TOPICS > Politics

Madison Avenue and the Election

October 23, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The election is suddenly less than two weeks away, and as you just saw, the candidates are going all out. Their television ad campaigns are in high gear too. For some perspective on the newest round of advertisements, we’re joined by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Kathleen, you just heard the candidates on the campaign trail. At this stage, do their speeches, their public speeches, match their ads?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, Annenberg School for Communication: (Philadelphia) No. Actually, the candidates on the campaign trail are spending a much higher percent of their time telling us why they ought to be President, which is one of the reasons many people favor giving the candidates free time, provided they speak directly to camera. There are things candidates are much less comfortable saying in person, but are willing to say in their ads, and that’s what we’re seeing in this week’s advertising, which has shifted the debate to a focus on character in the guise of ethics, campaign finance reform, truth-telling, and corruption.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let’s look at some ads. First, let’s look at two Dole-Kemp campaign ads. These are now running on television in select markets.


ELIZABETH DOLE: (in ad) My husband is a plain-spoken man from the heart of America, Russell, Kansas. In Russell, you say what you’re going to do, and you do it–the truth–first, last, always the truth. When Bob Dole says he’ll cut your taxes 15 percent, he’ll cut your taxes 15 percent. This is Bob Dole. He’s a workhorse, not a show horse. And he knows whose money it really is–your family’s.


AD SPOKESMAN: Bob Dole: desperate attacks. President Clinton restricted foreign lobby and fought four years for campaign finance reform. Dole and the Republicans took 2.4 million from foreign interests–foreign oil, foreign tobacco, foreign drug companies. A top Dole official fined $6 million for a Hong Kong fund-raising scheme, an independent watchdog cites Dole as the Senator most responsible for blocking any serious campaign finance reform. Bob Dole–wrong to turn to desperate attacks.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Those were not both from the Dole-Kemp campaign, but let’s talk about those ads. Are these themes new? Is this something we’ve been seeing, or is there something new here?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The theme that Bob Dole tells the truth was an important theme in the convention speeches. Elizabeth Dole made the point that members of the Senate and the House consider Bob–Bob Dole’s word good as part of her speech at the convention. And that was a theme there. The important, unanswered question in that ad is: How is he going to be able to cut taxes, preserve entitlements, and raise defense spending? One can say that he is honest and his word is good, but one also has to ask how is he going to accomplish that? That is, as yet, an unanswered question.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s interesting the use of Mrs. Dole. There were surrogates used during the primary campaign, Senators, Republican Senators, spoke out for, for Sen. Dole, but he hasn’t really used surrogates in the ads recently, has he–just Mrs. Dole.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There have been a series of ads in which Elizabeth Dole has made the case for her husband. She’s an articulate spokesperson who makes the case convincingly. It’s hard to make the case for your own personal integrity, and a spouse can make that case well, particularly as one as personable and articulate as Elizabeth Dole. The ad also has the advantage that, as you know, Elizabeth Dole has been on short lists in the past as a Republican vice-presidential possibility, and this reminds people that there is a political future for Elizabeth Dole, whatever the outcome of this election.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that ad effective with voters?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It is effective in reinforcing a primary Dole theme, which is 15 percent across-the-board tax cut. It is less effective for those voters who already know that promise and are still asking the question how is he going to deliver that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. What about the second ad?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The second ad is a Clinton ad, and it’s one of three on the air right now that raise the ethics and campaign finance question. There is a comparable ad by Dole who alleges the same kinds of things about Clinton as Clinton is alleging about Dole, and a third ad by Perot which suggests those two folks are both to blame, and we need to clean up the whole process. In that exchange, Perot is the one who is right. The problem with his ad is that one ought not to focus on ethics in an ad that is unethical. This ad is taking a statement from the head of Common Cause and suggesting that Common Cause, as a result, thinks very poorly of Dole, the implication being that that watchdog group thinks well of Clinton. Well, Common Cause wants that statement out of the ad because Common Cause has criticized Clinton as well. And when the ad says that he’s fought for finance reform, that just isn’t true in the, in the perspective of the people who studied this, particularly that cited watchdog group. So when one’s talking about one’s ethics, it would be a good idea to do it ethically, I think Clinton ought to pull this ad.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it an effective ad?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It’s effective if you haven’t paid attention to the news media and if you’re only seeing the Clinton ad, which in some states is possible, because Dole is now reconcentrating his resources in a limited number of states, but for those who have paid attention to the big problems this year, the campaign finance problem is real, it is pervasive, and it affects both parties. This could be a chance to elevate the discussion to put a reform agenda out for both of these candidates, give the electorate a chance to say, yes, that’s what we want, and give the new president a mandate to govern. So for some, it may be effective because they haven’t a full plate of information. For others, I suspect people are looking at this and saying our cynicism ought to be higher than it actually is because, after all, these folks are just sitting there lying about each other in their ads and lying about what they’ve done.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kathleen, let’s look at two other ads now. These are also airing in select television markets.


AD SPOKESPERSON: Does the truth matter?

BILL CLINTON: Now, I will tell you this. I will not raise taxes on the middle class.

AD SPOKESPERSON: He gives us the largest tax increase in American history.

BILL CLINTON: The era of big government is over.

AD SPOKESPERSON: He gives us a massive government-run health care system.

BILL CLINTON: Everybody knows that I have tougher ethics rules than any previous president.

AD SPOKESPERSON: More investigations, more prosecutions, more convictions. And the list goes on and on. Does the truth matter? Does it matter to you?



JAMES BRADY, President Reagan’s Press Secretary: It was over in a moment, but the pain lasts forever. President Clinton stood up and helped pass the Brady Bill. It wasn’t about politics. The President had the integrity to do what was right. When I hear people question the President’s character, I say, look what he’s done, look at the lives the Brady Bill will save.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kathleen, let’s start with the Brady ad.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Again, powerful, personal testimony about character, and that way comparable to the Elizabeth Dole ad, and in this case on an issue in which there is an important issue distinction between the two candidates, although Dole does not say that he would try to actively repeal the Brady Bill at this point. The controversial thing about this ad is the opening sequence which shows the assassination attempt on the life of President Reagan. Mrs. Reagan has asked that they stop showing that. From an historical perspective, however, one should note that Reagan used that footage in his ‘84 reelection bid as part of the half hour commercial that he opened the fall campaign with. So it is something that we have seen before in an advertising context. I think it’s a legitimate use since Brady was involved in that confrontation and was seriously wounded.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kathleen, it’s an ad that is pretty much a direct response to the ethics attacks–Sen. Dole’s ethics attacks. Is this a new way to do it, or is this the way that the Clinton campaign has generally been responding in ads?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: This is a new way to do it, and I think it is the most powerful of the Democratic ads. Part of the reason that it is powerful is that it is a moment that Clinton can turn to, to say that I bucked the tide, I worked against some powerful forces in the establishment, and there was a cost for doing it, the cost taken largely by Democrats in Congress who supported him, and so this is the case in which Clinton did stand with principle in some cases and stood against people who were potentially able to hurt members of his party and possibly him.

MS. WARNER: Okay. Let’s look at the Clinton-Gore ad–I’m sorry, at the Dole-Kemp ad: Does the truth matter? Tell us about what you think is happening there. Is this a new kind of theme?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The important change in themes this week is that we have both candidates talking about corruption, ethics, and campaign finance, and I hope we’ll be able to find a way to elevate that dialogue to a substantive level that will create a mandate for reform because it’s a very important problem, but this ad, like the other, aired on the other side, is severely problematic. Let’s quickly look at some of the things the ad that focuses on truth tells us that aren’t truthful. First, it invites a false inference which is that the Clinton tax cut was a tax increase, was a tax increase on the middle class. The middle class, the middle class felt some impact that the bulk of that tax increase was on the wealthy. Then the statements by Clinton, the statement in which he says the era of big government is over is from his State of the Union Address of 1996. The health care reform effort was undertaken in 1993/94, by reversing the order, it looks as if Clinton was inconsistent. If you put the order back in its correct chronology, what it suggests is Clinton learned a lesson about the nature of government, and then finally, has Clinton put in place stronger ethics rules? Well, in fact, he has. He has limited the revolving door out of the White House into the special interest positions that many in power have moved to before coming back into power, and then you have more investigations, more indictments, more corruptions. The question is more than what, not more than previous Republican administrations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about using quotes from President Clinton and then undercutting them, is this something new?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, that was the standard strategy used in 1992 by the Democrats to defeat George Bush, show him actually saying something and then put factual material up behind it. But what’s different here is that the level of facticity here has dropped on the part of both of the candidates, and that is a particular concern in ads that are focused on truth telling and on ethics. One should be ethical in an ad about ethics. This doesn’t speak well for these two campaigns. Dole and Clinton should tell the ad makers take those ads off the air, let’s discuss the substance of campaign finance reform.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How effective do you think this kind of ad is?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think the Brady ad effectively blunts part of the charge about character for Clinton, and I think the fact that both sides are airing ads addressing the weaknesses of the other helps the electorate realize that this is a problem that they both have. And as a result, it should be able to be the basis for the electorate if it doesn’t simply turn off the process and cynically walk away to say this is going to be an election in which we send the signal we want campaign finance reform, we want stricter guidelines and stricter rules that are enforced on all forms of soft money contributions, as well as all those other related issues about how money is spent on behalf of whom to buy what.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kathleen, you’ve mentioned several times–you’ve said something about these ads perhaps turning off people, making people cynical. Do you think that’s the end effect of just about all of these ads?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No. I think the Elizabeth Dole ad and the Brady ad are both ads that are making a positive case and as a result give the electorate something to vote for and give them a rationale that provides a justification for that vote, and they’re making a legitimate point. Bob Dole’s word was widely respected in the Senate. Bill Clinton did buck the tide by supporting the Brady Bill. The other two ads, however, I think invite public cynicism. They are unfair; they’re inaccurate, they’re out of context, they’re inviting false inferences. This is what campaigning looks like when the candidates don’t think that they’re going to be held accountable for deceiving the American people. The press, the pundits, and the public all ought to say to these political leaders, this is unworthy of a presidential campaign.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now what do you think will happen in the next two weeks? Will we see more ads like these, or will there be a new, a new theme, new methods, new approaches?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There was a moment at the bid as part end of May this last year in which the Democrats had an ad on the air that engaged in an unfair attack on Bob Dole. After Clinton had written a gracious letter to Dole commending his service in the Senate, that ad said that he was a quitter who’d walked away from the gridlock he helped create. At the same time, the Republicans put an ad up for the press that ultimately they did not air that ridiculed Clinton for a position he was taking in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, an ad that invited the inference that Clinton doesn’t take his job seriously. And those two ads received a round of criticism very quickly after they were previewed, after one aired. The Republicans never did air their ad; the Democrats took their ad off the following Thursday after it had gone on the air the previous Friday. I think that whether or not these ads stay on the air is largely a function of whether the pundits, the op-ed writers, and the constituents for these candidates, the people in crowds, the people who work for them, say to them this is inappropriate. They overstepped in May; they were pushed back into line. I think they ought to do this on their own now, but, if not, I think we ought to give them clear sense that this just isn’t the way to conduct a campaign.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thank you very much.