Stuck in the Mud

Spots for one candidate copy words from a 1984 Reagan ad. Others use gratuitous images of Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorist strikes to attack opponents. And an unprecedented torrent of media dollars allows ad campaigns to kick off earlier in the election cycle, ratcheting up the negative tone to higher decibels.

With voters set to go to the polls tomorrow fueled by some of the nastiest and most expensive mid term-election ads ever—spending is likely to hit a record $1 billion—creatives are lamenting the lack of new ideas in the spots. (See Critique, page 29.) In fact, several political-ad veterans said the midterm election has reached a new creative low: outright plagiarism.

Spots for New York Gov. George Pataki use the words “prouder, stronger, better,” echoing the classic Reagan spot “Morning in America.” The Reagan slogan “Lead er ship that’s working” becomes “Leadership that works” in Pataki’s ads.

“This is like Reebok doing a campaign with ‘Just do it,’ ” said Tom Mess ner, partner at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners. “Are they so bereft of ideas that they can’t come up with anything new?”

The Pataki work is by Republican political consultant Chris Mottola. Campaign reps and Mottola did not return calls. But Republican strategist Ed Blakely, who is creating ads for Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., defended the work, saying that what has worked in the past is likely to work again. “We tend to use commercials in very similar ways decade after decade,” he said.

Blakely argued that voters will object less to old ideas than to ads featuring emotional topics like the war on terrorism.

After he saw the Pataki spots, Barry Vetere of Euro RSCG MVBMS called partner Messner, who worked on George H.W. Bush’s campaign in 1988, and sarcastically asked, “Is Hal Riney working on Pataki’s campaign?” Riney, chairman emeritus of Publicis & Hal Riney, was a member of Reagan’s Tuesday Team, which created “Morning in America.”

Phil Dusenberry, the former chairman of BBDO North America and a member of the Tuesday Team, was surprised to see the Reagan concepts recycled. “Hal Riney wouldn’t even plagiarize himself,” he said.

Dusenberry said candidates risk going unnoticed when they take tried-and-true approaches. “The advertising has created this blur that doesn’t give any one candidate a leg up,” he said.

There is little Riney can do. “I can’t keep Gov. Pataki from ripping anything off,” Riney told Adweek. “The stuff belongs to the Republican National Committee.”

Political speech “enjoys very broad First Amendment protection,” said Doug Wood, a New York advertising attorney.

In 2000, Ralph Nader’s “Priceless Truth” spot parodied McCann-Erickson’s MasterCard campaign, and this year Ohio gubernatorial candidate Tim Hagen mimicked that strategy by referencing the Aflac duck in an online ad. The attack spot featured his opponent’s head on a duck’s body. Aflac sued Hagen and lost.

One factor contributing to the negative tone is that candidates are advertising—and attacking—earlier to build recognition. Bruce Silverman, CEO of Initiative Partners, part of Initiative Media Los Angeles, said the trend serves only to make voters more confused. “You don’t know who the best guy is anymore, so you vote for the least worst guy,” he said.