Paul Tsongas still winces when he talks about political advertising.
Early in the presidential primaries, when there were serious concerns about his health, his staff suggested a TV spot with him swimming in his trademark Speedos. A production crew led Tsongas to a pool. But when Tsongas started swimming the breast stroke, the director told him the only way to persuade voters that he was truly healthy was to do the butterfly. So he did.
"That wasn't even my stroke," says a remorseful Tsongas, who wants to see political ads reformed. He says his own Madison Avenue image makers tried to make him "something I'm not."
Critics contend that that is precisely what all political advertising does. With the Democratic convention underway in New York and the Republicans scheduled to meet in Houston next month, the American public is about to see the biggest barrage ever of presidential political ads--primarily because of the presence of a free-spending, third-party candidate. While Americans generally say they dislike political advertising, in a recent poll, 67% of them conceded that political ads do play a role in shaping their views.
That is why advertising experts estimate total ad spending by all the presidential candidates is expected to top $600 million in 1992, a significant jump from the $500 million spent in 1988.
With so much on the line, the candidates are already turning to some of the nation's most successful ad executives--hoping that Madison Avenue magic can help them land a Pennsylvania Avenue address. Even with the free air time they have each received on talk shows and news programs--and the half-hour infomercials scheduled by the candidates--there are no signs yet that any of the candidates plan to turn away from traditional 30-second and one-minute TV spots. And the messages too will sound very familiar.
"Everyone will try to present themselves as the un-candidate," said Gil Troy, a political historian and author of the book, "See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate."
"But the only way to appear to be the un-candidate is to have some high-priced, Madison Avenue talent crafting that image," Troy said.
Over the weekend, Ross Perot may have stalled his campaign when he fired Hal Riney, the same San Francisco adman who created the heart-warming "Morning in America" ads that helped reelect Ronald Reagan in 1984. Riney, who may be best-known for the folksy Bartles & Jaymes ads his agency created, declined to comment, but Perot was reportedly displeased with the content and cost of sample campaign ads made by Riney.
President Bush has turned to Martin Puris, the veteran New York adman whose agency helped give BMW superb snob appeal with the slogan, "The ultimate driving machine." Meanwhile, Bush's reelection team is reportedly monitoring that its network ads only be placed on programs that it believes have moral standards.
Looking for breakthrough ads, Bill Clinton turned to first-timer Donny Deutsch, whose New York agency Deutsch Inc. has created edgy campaigns for clients such as sneaker maker British Knights, whose devil-may-care slogan reads, "Your mother wears Nike."
Although executives declined to talk specifically about the upcoming campaign, Clinton's ad team is not ruling out the prospects of negative ads. "Negative advertising works," said Steve Dworin, president of Deutsch. "It generates interest and it brings the consumer news."
But it certainly won't all be negative, assured Donny Deutsch, the agency's creative chief. "Clinton is the guy wearing the white hat. That's the image we want to get across."
Mapping out Clinton's overall ad strategy is a Washington-based political consulting firm, Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Grunwald & Associates. California residents recently saw the firm's ad efforts in its hard-hitting spots for Senate candidate Barbara Boxer, a winner in last month's Democratic primary.
Now, the firm hopes to help send Clinton to the White House. "It's a tremendous challenge to refine the work of a man's life and the ideas he has for his country into a 30-second spot," said Mandy Grunwald, a partner in the firm. "But it's what we do for a living."
Meanwhile, the Bush campaign is distancing itself from a TV ad that attacks Clinton's character--and which ask viewers to pay $4.99 to hear tapes of a phone conversation between Clinton and Gennifer Flowers. The ad was created by Floyd G. Brown, best known for creating the "Willie Horton" ad that devastated Michael Dukakis four years ago.
Perhaps the biggest source of frustration for the ad teams is the fact that this is not a one-on-one contest.