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By Published on .

With local newscasts dominated by coverage of the Clinton scandal, paid political advertising may be undertaking its most pivotal period ever in congressional and gubernatorial races.

Candidates increasingly are depending on ads as the sure way to get their messages across in the media, said political consultants.

"If paid media was the 800-pound gorilla in the past, it is the 1,000-pound gorilla this year," said Jim Margolis, a partner in Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns & Associates, Washington, an agency handling the re-election campaign of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) and a number of others. "The only way to talk is through paid ads."


Democratic leaders and campaign consultants say that polling shows voters are more interested in traditional issues, such as education, healthcare, Social Security and crime, than they are the scandal. But President Clinton's woes are the key subject even at press conferences of local candidates.

Bob Squier, president of Squier Knapp Ochs Dunn, whose Washington agency handled the president's re-election campaign two years ago, said a poll shows advertising provides 90% of the information people get about local races and that that percentage could increase this year.

Both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic National Senatorial Committee are set to begin running "issue" ads in individual districts.


A Democratic National Committee spokeswoman confirmed several agencies are working on ads, although she said no decision has yet been made on which will run and where they will run.

The senatorial committee already has run a few ads, and said it will run additional ones in contested districts about Social Security and HMO reform.

The AFL-CIO, too, has run ads about Social Security, though the union's spending this year on advertising will be far less than two years ago as it devotes more of its efforts to grass-roots organizing.

Last week, the subject of turning the focus away from President Clinton prompted a bit of an intraparty spat.

After talks with Clinton supporters, People for the American Way, the group formed by TV executive Norman Lear, said it would begin airing a TV spot this week-from Greer Margolis-urging people to vote in November and asking Congress to move to other issues.

"Let's move on" is the theme of the spot, expected to run nationally on cable TV. The group said spending will depend on the amount of money raised.

Democratic candidates and some party officials, however, suggested that any significant spending should go toward boosting the party's candidates.


The AFL-CIO, which had discussed participating in pro-Clinton ads, said it had decided to instead focus on local candidates.

"Voters are pretty smart. I don't think what Bill Clinton did-the personal transgression-will have anything to do with someone running for office in Missouri," said David Doak, president of Doak, Carrier, O'Donnell & Associates, Washington. "There is no evidence it is affecting the issue environment."

Democrats are hoping the House Republicans' rush to release the Starr report and hold impeachment hearings will anger rather than turn off Democratic voters, prompting them to go to the polls. Public polling, however, so far shows only African-American voters reacting that way.


As for Republican hopes to gain from the scandal, Mr. Doak has a warning.

"Republicans could overplay this if it appears [GOP candidates] are trying to exploit this," he said.

Mr. Squier, whose agency is handling a number of local campaigns, said that in off-year elections, Democrats traditionally do better when they can make the issues local and Republicans do better when the issues are national. Thus the party's aim is to make clear that the real issues are local this year.

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