World: Analysis - Gloves off in the propaganda contest for the US presidency

This year's campaign sees smear tactics escalating to a new level.

"John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam and cannot be trusted ..." the voiceover claims on a commercial from the pro-Bush group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

"Bush smeared John McCain four years ago," the latest ad from Senator John Kerry says. "Now he's doing it to John Kerry. George Bush: Denounce the smear. Get back to the issues ..."

These ads, plus numerous others from mainstream and independent groups, look like the usual pre-election political mud-slinging. But what's different about this election is the depth of rabid feeling running throughout America, the lengths to which people will go to achieve their aims and the money they have to do it with.

Traditionally, August is a quiet time for almost everything. But this year, voters in key states were subjected to a barrage of misleading ads, filled with exaggeration and omission, from the two campaigns - as well as from umpteen independent groups - all fuelled by war chests thought to total $1.6 billion, according to TNS Media Intelligence - twice what was spent on the 2000 election.

There is widespread agreement that TV advertising is essential to a political campaign. "TV ads are very important," Adam Clymer, the political director of the National Annenberg Election Survey, which conducts opinion polls, says. "It's how many voters get their news, especially local news, a prime medium for political ads. If you place an ad in the news section, a lot of people don't differentiate between news and ads."

The first presidential TV spots ran back in 1952, but "attack" ads didn't hit their stride until the 80s and 90s, with Republicans being particularly adept at the form. Democrats still wince at the withering attack on Michael Dukakis, the trashing of Bill Clinton, and the turning of Gore's minor misstatements into "evidence" that he was a monumental liar.

What has dramatically changed political advertising, however, is a tax-code loophole which allows party donors to pool huge amounts of money through independent advocacy groups. Hence the entry into the fray of the supposed Vietnam veteran group "Swift Boat" and the pro-Kerry organisation MoveOn.org.

In May, MoveOn.org launched a $10 million campaign of anti-Bush ads across 17 main battleground states. One, "fire Rumsfeld", showed a hooded Statue of Liberty to remind voters of how US soldiers had abused prisoners in Iraq.

The Bush campaign, masterminded by the Machiavellian spinmeister Karl Rove and a political ad agency called National Media, known for its attack ads, went on the offensive from the start, accusing Kerry of waffling and failing to support US troops. Kerry meanwhile, with help from the political operative Mart Beth Cahill (who helped transform James Carville into a media celebrity) and the ad agency Shrum Devine & Donilon, hit back with a $25 million biographical campaign. His TV spots opened with black-and-white footage of Kerry's parents, followed by stirring shots of him in Vietnam and soundbites from his daughter, wife and fellow war vets.

The political battle picked up in July when Bush ran "together", a spot that reminded viewers of the challenges the nation has faced since 9/11.

By showing heartwarming images, it aimed to show Bush protecting the US way of life. In August, came Bush ads with an Olympian theme. "This Olympics, there will be two more free nations," the voiceover says, implying the obvious.

But when the Swift Boat crew began casting aspersions on Kerry's three Purple Hearts, he swiftly retaliated during a month in which he had not intended to advertise. All of which was topped off by the resignation of Bush's lawyer amid accusations of links with the Swift Boat campaign.

Bush subsequently asked all independent groups to end their attacks.

"All this finally proves that David Ogilvy was wrong: the customer is a moron," Paul Cappelli, the president of New York's The Ad Store, says.

"Polls show people actually believe this stuff. It's the lowest common denominator - anti-advertising based on unfounded soundbites that puts doubts in people's minds.

"The last great political ad was Reagan's 'morning in America'. At least with Phil Dusenberry you had one of the great optimists overseeing things.

These ads are done by political agencies and it's like the lawyers have run amok. They're basically saying, if you vote for the other guy, you'll die."

Other ad pundits agree. "It's depressing," David Baldwin, the executive creative director of McKinney+Silver, says. "The only good ads with a point and a concept are those by MoveOn.org. Both camps have ignored the rules of smart communication with no respect for what great advertising can achieve.

"Wonderful ads such as LBJ's 'Daisy' summed up the mood of the country. Now it's sniping based on focus groups and polls. It's a very sad statement about the office of the president."

Meanwhile, with the presidential candidates running neck and neck, no-one is expecting attack ads to go away anytime soon. "The public always says it doesn't like attack ads, but they work," Clymer says. "Otherwise politicians wouldn't be doing them."

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