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Politics : But It Is Called Oversimplified : 'Hyundai' TV Ad Boosts Gephardt

March 02, 1988|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — The words and images are disarmingly simple; just a few short sentences about trade fairness, a few quick pictures of blue-collar workers and an earnest-looking Dick Gephardt standing in the Iowa cold.

But put together, those words and images become 60 seconds worth of powerful and stirring television, a political commercial that has already changed the course of the 1988 Democratic presidential campaign.

It is nicknamed the "Hyundai spot" for the inexpensive South Korean car referred to in the ad, and it is receiving much of the credit for transforming Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt from an also-ran to a front-runner in the space of a few short weeks.

Soars in the Polls

When "Hyundai" started blasting foreign trade barriers on Iowa's airwaves in January, Gephardt soared in the polls. All but written off as a loser just one month before the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses, he went on to win Iowa and place a strong second in New Hampshire, where he also aired "Hyundai."

Now, Gephardt seems solidly entrenched as one of the Democratic front-runners heading into Super Tuesday, and he is calling on "Hyundai" once more to work its magic in the South. It began airing last weekend and is the only ad Gephardt is using throughout the South.

In fact, "Hyundai" has become the signature of the Gephardt campaign, the centerpiece of a broader populist message aimed at voters who are frustrated and discontented over the loss of American pre-eminence in the world.

"The American people understand that America is beginning to be in a state of economic decline," Gephardt argues on the campaign trail.

Human Element

"Hyundai," the brainchild of Gephardt media consultants Bob Shrum and David Doak, has been so successful because it has given Gephardt the vehicle he needed to connect with voters, providing a tight focus and an emotional human element to his aggressive trade program, which is the key to his campaign. It has also turned trade into a springboard that lets Gephardt talk about the broader needs of Americans left behind by the rapidly changing economy.

Through "Hyundai," Gephardt seems to be attempting to turn latent protectionist sentiment into a new kind of economic nationalism that few political observers realized could be exploited so effectively through the trade issue.

'Larger Theme'

"I don't think the trade issue is just about trade," notes Shrum. "The trade issue is about strength, and national leadership and the country. It is a specific illustration of this larger theme, which I think people feel, that we have lost control of our economy."

Yet "Hyundai" has also become emblematic of the central problem with Gephardt's quasi-populist message--like much of what Gephardt says about trade, it vastly oversimplifies the issues to make a dramatic point.

In order to play to a nationalistic feeling of inadequacy and unfairness, Gephardt's "Hyundai" spot argues that the trade deficit is not America's fault, that America is the victim of unscrupulous foreigners.

In the ad, Gephardt makes his point by talking about South Korean limits on auto imports from America.

"They (American auto workers) work their hearts out every day trying to turn out a good product at a decent price," Gephardt says to the camera. "Then the Korean government slaps on nine separate taxes and tariffs. And when that government's done, a $10,000 Chrysler K-car costs $48,000 in Korea. It's not their fault we can't sell our cars in a market like that--and I'm tired of hearing American workers blamed for it.

Calls for Negotiation

"I've been criticized for my trade policy--for saying it's time to open up markets, and push down trade barriers like those Korean taxes and tariffs. The Gephardt amendment calls for six months of negotiation. And if that doesn't work, and I'm President, and we have to walk away from that table, the Koreans will know two things.

"They'll know that we'll still honor our treaties to defend them--because that's the kind of country we are. But they'll also be left asking themselves: How many Americans are going to pay $48,000 for one of their Hyundais?"

While Gephardt's figures in the ad about South Korea's protectionist policies are generally accurate, trade specialists say the ad lays far too much of the blame for America's trade deficit on the trade barriers of other countries.

Tariff Reduced

Since the ad was produced late last year, Korea--which banned all foreign car sales as recently as 1986--has reduced its import tariff on foreign cars from 50% to 40%, and is about to cut it once more to 30%.

As a result, an imported car costing $10,000 elsewhere would now cost about $38,000 in Korea, about $10,000 less than the Gephardt ads say, according to estimates compiled by the Detroit-based Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Assn., from figures provided by the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

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