Nick Peters reports on the hard and dirty tactics that left the US
By the time the last bills from this week’s US presidential and
congressional elections are paid, politicians will have dug into their
pockets for a cool dollars 1 billion worth of television advertising.
And yet this year’s bun-fight has not produced any impressive conceptual
advertising, nor even many slickly original commercials. No, the money
has gone into fast turnaround, short-life TV ads which politicians have
used like hand grenades to lob at the opposing candidate. Sometimes the
ads have been used to attack a question of policy, but more often than
not they have been wielded to expose alleged flaws in his or her
integrity and character, usually with little regard for the truth. And
when a grenade hits home, retaliation must be swift and effective.
‘We sometimes have three hours’ notice to write a script, get it
approved (not by industry watchdogs, who have no power over political
advertising, but just by the campaign), produce it and feed it by
satellite to TV stations,’ Gary Nordlinger, one of Washington’s top
political consultants, explains. An attack ad that runs on the morning
news can be countered by mid-afternoon on the same day. To guarantee
such a rapid response, Nordlinger says that in the last days of the
campaign candidates reserved block spaces of airtime, studio facilities
and satellites, adding further to the enormous cost of running for
For such rapid-fire ads, quality and finesse are not of paramount
importance. ‘Rarely do you want to spend more than about dollars 5,000
or dollars 10,000 on an ad that’s going to have a very short shelf-
life,’ Nordlinger adds.
Nevertheless, US elections are increasingly being fought on the
battleground of the 30-second TV spot. The media - reflecting voter
apathy - have covered fewer and fewer political news stories,
particularly at a local level, which means TV advertising has become the
only way of reaching the people.
A recent survey of 41 cities in 25 states found that on one particular
evening last month, there were twice as many political ads on the news
programmes on all channels as there were stories about all the various
elections. Part of the problem is that donated airtime forÿ20party
political broadcasts has not taken off yet in the US. A PPB can convey a
reasonable amount of information in the allotted time. A 30-second ad
allows for the subtlety of a sledgehammer, which is about all that most
political copywriters aspire to.
Of course, presidential campaign commercials should aim to rise above
what has become the distinctly nasty dog-eat-dog business of political
debate. Yet the advertising run during this election reflected the
meanness and attack philosophy of the dirty battlefield that is American
Ads on behalf of President Clinton showed grainy black-and-white video
clips of the Republican challenger, Bob Dole, which compared highly
unfavourably with the 35mm glossy colour film in which Clinton appeared.
The significant difference in their ages - Clinton is 50, Dole 73 - was
rammed home with a message that said: ‘Bob Dole, wrong for the past,
wrong for the future.’
Dole’s ads were even meaner, showing pictures of crack-cocaine-smoking
youngsters, and accusing Bill (I didn’t inhale) Clinton of turning a
blind eye to the national drug problem.
‘Going negative’, as the expression goes, is nothing new in the
presidential race. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s victory against the
Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, in 1964 was ascribed to a hard-
hitting commercial designed to crystallise voters’ perceptions of
Goldwater as a trigger-happy extremist. The film opened on a little girl
pulling petals from a flower. As she pulled them, she counted down, ‘10
- 9 - 8 - 7...’. When she got to ‘...1’, there was a mushroom cloud
filled the screen. The voiceover told viewers that Goldwater could not
be trusted with America’s nuclear arsenal.
Much later, George Bush ridiculed Michael Dukakis in 1988 with pictures
of the Democrat Dukakis trying to look terribly macho in a tank. Four
years later, Bush attacked Clinton’s Vietnam war record, or lack of it.
So blunt a weapon has the political commercial become that the genre has
become severely discredited. When politicians were first advertised,
they resented suggestions that they were being ‘sold like soap powder’.
A politician could not possibly be considered in the same league as a
seller of soap. Nowadays, it is the sellers of soap who are affronted by
the comparison. Hal Shoup, executive vice-president of the American
Association of Advertising Agencies, says political commercials are
harming both the political process and the image of advertising.
‘Political commercials should be factual, not deceptive,’ he says. ‘They
should be held to the same standards as commercials for any other
He adds that it’s the different imperatives of politicians that allow
them to get away with such bitter attacks on each other. ‘When you are
advertising a product or a service, you’re trying to build trust and
credibility. Electing a politician is a one-purchase decision, you are
not going to be faced with the same decisions in the future.’ Hence a
politician is not concerned if voters find political advertising
repugnant, as millions claim to. All a politician cares about is winning
a larger market share than the other side, no matter if that market
shrinks in the process.
And the market does shrink. James Thurber, Professor of Political
Studies at the American University in Washington DC, believes such
advertising undermines the quality of civic discourse. ‘Negative ads
turn people off, they get angry and they don’t vote,’ he says.
There are some moves afoot to marginalise TV commercials, certainly at
the presidential level, by pressing for free TV airtime for candidates.
The campaign has found an enthusiastic backer in Rupert Murdoch, whose
Fox network has led the way. CNN, C-Span (the public affairs cable
channel) and some of the other networks have followed suit in
surrendering airtime. The results are far more like old-fashioned
British party political broadcasts, with the candidates talking directly
to the camera, explaining their policies in a straightforward, non-
Paul Taylor of the Free TV For Straight Talk Coalition calls it an
encouraging first step that will be built upon next time. But it will be
an uphill task, since more than 70 per cent of all campaign funds are
devoted to TV advertising. The danger would be if politicians simply
move their negative TV ad tactics on to donated airtime. In which case,
they would be able to deliver more of what they do now for the same
money at the next election. And that would be dreadful.