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Consumer Republic
Politicians talk about reform, but ads are here to stay.

If you winced at the unseemly pile of cash stuffed in George W. Bush's war chest, waxed indignant at Democratic fundraisers held in Buddhist temples or despaired at stillborn campaign finance bills in Congress, I have a scapegoat for you: dot.coms.

I never would have had this revelation but for Al Gore. It was Gore who created a flap when, in a debate with Bill Bradley, he offered to swear off campaign commercials if his opponent pledged the same.

For one brief moment, the campaign-finance debate shifted from symptom to cause. Everyone focuses on how money for political campaigns is raised; Gore momentarily put the spotlight on how it is spent. A lot of money goes to grabbing the electorate's attention - 30 seconds at a time.

Which brings me to the dot.coms. Is there anyone outside of Ted Kaczynski's old neighborhood who isn't aware of the dot.coms' ad spending sprees? E-businesses boggled Christmas season ad inventory and sent the cost of Super Bowl spots skyrocketing. The inventory squeeze pushes prices up for everyone - and that includes politicians.

The more expensive media buys become, the deeper candidates must dig into donors' pockets and the larger their debts to special interests grow. Q.E.D.: The dot.coms are helping to destroy the democratic process.

Indeed, one might think of today's political candidates as Internet start-ups. A few years ago, a fledgling cyberbusiness might seek $3-4 million from venture capitalists.

Today, the figure is around $30 million, enough to pay for an ad budget 10 times the size of cash flow. Does George W. need the media exposure any less than your average dot.com?

Al Gore could call for the elimination of dot.com advertising for all the respect his proposal earned. No sooner had the veep issued his challenge than it was dismissed as a ploy to embarrass Bradley.

Gore, who won a second term as vice president thanks in part to a preemptive Democratic National Committee ad blitz financed by God knows who, never intended Bradley to take him up on it.

Moreover, the guy has every reason to deflect attention from the getting to the spending of campaign money. Yet the immediate consensus was that a presidential campaign without TV ads is unthinkable.

Imagine if Bradley, instead of a nonplussed refusal, had exclaimed, "Al, what a great idea! Why didn't my buddy John McCain think of it?" Everyone loves to hate political advertising. But what would elections be like without them?

In an ideal world, getting rid of ads would shift the focus of the election toward issues.

Debates, Gore's suggested alternative to paid-media advertising, are already the rage this political year - but I'm not sure the issues have benefited much from it.

Most of the time, the candidates sound like guys in a soundproof booth hammering away at sound-bite-sized messages and gaffe-proof, rhetorically flaccid cliches. The "debates" are marketing vehicles without the pith of a 30-second spot.

Staggering as it is to imagine, there might be even less political engagement in this country without ads than with them.

Most Americans hate political ads not because they sell candidates like soap, but because they don't. Soap is sold with far more respect for the truth and much greater attention to the long-term integrity of the product than the endgame of political marketing.

At the very least, campaign spots should be subject to the same truth-in-advertising rules every other marketer has to follow.

Shouldn't candidates for political office show as much respect for the intelligence of the average citizen as an insurance company or athletic footwear advertiser?

The good news this season is that negative advertising, much like network sitcoms, seems to have fallen out of favor, thus far at least.

It's a nice fantasy to think that without ads voters would make decisions based on the facts rather than on "fuzzy images and little, short slogans," as Gore put it. But I'm not sure I'd like to bet our democratic process on it.

The task ahead for candidates is to make sure we don't auction off the government in the process of getting the electoral message out.

Let the dot.coms pay through the nose for media time. Political advertising time should be free. I'd like to hear that topic discussed in a presidential debate.


Debra Goldman, ADWEEK. January 3, 2000.

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