The most recent example of this phenomenon, of course, is the "Harry and Louise" ads that helped shape and define the healthcare debate.
Maybe the commercials were so successful, as John Calfee wrote in our last issue, because they "dared to say something that could be contradicted." Political ads often react to what the other side is saying, and the conflict makes for a more compelling and involving message.
The "Harry and Louise" ads raised questions about the Clinton health plan that were never successfully rebutted.
Rarely do ads in the private sector gain this kind of mileage. The actual cost of buying airtime for the Health Insurance Association of America TV spots must have run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Can you imagine a successful new product launch for that kind of money? Not likely.
Yet some political analysts don't want to give the spots credit for dominating the healthcare debate. Writing on the downfall of the Clinton plan, The New York Times quoted a professor that the ads had a "negligible impact" on the public. But the Times stated "when the Clintons attacked the advertisements they provoked far more public interest in them than Harry and Louise would ever have commanded on their own."
I have the impression that politicians have a better understanding of how advertising works than corporate marketing chiefs. Dan Rostenkowski, the former chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, knowledgeably analyzed the effects of the Harry and Louise and the Willie Horton commercials, both of which ran with devastating effect on the Democrats. The TV "campaigns had a lot in common," Rep. Rostenkowski wrote in The Washington Post. "Each sent an effective explicit message that went far beyond the explicit message that was ostensibly being delivered. And they actually had an impact on the debate they were trying to influence."
The Harry and Louise ads caused at least two other reactions. The spots "also sent a message to some members of Congress reinforcing their fears that votes on the health plan would be difficult to explain and easy to caricature. So the timidity level here-high in the best of times-rose yet another notch," Rep. Rostenkowski stated.
They also bought HIAA a place in the dialogue. In exchange for holding up on the ads, HIAA officials were invited to give their views on healthcare. The quid pro quo was that HIAA stop the ads while the conversations went on. "I thought moving the issue from oversimplified television spots to sophisticated conversations around my conference table was a step in the right direction," Rep. Rostenkowski deadpanned.
No wonder politicians have so much faith in advertising. Political ads work on many more levels and accomplish much more than private sector ads. And, as the congressman wrote, "there's a belief that they work." I'm not convinced that the nation's CEOs share this conviction.