OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

After the mid-term US elections, Madison Avenue is seeing red - and not only because red was the colour used on network television news maps to represent the Republican Party.

That's because the campaigning leading up to the elections, which brought substantial victories for President Bush's Republicans against the Democratic Party, was widely decried as being dominated by unfair, unethical advertising, the vast majority blitzing voters in the form of 30-second television ads. One organisation, Campaign Media Analysis Group, estimated that almost 1.5 million such spots ran in the 100 largest markets between 1 January and Election Day, costing an astonishing $1 billion - 49 per cent more than was spent ahead of the last mid-term elections, in 1998.

Worse than the continuous carpet-bombing of the airwaves by the political ads was their content. "Most of the outlay went toward negative or attack advertising," Advertising Age reported, referring to the typically shrill, bombastic scripts. After the terrorist attacks, pundits predicted the attack ad, whether peddling politicians or products, would disappear because the public would deem them inappropriate. That forecast proved as accurate as Graydon Carter's that 9/11 would bring "the end of irony".

(Indeed, there was the ironic choice of colour on those TV news maps for the disappointed Democrats: blue.)

Because the pre-election polls indicated that most major races would be closer than Omnicom is to PepsiCo, many candidates decided to "go negative" early and often. More of those attacks were personal this time around, according to Evan Tracy, the president of Campaign Media Analysis Group.

The reason? With myriad Democrats supporting Bush on Iraq and tax cuts, there were few substantive differences on issues between candidates in the lion's share of races.

The commercials were "often distortions - some of them outright lies", the political columnist Richard Cohen complained. "Voting for tax increases of almost any kind - no matter how urgently needed - can be lethal: 'Jones Votes for Tax Increases 13 Times.' Yes, he did. But did he vote for a whopping increase in the income tax or a modest increase in the cigarette tax?"

The problem for Madison Avenue is twofold. One, most Americans believe that traditional advertising agencies create political ads along with pitches for soap, soup and soda, when the vast majority actually are produced by specialist shops, most located in Washington, owned by political consultants who rarely are part of the mainstream ad industry. So when the public bitches, the anger is misdirected.

Worse than that case of mistaken identity is the guilt by association.

When columnists and commentators castigate inaccurate and misleading political commercials, Americans perceive that as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Disapproval, as it were, applying to all advertising, not only the kind for candidates.

Indeed, for that reason, a decade ago Alex Kroll, then the chief executive of Young & Rubicam, sought while chairing the American Association of Advertising Agencies to enlist his peers in a crusade to reform political advertising. But the effort never gained sufficient momentum and the confusion continues.

So if the next round of elections in 2004 brings yet more misdirected demands to clean up political ads by cleaning up the ad industry, agency executives must expect to hear this admonition: "Ask not for whom the Liberty Bell tolls. It tolls for thee."

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