’s few general-election ads, the senator presents a list of tasks he would like to accomplish, but not a vision that unites them. “We need to get some things done in this country,” he says, sitting in a living room, directly addressing the camera, “Affordable health care, rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy, really investing in our kids. That’s why I’m running for president.”
If Kerry wanted to add a dash of Madison Avenue to his message, he could do worse than check out the work of MoveOn.org, which is airing the most creative and visually arresting political ads of the season. One of the MoveOn spots is an emotional vignette about a down-and-out factory worker. He wanders out of the plant late at night, lunch pail in hand. Bleary-eyed and haggard, he drives home and stumbles into his house, where bills are piled up and his wife and daughter are already asleep. Above spooky music, a voice-over intones: “Times are tough. So you work overtime to make ends meet. Then you find out George W. Bush wants to eliminate overtime pay for 8 million workers.” The tagline declares, “When it comes to choosing between corporate values and family values, face it, George Bush is not on our side.”
Another MoveOn ad is a spare, dramatic piece that shows a lie-detector machine in a darkened room going haywire as President Bush’s prewar State of the Union speech plays. One of MoveOn’s newest ads features an image from a Bush spot that uses imagery from 9/11. As the Bush image floats across a dark screen, the viewer hears the voice of Richard Clarke condemning Bush’s anti-terror policies.
Many Democrats complain that such Bush-bashing, however inspired, won’t change many minds. But one of the men who helped make them, Markman, came up with Miller Lite’s slogan “Everything you always wanted in a beer and less.” So he may know something about changing minds. And after twenty years in business, Markman now makes only political ads for Democrats and liberal causes. “This is my atonement,” he says.