Smear campaigns are an American tradition. From George Washington to Bill Clinton, nasty tactics and scandal have accompanied almost every presidential election. Pundits have long complained that ads corrupt elections and keep voters away. Politicians agree, but do nothing to stop the smarmy process. Why? Because as George Bush's nefarious 1988 Willie Horton ad proved, negative advertising works.
But negativity is pricey.
The mother's milk of attack ads is money, and there are two kinds: "soft money" - the unlimited contributions corporations, unions and wealthy donors can give political parties; and "hard money" - direct contributions to candidates, which have limitations under campaign finance laws.
The danger to democracy, which is seen as undue influence by those with deep pockets, comes from soft money. By law, political parties can raise unprecedented sums from the noted sources. The money is spent on "party building" - a pretext for ads and voter-registration drives to bolster candidates. The ads are legal, provided they don't use the words "vote for" or "vote against". The parties use this money for "issue advocacy" or ads that promote a politician and attack his opponents without urging anyone's election.
According to the Federal Election Commission, the two major parties raised about $100 million in soft money last year. If that sounds impressive, consider this: George W. Bush has the largest presidential war chest in American history - according to Harper's magazine, a staggering $58 million - and the election is nine months away.
Can the money pit be stopped? Can voter indifference be halted?
Bates USA is trying. Working through the Ad Council, the agency wants to get voters to the polls with a new public-service campaign, "Y2VOTE", that runs during each state's primary election.
"The consumer's perception is that most political initiatives are not relevant to them. They are about bashing the other person or spending more money or getting your name out there more often," says Bates USA evp, account management Rich Newman.
Bates' answer? To reach alienated voters in the 2000 election, the advertising drives home the point that voter apathy is costly. "Clarence", a 250-pound man wearing only briefs, lies on a couch in a dirty apartment. He explains why he votes. Targeting unregistered voters 18-24 and registered voters who were no-shows in '96, TV and radio spots feature the tagline, "This guy votes. Shouldn't you?"
While Bates is hoping to draw voters to the polls, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and Arizona Sen. John McCain rally support for campaign-finance reform. And for McCain, at least, that battle cry is paying off. A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll found McCain is the most popular presidential candidate among likely voters nationwide, and for the first time, McCain has more support than George W. Bush in a hypothetical matchup against Al Gore.
Time Warner has also embarked on a crusade of its own: quitting the big-money game. After giving about $1 million a year to major political parties, the media giant will instead spend $2 million to improve its own coverage of the 2000 election and will donate $50,000 to the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C., group that supports eliminating soft money from the election process.
"We have had a growing concern about the current system of financing and conducting political campaigns," Time Warner chairman and CEO Gerald Levin said in a memo to his staff. "The impact of unregulated soft money and the prevalence of highly expensive, often negative advertising, are increasingly distorting the electoral process."
Ruth Wooden, former president of the Ad Council and a current volunteer with the Bradley campaign, welcomes the Time Warner plan. "I think it's a good understanding of what the real problem is, which is subverting participation and democracy," she says. "People feel they don't have any stake in the process because of soft money."
Time Warner joins AlliedSignal, Monsanto and General Motors - companies that have said no to soft money in recent years. CED will use Time Warner's money to recruit business leaders committed to campaign-finance reform. The coalition's board of trustees already includes CEOs from Xerox, Sprint, GTE Corp., Federal Express, the New York Stock Exchange, United Parcel Service and Bates Worldwide, among others.
What's the draw?
Companies resent being told that if they don't give, the political party or candidate will favor a more willing business competitor, says CED president Charles Kolb. "This has been analogous to a nuclear-weapons strategy, where companies have been made to feel they have to do more than the others," Kolb said. "They are beginning to realize they don't need to do this."
Corporations may balk, but political parties embrace soft money with a vengeance. It gives them control over how campaigns are run and what messages voters hear. More money means more ads - airing earlier than ever before.
"Future", paid for by the New York State Democratic Party and produced by the political consulting firm Axelrod & Associates, Chicago, featured Hillary Rodham Clinton, a candidate for New York's hot Senate seat, with Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The more than $100,000 spot aired Nov. 9 to Dec. 1 in upstate New York and urged voters to "Call Hillary. Tell her to keep fighting for children, for families, for our future."
"We're seeing ads that used to be national party ads to help presidential candidates seeping into Senate races," said Trevor Potter, an attorney with the Washington law firm Wiley, Rein & Fielding and former chairman of the FEC. "The Clinton ad is the opening salvo of what we'll see in 2000."
Of course, Democrats aren't alone in their march on Washington. The National Republican Congressional Committee ad campaign "It Takes a Thief" aired in October and initially targeted 10 Democrats in the House. The spots suggested that "Democrats and the president's budget plans" could hurt Social Security. The spot urged viewers to call their Congressional rep and "ask him to keep his hands off our Social Security money." The ads ran in districts represented by Democrats Shelly Berkley (Nevada), Lane Evans (Illinois), Jim Maloney (Connecticut) and Dennis Moore (Kansas), among others.
The real fundraising power for Congress is these party committees. Funds for the "Future" ad can be traced to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raises hard and soft money for its candidates. Some specifics: The Republican National Committee raised $28 million in soft-money donations last year, with the Democratic National Committee raising nearly $20 million.
The glorious irony is these committees exist solely to elect federal candidates, but they are busy raising soft money which cannot be spent for the election of federal candidates, Potter notes.
If Congress clamps down on soft money, expect funds to make a beeline for political action committees. Unlike national political parties, ads funded by PACs are designed to appeal to the fringe. For instance, the National Rifle Association lavished money on single-issue ads in 1994 to avoid restrictions on campaign contributions-and sent Democrats reeling.
The current campaign-finance system also benefits broadcasters; they reap millions from political ads. The Television Bureau of Advertising predicts broadcasters will pocket $600 million in political ad revenues during the 2000 election.
In the 1997-98 election cycle, nearly $350 million was spent on broadcast issue ads alone, double the amount spent in the 1995-96 cycle, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center. More than half of the ads for each party were attack ads in the months before the election.
"The TV industry is getting fat and happy at the same time it is abandoning serious coverage of politics," says Paul Taylor, the group's executive director.
Still, TV isn't the only media outlet for politicians - or their money. The Internet provides unlimited opportunities for politically engaged citizens and groups to strike back.
For now, Bradley and McCain have pledged to turn down soft-money contributions if they win their respective nominations. Bradley says he and McCain are "willing to join together for a higher purpose: to put an end to the plague of money in our national politics."
Indeed, Bradley, Gore, McCain, Bush and Orrin Hatch all signed a "civility pledge" in December, promising to "respect" opponents and vowing to avoid attacks that "demonize". McCain and Bush shook hands in January promising never to run negative ads. But the goodwill didn't last long.
McCain likened himself to Luke Skywalker in the South Carolina primary, casting Bush as Darth Vader. For his part, Bush has gotten surlier about McCain as the latter's popularity mounts. And despite Bush's deep pockets, his money is working against him. Voters see him as the consummate player, plugged into powerful business interests, while McCain's rebel-with-a-cause stance is playing well in the polls.
So can Bates' edgy creative and corporate goodwill change the political landscape? It's early days - and the game is afoot.
Wendy Melillo, ADWEEK. February 24, 2000.
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