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Anti-Prop. 65 Campaign : Selling the Message--an Image Is Crafted for TV

POLITICAL TV: MARKETING OF A PROPOSITION: Television commercials have emerged as the most controversial element in American politics. Times Staff Writer Peter H. King for five months watched as political consultants made and marketed ads designed to defeat Proposition 65, the California toxics initiative. One in a series. NEXT: Changing the course.

November 12, 1986|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In earlier installments, Sal Russo and Doug Watts--Sacramento-based campaign consultants with a strong regional reputation as Republican strategists--were hired to run the campaign against Proposition 65. They spent the spring and summer researching toxic laws and testing public sentiment toward the toxics issue. By late July they were wrestling with campaign strategy as the time drew near to actually make television commercials.

In late July, a strange and wholly unexpected quiet enveloped the campaign against Proposition 65.

This posed a mystery, for a strategy session earlier in the month had left the impression of a campaign about to take wing. A poll would be conducted, resolving a quandary over what message to sell voters. Radio would be saturated throughout August with anti-Proposition 65 advertisements. Television commercials would be prepared for an early September assault.

None of this happened. No poll results. No radio. No television shoots. For three weeks the entire campaign to defeat Proposition 65 idled in a neutral gear.

The campaign, Doug Watts explained in an Aug. 4 telephone interview, was in a "state of emergency. We are having severe money problems and severe organizational problems. Until the money comes in, everything is on hold. We are now a week behind. We should have been on the radio already. I held up the poll. There is no money for it. We have raised $150,000 so far. That's chicken feed. They keep saying there is $2 million in the pipeline somewhere, but we can't shake it loose.

"It is hurting. I don't like being off the air in August. We can't afford to give away this month. The only reason we are still in business at all is that I literally have been paying the postage. I haven't slept in 10 goddamned days, worrying about this stupid money situation."

He suggested it was even possible that his political consulting firm might abandon the campaign.

Two days later Watts performed a turnabout that was baffling, given the grim tenor of his last communique.

"Well," he cheerily told a reporter, "come on up. We're going to start shooting."

But what about the money?

"It's not any better, but I feel we need to get things rolling. We already have lost August for radio. We can't afford to waste any more time."

But what about the poll, the need to resolve the argument over whether a campaign built around the exemptions argument could win?

"I'm not going to wait for it. I feel comfortable with the information we got. We can make alterations later. . . ."

But what would the commercials say? And what about actors, auditions and all?

"I haven't finished the scripts yet. I haven't gone beyond concepts and notions. Some of this stuff doesn't require great acting talent. And the cost is prohibitive. We'll use some local people. Anyway, come on up. We start shooting Saturday morning."

The first of what would be 18 television spots produced by the opponents of Proposition 65 was shot on Saturday, Aug. 9, in a roomy suburban movie house. It required a cast of 100 extras and one actor. The actor, a local talent, had the only speaking role. It was one line, consisting of just one word:

"Toxics!"

The spot called for 28 seconds of action: Camera pans movie audience until it fixes on actor sitting at front of theater. Actor leans forward and shouts, "Toxics!" Other moviegoers flinch, hurl popcorn in the air and otherwise feign fright. Actor settles back, smiles a sleazy smile. The ad ends with the troublemaker being escorted from the theater. Moviegoers applaud and whistle.

It took three hours to film the spot, and much of the time was spent strategically seating extras. Randy Bond, the director, wanted the theater to appear crowded even though it was not, and he wanted extras with the more interesting faces down closest to the action.

Watts had other considerations. "We can't have it all white," he said. "I think we need a tad more ethnic diversity in the center." Two teen-aged blacks were moved behind the actor. Later, Watts also placed a motherly looking woman, a father type and a small child front and center--nuclear family as victim.

The actor was a young man with a pleasant face and thick, dark hair. He projected a somewhat oafish image. Watts was pleased: "He has a quasi-Tom Hayden look, doesn't he?"

Smoke was fanned throughout the theater, a cinematographer's trick that lends texture to a film image. Cartons of popcorn were passed out to everyone in camera range. Once under way, the actual filming went quickly.

The only real difficulty was making the actor look, as Watts put it, "a little more devious. When he does his yell, I want him to be slightly impish, but he also is supposed to be seriously trying to cause trouble."

The actor rehearsed a snarling look as the camera was readied to roll again.

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