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Jewish World Review March 16, 2004 / 23 Adar, 5764

Roger Simon

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Ads that subtract | How come smart people do dumb things? No, don't ask Martha Stewart. Ask the geniuses over at the White House, who have created two TV commercials that rank right up there with New Coke and the Susan B. Anthony dollar as expensive and avoidable failures.

Two of George W. Bush's new re-election commercials feature images from Sept. 11, 2001 including World Trade Center wreckage and firefighters carrying a flag-draped coffin.

Some people, including some families of the victims of Sept. 11, are horrified by the use of these images for political purposes. Other people, including some families of the victims of Sept. 11, think using the images is just fine.

Which has led to a nice discussion of the controversy day after day after day.

Which is the problem for Bush: These ads were not supposed to create controversy. They were supposed to make you feel good about President Bush. They were supposed to be warm and fuzzy commercials that created feelings of gratitude and confidence.

The ads — there are three of them reportedly being shown in 18 states at a cost of at least $10.5 million — are not issue ads. The best one (the only good one, actually) is titled "Lead" and features George Bush saying. "I know exactly where I want to lead this country." The president and Mrs. Bush sit together at the White House and there are also images of a teacher in a classroom, men in hard hats, a family at a dinner table, etc.

The second ad, officially titled "Safer, Stronger" should be titled "Dumb, Dumber" for the people who dreamed it up. This ad includes the World Trade Center wreckage and the firefighters with that coffin. The third ad, "Tested", shows a variety of images including Sept. 11 wreckage.

The anger over the second and third ads was immediate and the defense followed a day or two later.

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But according to a recent poll by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, "A majority of the American public considers it inappropriate for President Bush's re-election campaign to use images from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in its television commercials."

It is not a huge majority — around 55 percent — but these were not wedge issue ads designed to divide people and turn out a partisan base vote. These ads were supposed to unite people and create a nice feeling about President Bush.

Ads create feelings all the time. Remember that Pepsi ad of some years ago with that little boy surrounded by puppies who were frolicking around him and licking his face? The message was not: "Drink Pepsi and dogs will lick your face." The message was: "Feel good about Pepsi." (That ad ran in 1976, by the way, and people still remember it.)

So why didn't anyone at the White House realize that using Sept. 11 imagery would lead to controversy, discordance and bad publicity? Well, we don't know for sure. Maybe they have started to believe they really are geniuses instead of just ordinary political operatives capable of making good and bad decisions.

A focus group or two might have helped them. This is the proper use of focus groups. (The improper use is when the media use focus groups to substitute for polls even though they are very different things.)

You sit a group of people down in a room, you show the people the ads and you encourage them to talk.

If the White House had actually done that before releasing the ads, I cannot believe somebody in some group wouldn't have piped up and said, "Hey, you can't use the victims of Sept. 11 in a political ad! That's wrong! People will be really upset with you!"

Let me say right here that I believe the effect of political ads is overrated.

Campaigns are obsessed with ads for two reasons: Ads are totally controllable. Unlike speeches, town halls, press conferences and debates where the candidate can screw up and say something unscripted, every frame of a TV commercial can be shaped and reviewed until it is perfect. (Or until the ad makers think it is perfect.)

The second reason campaigns are obsessed with ads is even less appetizing: Campaign operatives often get a percentage of the TV ad buy, so naturally they love ads.

As far as real voters are concerned, however, they switch the channel as soon as the ads come on, they hit the mute button, or they instantly forget the ads as soon as they have seen them.

Unless a campaign creates a really, really memorable ad, that is. One that creates controversy. Like the Bush campaign has just done.

In that case, people remember those ads for a long, long time and for all the wrong reasons.

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