October 17, 2004
Scary Ads Take Campaign to a Grim New Level
ANTA FE, N.M., Oct. 16 - In one of President Bush's latest advertisements, a clock ticks menacingly as a young mother pulls a quart of milk out of a refrigerator in slow motion, a young father loads toddlers into a minivan and an announcer intones ominously, "Weakness invites those who would do us harm."
In one of Senator John Kerry's recent commercials, a man shoots a machine gun into the air, a car bursts into a huge orange fireball and a group of Iraqi men carry what appears to be an injured person on a stretcher as an announcer says, "Now Americans are being kidnapped, held hostage - even beheaded."
In the final days before the election, the campaigns and the outside groups supporting them are taking an already unusually intense and confrontational advertising war into grim new territory, with some of the most vivid and evocative images and messages seen in presidential commercials in a generation, political analysts and historians say.
At work, they say, are direct appeals to fear, with Mr. Bush's campaign and supportive groups making the case that a vote for Mr. Kerry is a vote for insecurity at home, and liberal groups and Mr. Kerry using commercials to make the case that Mr. Bush's Iraq policy has caused needless deaths that will continue if he stays in office.
"I'm not sure we've really seen a campaign with so many explicit plays to emotion," said Darrell M. West, a professor of political science at Brown University. "What we're seeing this year are direct plays to fear and anxiety."
Local races are following suit. Here in Santa Fe, State Senator Richard M. Romero, a Democrat running to unseat Representative Heather A. Wilson, a Republican, has a commercial showing Osama bin Laden's face and an airplane taking off as an announcer criticizes Ms. Wilson for voting against required air cargo inspections for passenger planes, "a favor to terrorists."
The national political advertising war shattered spending records almost as soon as the general election campaign began. But in these last weeks, the level of spending has exceeded the most bullish estimates, in part because of new campaign finance laws that seem to have flooded the system with more money.
The presidential commercials continue to hit a range of issues. And as Election Day nears, they are increasingly provocative and hard-hitting no matter the subject, from Mr. Bush asserting in a commercial that Mr. Kerry is proposing a government takeover of health care (widely judged to be a gross exaggeration by nonpartisan analysts and journalists), to Mr. Kerry's recent advertisement in which a female announcer says brightly, "There are many reasons to be hopeful about America's future," before delivering the punch line, "and one of them is that Election Day is coming."
Strategists for both sides said a wide array of factors had led them to push the limits, apparently without so far paying any negative price among voters, who seem unusually open to campaign messages in an election year when interest is running so high. The strategists point to the real threats facing the nation, in addition to the rock-hard positions of the voters.
"Looking back at the last three weeks of 2000, there was nothing like what's on now," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of T.N.S.M.I. /Campaign Media Analysis Group. " 'Al Gore's going to bust the deficit' was the strongest thing hurled out there. The level of discourse in this thing is wild."
It is the advertisements that deal with terrorism and the war in Iraq that go the farthest in pushing the boundaries of emotion and would have been almost unimaginable in 2000. Some of the most blistering and graphic spots have come from outside groups.
An advertisement from the veterans group Operation Truth has a young soldier angrily holding forth the stub of his right arm, blown to pieces by a grenade, and recounting how he went to Iraq wrongly believing Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
In a commercial created by a group of family members who lost loved ones in the Iraq war called Real Voices, which the MoveOn political action committee paid to run in several battleground states through Friday, Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, recounts the unbearable pain of losing her son and all but implicates the president in his death.
A recent commercial from the voter fund of a new Republican group, Progress for America, showed pictures of Osama bin Laden and a phalanx of masked terrorists as an announcer says, "These people want to kill us," and asks, "Would you trust Kerry against these fanatic killers?"
And a group calling itself Win Back Respect, which receives financial support from George Soros and MoveOn.org, will begin airing an advertisement on Monday that raises the prospect that the Bush administration will reintroduce the draft to deal with troop shortages from the war in Iraq. The president has emphatically denied any such plan.
In Wisconsin, Tim Michels, a Republican running against Senator Russell D. Feingold, has an advertisement that shows a character casing a nuclear power plant and a train through binoculars. The spot criticizes Mr. Feingold for failing to vote for the Patriot Act.
"In terms of hyperbole and the level of fear that's being evoked, the closest comparison is 1964," said David Schwartz, co-curator of The Living Room Candidate (livingroomcandidate.movingimage.us), an online exhibition of presidential campaign advertisements dating to 1952 sponsored by the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York. "That was the year of the daisy ad, which had a very strong formulation that if you vote for the other guy, the world will come to an end."
The "daisy ad" to which he referred was an advertisement for President Lyndon B. Johnson in his campaign against Barry Goldwater in which a little girl was shown picking the pedals off a daisy before the screen was overwhelmed by a nuclear explosion and then a mushroom cloud and Mr. Johnson declared, "These are the stakes."
Not only are the issues involved in this election unlike any the nation has seen since the Vietnam War and the cold war, but, some strategists say, extreme measures are called for when the television environment is so cluttered with advertising and voter opinion is so stubbornly held.
"To the extent that it's more incendiary than ever, it's because people are more dug in," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic political advertising strategist now working for a liberal group, the Media Fund. "I've never seen a presidential race this polarized. It's a little like trying to break through solid rock. You've got to use really strong dynamite to get in there."
Mr. McMahon said he was speaking in his capacity as a freelance Democratic strategist, not for the Media Fund, for which he has produced an advertisement highlighting connections between Mr. Bush and the "corrupt" Saudi Arabian royal family and points out that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia.
Aides to Mr. Bush contended that the Democratic commercials were not having much of an effect with voters, calling them "defeatist" and overly negative about the state of progress in Iraq.
"I think they're telegraphing a pre-9/11 view of the war on terror,'' said Nicolle Devenish, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bush. "These Democratic images and efforts to attack the war on terror are going to backfire.''
Democrats and aides to Mr. Kerry argue that they are not being defeatist, just pointing out problems in Iraq and asserting that Mr. Kerry will find a solution. "We say we can be safer," said Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kerry. "They're trying to scare people into electing George Bush - it's the politics of fear."
What both sides agree upon is that if the level of advertising spending was impressive in the spring, it is downright astounding in these final days of the campaign.
A few weeks ago, the candidates, their parties and outside groups were spending a combined $25 million on a heavy 7-to-10-day period. From Oct. 7 to Oct. 17 they were to spend up to $40 million, according to one Republican estimate.
The campaigns, the parties and outside groups will have spent about $500 million by Election Day, more than twice the amount of 2000, according to projections by the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a media monitoring service.
Here in the Santa Fe are, viewers saw 4,644 presidential campaign spots between Sept. 24 and Oct. 7, according to a new study by the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project and Nielsen-Monitor Plus, which lists the Albuquerque television market that envelops this town as the nation's second most saturated with political commercials as of Oct. 7. The area most saturated with political advertising was Miami.
"You have to wonder," Mr. Tracey said. "If this is where we are now, fast-forward ahead four years, where can we go? They're going to have to start buying time on HBO."