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Attack ads and our sound-bite elections

An online exhibit of presidential campaign spots highlights some recurring themes from 1952 to the present.

September 28, 2004|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

In the world of political advertising, recycling is big.

Take one refrain that crops up repeatedly: The Republicans claim that Democrats are weak on defense.

A Richard Nixon campaign commercial from 1972 shows anonymous arms sweeping toy soldiers and battleships off the screen to illustrate Nixon's position on how George McGovern's proposed defense policies would slash the military.

Sixteen years later, an ad for George H.W. Bush employed the unflattering image of Michael Dukakis sporting an oversized helmet and riding in a tank as a narrator listed all the weaponry he opposed.

Fast-forward to April's "Weapons" spot by President Bush's campaign: Bombers and jets disappear from a desert scape, leaving a solitary soldier as a narrator intones a similar inventory of the weapons they say his Democratic challenger -- Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts -- did not support.

New package -- old idea.

The modern ad's sophisticated graphics might look slicker, but the trifecta provides an unmistakable echo, their messages unnervingly alike.

Startling patterns like these abound in "The Living Room Candidate," an innovative online exhibit of presidential campaign ads presented by the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y., at www.MovingImage.us.

The curated collection, an expanded version of a similar online exhibit from 2000, includes obscure and revelatory gems: Jackie Kennedy urging voters to support her husband -- in passable Spanish; a relaxed and jovial Nixon hammering out "Happy Birthday" on the piano at a party for Duke Ellington. Not to mention this year's ads, which normally air only for select swing-state audiences.

One section of the site, "The Desktop Candidate," features the Bush and Kerry campaigns' hard-hitting Internet videos and the vitriolic commercials by independent political action committees and so-called 527 groups (named after the federal tax code that created them), such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that have caught the media's attention and ignited controversy.

"I don't think it can be denied that the way a lot of people think about John Kerry has been affected by ... ads by the Bush campaign," said exhibit co-curator David Schwartz. And vice versa, as both candidates dump millions into an escalating TV ad war. "The last time ads played such a role was in 1988," when Republican George H.W. Bush defeated Democrat Dukakis, Schwartz said.

The roughly 250 spots, organized chronologically and by general category (i.e., biographical spots or those featuring real people), span 14 presidential campaigns from 1952 onward. Culled from presidential libraries, campaigns and other sources, the ads are accompanied by historical background, transcripts, election results and a search function.

There are even the hard-to-find ads that were pulled or altered after public complaints, like the current Bush campaign's Web video "Kerry's Coalition of the Wild-Eyed." The 90-second video lumps images of red-faced, yelling Democrats in with that of Adolf Hitler. The Hitler footage was lifted from an ad created as part of an anti-Bush contest sponsored in December by the liberal group MoveOn.org but was not one of the group's official commercials. The edited version of "Wild-Eyed" includes additional explanation of the Hitler images.

The commercials in the exhibit, most of which are 30 or 60 seconds long, with a few four-minute whoppers thrown in, serve as time capsules of American history and filmmaking.

Take the 1952 black-and-white, animated "Ike for President" ad (positively quaint by today's computer-generated stan- dards), which comes off more like a laundry detergent pitch -- complete with singsong jingle -- than a political sell of a World War II hero.

By 1964, the fledgling genre had evolved. Witness Lyndon B. Johnson's "daisy girl" ad, in which a sun-drenched image of a little girl counting off plucked daisy petals is juxtaposed with a nuclear countdown and chilling mushroom cloud footage.

The spot concludes with Johnson's ominous voice-over: "These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other, or we must die."

Vice President Dick Cheney lobbed a similarly apocalyptic barb at Kerry in an Iowa campaign appearance Sept. 7. There he suggested a vote for Kerry could lead to another terrorist attack. "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States," Cheney said.

Schwartz describes the spare, simple "daisy" commercial as "brilliantly done."

"An ad has to make a connection on an emotional level for it to really work," Schwartz said. "Children are very effective ... children can be used to evoke fear, to evoke hope about the future and to create warmth."

Despite myriad aesthetic changes to the format, Schwartz admits that neither side's carefully crafted marketing efforts offer much nuance, content-wise.

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