INTERNATIONAL: INTERNATIONAL ISSUE; Did Dole and Clinton go too negative for American voters?

Nick Peters reports on the hard and dirty tactics that left the US electorate cold

Nick Peters reports on the hard and dirty tactics that left the US

electorate cold

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-

hysterical fashion.

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.


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