Political Digressions

The timing of Advertising Week couldn’t be better. It comes immediately after U.N. Week.

U.N. Week, you will recall, features gridlock in midtown Manhattan, motorcades announced by screeching sirens and protected by what appears to be tactical nuclear weapons, and orations by such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose exhortations succeeded in moving Harlem’s Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel to the right, just short of endorsing President Bush for a third term. In fact, if U.N. Week happened right before the Puerto Rican Day parade in June, upper Fifth Avenue residents would greet the march with rose petals instead of barbed wire.

The third Advertising Week recognized the irony of the timing. The opening reception was moved from its second-year location, the Delegates Lounge at the U.N., to a more appropriate and refined hall just down the block from the former site of the World Wrestling Federation’s restaurant.

Advertising Week’s highlight also turned out to be a political digression. USA Today’s Susan Page hosted a discussion with Mark McKinnon, President Bush’s media director, and David Axelrod, a Democrat who led John Edwards’ primary campaign and successful battles over the years, including Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s spread-beating 70-27 percent victory.

The talk began with an obligatory running of the 1964 “Daisy” commercial for President Johnson that only ran once on the Movie of the Week on Sept. 7, 1964. This is, of course, the king of the only-ran-once spots, given the fact that I have seen it at least 500 times over the years—more than Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese, more than Purina Cat Chow. I even experienced just the audio on Leonard Lopate’s NPR show. I came to appreciate the voiceover written by Stan Lee of Doyle Dane Bernbach. If you listen to the words intoned by the president after the little girl is obliterated, you might think that Lyndon Baines Johnson sounds awfully like Squeaky Fromme doing an advance promo for the Summer of Love.

Johnson did what no pol is courageous enough to do these days: the voiceover in an attack ad against an opponent. Between L.B.J. and McCain-Feingold’s passing in 2002, candidates were required to appear, so they popped up almost subliminally in a fuzzy postage-stamp shot at the end of a negative spot. Now they’re required to appear on camera and say they approve the message.

Unless? Unless the message is delivered by something called a 527 group, a sort of Hezbollah-like surrogate for the main campaign. The genius of McCain-Feingold is that candidates’ campaigns are not allowed to coordinate anything with the 527—not media nor message nor theme music. So a candidate does not have to apologize for anything a 527 says, nor can a candidate ask that an offending spot be removed (that would be collusion, wouldn’t it?).

The surprise of the Mark and David presentation was actually a 527 spot that was positive. I had remembered the well-done, convincing story of a young girl talking about feeling secure with Bush in the White House. I was sure McKinnon’s group had done it, forgetting that the president hadn’t come on saying he approved the fact that the young woman felt safe. Larry McCarthy, a most versatile creative person, really did it. He was seeking perhaps expiation for his contribution to the William Horton epic, the film inspired by Al Gore’s use of the weekend furlough—for convicted first-degree murderers banned by the judge and jury from ever being paroled—against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 New York primary.

McKinnon showed a negative spot he and the main campaign did, with John Kerry saying, “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” This, along with the 527 Swift Boat stuff and a radio buy to spur Christian Evangelical turnout, determined the 2004 election more than any other advertising.

Catching opponents in gaffes is always fun and rewarding. And easier today, not only because constantly chattering candidates yield more faux pas, but somebody always has a camera. Axelrod showed a video shot by a campaign worker of Sen. George Allen’s opponent. In it the honorable senator called the cameraman a “macaca,” the name of an Asian monkey used in some neighborhoods as an ethnic epithet.

Allen gets some sympathy, though, from another negative spot. This one a product demo, rare in political ad circles. It showed a dummy protected by two armored Defense Department vests: the old armored vest and a new armored vest. Sort of like the ads where an old loyal spokeswoman dumps Comet Cleanser for New Comet and shocks us all by showing that New Comet works better. So, too, after a registered gun owner pops off a few dozen rounds, the dummy with the old vest looks like Hollis Court Boulevard during pothole season, while the new vest reveals a pristine and well-protected dummy. We are told in voiceover that Sen. Allen voted against funding for the new vest. And we wonder why Allen could be so skinflinty about life in these times.

So where’s the sympathy for Allen? Oh. Seems he didn’t vote against the funding; he voted for it. Juuussst kiiiddding.

Seems like George Allen should be able to sue his opponent’s ass off, if not kick it with impunity. Just don’t call him a macaca, please.

Axelrod, while sympathetic, seemed to see it as a free speech issue with definite Constitutional protections. Maybe he’s right; but problem is even if he’s wrong, how long will it take for a libel or slander trial to come to court? Docket probably shows a date somewhat past the second Tuesday in November, I’ll bet.

The Internet and camcorders together will provide the future of political advertising, both panelists thought. My first thought was this was like nuclear proliferation extending to Somalia or Tonga. But then again, how could it be worse than Kennedy’s fake missile gap or Nixon’s secret plan to end the Vietnam War—so secret the war lasted four more years?

Or somebody during a New York primary putting up signs on telephone poles: “Vote for Cuomo. Not the homo”?