Strategists called it a no-brainer. All Matt Fong had to do was go on TV and remind voters why they had never liked the liberal Barbara Boxer and he would be on his way to Washington.
Instead, Fong's advertising campaign looked like a soft sales pitch for his personality--nice guy, calm, an inoffensive choice for the U.S. Senate. It was an honorable approach, but it left him open to body blows. And boy did Boxer land some doozies.
After a warm and fuzzy debut ad introducing the senator as a mom and grandmother devoted to children, Boxer unleashed a series of commercials depicting Fong as an extremist on issues ranging from gun control to abortion and environmental protection.
Angry Republicans called it the nastiest TV assault they have seen in years: "Her commercials," said veteran GOP consultant Ken Khachigian, "turned a mild-mannered Clark Kent into some sort of wacko anti-abortionist, water-polluting, nuclear-waste-dumping extremist."
Boxer's ads were hard-hitting, but many were not of the classic "attack" genre that is perennially blamed for sowing cynicism among voters. Instead, Boxer's commercials tended to blend doom-and-gloom information about Fong's record with comparative facts about hers.
Surveys show that the use of these "contrast" ads rose sharply in campaigns nationwide this year. More candidates, it seems, are embracing a strategy long used by sellers of consumer products, who have found marketing gold in comparing their diapers or detergent with a competing brand.
Experts say that contrast ads are among the most effective bits of political communication on TV--as long as the negative portion is credible and doesn't get personal.
"Voters are information hungry, and they also know what's fair and what isn't," said Don Sipple, a GOP media consultant. "Contrasting on the issues--even if it's a spirited discussion--gives them information and is viewed as fair."
Although comparative ads are not new, their popularity is. In the past, candidates tended to segregate their negative and positive messages into separate spots, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and an expert on political advertising.
That changed when President Clinton's campaign relied heavily--and successfully--on comparative ads in 1996, Jamieson said. This fall, an Annenberg survey of political advertising in 30 states--including California--found that one-third of the ads were comparative.
In California, contrast ads were used in campaigns up and down the ticket, from the pitching of Proposition 5--the Indian gambling initiative--to the races for attorney general and treasurer.
In the governor's contest, Democrat Gray Davis used the comparative technique to illustrate his differences with Republican Dan Lungren on abortion, gun control, support for public schools and the environment. The intended effect? Paint Davis as a trustworthy moderate with a plan--remember his slogan? "Experience that can move us forward"--and Lungren as being out of sync with ordinary Californians.
"In his ads, Davis made his case and simultaneously contrasted himself with Lungren, whom he painted as out of the mainstream," Khachigian said. "Once those ads took hold, Dan was playing catch-up ball and needed to do the same thing."
Although he ultimately got in some licks, Lungren waited too long to hammer Davis--and erred by releasing too many ads centered on crime, analysts say.
"It was a phenomenal campaign--for attorney general," joked one Republican consultant, echoing a frequently heard criticism of Lungren's approach.
A Los Angeles Times exit poll confirms such thinking. Asked what issue was most important to them as they made their choice for governor, only 17% of voters cited crime. By comparison, 48% said education--a topic that was featured heavily in Davis ads.
On the harshness scale, Davis' TV ads did not come close to the sharp-edged spots created by Boxer's team. Among other things, her contrast ads attacked Fong on his abortion views--he supports a woman's right to choose, but only in the first trimester--and his opposition to further bans on assault weapons.
Exit polling by The Times suggested that her spots on assault weapons paid off. Of the 17% who declared crime the most important issue in deciding their vote for senator, 61% went to Boxer and 38% went to Fong.
Boxer also released several ads that were 100% attack messages, including one called "Clean" that criticized Fong's environmental views.
Saying Fong believes that clean air and water laws are too tough, the ad showed a boy looking anxious as he sipped a glass of water and featured ominous footage of hazardous waste workers clad in protective suits.
The ad was rooted in Fong's support for the proposed Ward Valley low-level nuclear waste dump in the Mojave Desert. Some scientists have said leakage from the dump could contaminate the Colorado River, a drinking water source for millions, but other studies have concluded that the threat is minimal.