Another complicated, high-stakes public policy dust-up in Washington-telecommunications reform legislation-seems destined to erupt into a hotly fought advertising war. Arrayed on the battlefield in the telecommunications debate are the Baby Bell regional phone companies and their allies, wanting government clearance to compete in the national long-distance market, versus existing long-distance powers AT&T, MCI, Sprint and their allies.
Both are lining up political consultancies to advance their views. The AT&T-MCI-Sprint group, through the new Competitive Long-Distance Coalition, chaired by former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr., is said to be talking with political ad consulting shops, including one headed by Larry McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy is the creator of the controversial "Willie Horton" spot that devastated Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Memories of the "Horton" spot give us concern. The marketplace stakes here are high, no doubt; but could blue-chip corporations like these even consider the kind of win-at-any-costs advertising style the "Horton" spot represents? Like the health care reform plans that roiled the last Congress, this battle could affect all citizens; that makes it likely that, while advertising on both sides of the issue will target members of Congress, it will also spill over, for better or worse, to the general public as well.
We've commented favorably in the past on using advertising to influence issues in Washington. Skilled communicators can present their side of issues clearly and persuasively through advertising, letting everyone know what's at stake. Or they can dangerously oversimplify or distort issues and records, as many feel the Horton commercial did by suggesting Mr. Dukakis, as Massachusetts Governor, recklessly released dangerous felons from prison.
AT&T, Sprint and MCI already manage to confuse most of America in their individual ads promoting long-distance rates. Now that they and their regional phone company rivals are locked in battle, both sides' issue advertising should help Congress reach a good decision by stating the issues as each side sees them-clearly and powerfully, to be sure, but without distortion and resort to half-truths.
A draft of the bill-the Telecommunications Competition & Deregulation Act of 1995-is now before the Senate, and action is promised this session. That long-distance users have much at stake is obvious. But so do those in the ad business who only look on. A fair fight will demonstrate how advertising can help the issues marketplace, just as ads hone competition for goods and services. But ads that confuse rather than explain hurt the credibility of all advertising. Let's hope these ads reach out and teach someone.