BUENOS AIRES-With just a handful of rabble-rousers from the extreme left and right and two more mainstream rivals challenging Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem, at least $70 million is being shelled out in advertising for the May 14 election.
The election will mark the third consecutive presidential election in Argentina, where military governments have taken power six times this century, with the last stint ending in 1983.
Aided by a federal government handout of $15 million and expected to spend $30 million to $40 million in campaign advertising handled by Ayer Vazquez, President Menem of the Justicialist Party is clearly the election's highest roller. At least one opponent is vocally criticizing the president's campaign spending-inflating the figure to an unrealistic $80 million-and critics are saying that big bucks from the party in power could be a mistake.
"If I was the government, I wouldn't spend so much," said Gabriel Dreyfus, president of ad agency X Latina, who has worked on past presidential campaigns. "It could turn out to be a boomerang if the government spends so much and the opposition says there is an economic crisis."
Argentina currently has record 12.2% unemployment and a looming recession.
President Menem, who won a 1989 victory with a populist "Follow me, I will not deceive you" slogan, is trying to juggle a number of strategies in the current campaign. His biggest challenge: to keep the big business vote he courted throughout his entire term while not alienating the masses-hardest hit by his economic reforms-who helped him win the last vote.
TV ads, therefore, have ranged from apparently well-to-do party loyals convincing their friends over dinner to vote for President Menem, to scenes of political rallies attended by modestly dressed folk with the mass-appeal "Menem, let's go with Menem" jingle overdubbed.
Also helping President Menem is Justicialist Party general advertising, which totaled $11 million last year.
Promotions, ranging from T-shirts to cigarette lighters with the campaign logo, have been another staple.
On the campaign trail, at least, President Menem has been making appeals to the common man. His weekly visits to working class Buenos Aires suburbs aboard a gigantic customized bus dubbed the "Menemobile" see him dressed not in his trademark double-breasted suits, but in a lower key plaid shirt and slacks.
While comparative corporate advertising is prohibited here, politicians have taken up the slack with the opposition engaged in a heavy round of mud slinging.
Jose Octavio Bordon, a senator from Mendoza province and former Justicialist Party member, has been the main thorn in President Menem's side. Mr. Bordon takes a moderate economic and strong anticorruption stance as candidate for the recently formed National Solidarity Front, or Frepaso, coalition.
Well respected as a moderate and sincere politician, Mr. Bordon garnered a surprising 26% of the vote in a poll released April 27, pulling President Menem down to 38%, 2 points below the 40% minimum to avoid a run-off. That has left Rio Negro Provincial Governor Horacio Massaccesi-the candidate from the traditional opposition party Civic Radical Union-in the political dust with less than 20%.
Few rules, other than a total ban on campaign advertising in the last 48 hours, exist.
Already, Mr. Bordon has accused President Menem of spending up to $80 million, while Mr. Massaccesi declared he could fund a number of social programs with President Menem's ad budget.
Mr. Bordon is working with a shoestring budget totaling little more than his $3.5 million federal allocation. "It's not that we don't have ideas [for ads], we don't have the money," he said.
Mr. Bordon's mostly outdoor campaign, handled in-house, goes straight to the point with slogans like, "To beat Menem" and "To end corruption."
Often placed side by side, the posters hit a particular Justicialist sore spot-that despite his economic performance, corruption remains rampant within President Menem's party.
"Bordon has a very good image as a serious, honest and professional man. But that in Latin America isn't enough," X Latina's Mr. Dreyfus said. "You have to be a political leader and be able to move masses. That's something that Menem has and Bordon doesn't."
Mr. Massaccesi, expected to spend up to $15 million including slightly over $10 million from federal funds, has gone after not only President Menem, but also Mr. Bordon. He aims to sell himself as the real alternative since his two competitors were once members of the same party.
TV ads were created in-house, and superimpose images of the two opposing candidates. The spots take a number of potshots at both and finally ask, "Don't they both look the same?"