Ads enlisted to attack and defend various positions

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As political candidates from both major parties pulled out the stops last week—filling the airwaves and print media with ominous attack ads—I found myself wondering why these kinds of hard-hitting messages aren’t the norm for all kinds of advertising.

Imagine a b-to-b ad along the lines of this one:

“Do you trust Drip Corp.? We sure don’t. An editorial last summer in Water Filtration Systems called Drip a ‘wet mess waiting to happen.’ And customers are still steaming about Drip’s infamous ‘dry mount’ products. Put Drip out to dry. Call Crystal Water Supplies—an honest company that really cares about your water-filtration needs.”

The closest I’ve seen to a political attack ad that isn’t for a political candidate is one from Voices For Choices, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition that includes long-distance companies AT&T, Sprint and WorldCom. The TV and print ads compare telecom giant SBC, which has operations in 13 states, to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “What if the company crying wolf is the wolf?” asks the Voices For Choices TV spot, which ends with a memorable photo of a wolf’s head wearing sheep’s fur.

SBC began running its own political-style ads first. In a TV spot voiced by actor Tommy Lee Jones, SBC says it can handle natural disasters but not the “disaster” that it must support its competitors on its networks for less than cost.

While neither spot mentions it, both are about the Federal Communications Commission, which will rule on these issues at its triannual review of local phone companies early next year. Viewers I’ve talked to are puzzled by the dueling campaigns.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, marketing is being used not to attack but to defend, to counter an increasingly virulent strain of anti-Americanism.

A $15 million U.S. State Department campaign highlighting the diversity of Muslim life in the U.S started late last month. The campaign was developed by Charlotte Beers, the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs and former chairman of WPP Group’s J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. The agency behind the ads is Interpublic Group of Cos.’ McCann-Erickson Worldwide.

The spots, which began airing Oct. 30 in Indonesia, will appear in a number of Muslim countries and in pan-Arab media. They are timed to begin during Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday.

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