Creators of Swift Boat Ads Sought Maximum Impact

LOS ANGELES In a race as tight as the 2004 presidential election, the lead creatives behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads know that any voters swayed by their messages were crucial.

Chris LaCivita and Rick Reed’s campaign, strategically placed in battleground states with a $13 million media buy (as of last week), was created through Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, an Alexandria, Va., political agency whose work stretches back to the devastating Dukakis-in-a-tank ad.

But this time for LaCivita, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf War, and Reed, whose uncle, Capt. Adrian Lonsdale, is a critic of Sen. John Kerry, it was personal. “The Swiftees came to me to get their message out,” LaCivita said. “After we’d developed the first ad, we knew we had a series, but there was the issue of how we’d pay for them.”

Their first shot across the bow turned into a rainmaker: a $500,000 buy for “Any Questions?” that ran for 10 days in three states garnered donations that allowed the team to produce eight more spots. The Swiftees spent their first $2.5 million, raised primarily over the Internet, for “Ravaged,” which contrasted audio of Kerry’s congressional testimony in 1971with POW statements. Subsequent work presented Vietnam-era Navy personnel, including the gunner who served on Kerry’s boat, discrediting his citations.

The campaign ends tomorrow far differently than it started. Two 60-second spots, a $3 million buy on national cable (Fox) in three states, use a John Edwards speech (“Why?”) to pose a question that a gathering of vets and POWs answers, and a recapitulation of the Swift boat vets’ authority (“They Served”) to criticize his conduct.

Even a New York Times denunciation and a Kerry legal challenge that forced the campaign to produce a 150-page document to support the accuracy of the first ad worked in the veterans’ favor, adding “tens of millions worth in earned media,” LaCivita said. “One week of our run, 58 percent of likely voters had seen or heard of our ads.”

Although Reed’s partner Paul Curcio’s background includes a stint at Benton & Bowles, independent consultant LaCivita is quick to differentiate Reed’s political ad firm from the general-market agency. “I won’t take a swipe at our brethren in the corporate world, but the message, the medium and the context are entirely different,” said LaCivita, political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the midterm elections of 2002. “We don’t want to be clever. We spend the vast majority of the money on GRP, for repetition. People will vote on the message and the sincerity of the candidate, not on how pretty or funny the ads are.”

“The key was to let these guys talk,” said Reed. “What made the campaign work was that these were credible men, telling credible stories, with no agenda outside the truth.” Reed added that in 1976 “[Hal] Riney had a $750,000 budget to ask if there is a bear in the woods. We’re in a different kind of firefight. We’ve had to run two or three times a day with [production]budgets of $7,500 and $13,000.”

“Did we think we would create a shit storm?” LaCivita asked. “Yeah. Did we think it would last that long? No.” For his part, Reed quoted his uncle, Capt. Lonsdale, who appears in the final ad salvo: “If you’re not catching flak, you’re not over the target.”