Ubiquitous anti-Kerry ad proves PR as political tool

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Swift Boat Veterans' commercial claiming Sen. John Kerry didn't deserve some of his Vietnam medals aired in three states with a budget of less than $500,000. Yet half the country heard or saw the ad, proving the increasing power of political PR.

A University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Election survey documents the effect of the free publicity over the ad that began airing Aug. 5. The study was done before Mr. Kerry's denunciation of the commercial Aug. 19 as "a front for the Bush campaign," that turned the controversy into front-page news.

"The publicity is disproportionate to the amount of time bought," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center told Advertising Age. "It's the 24-hour cable news cycle plus local talk."

In fact, the survey found 48% of those watching cable news heard or saw the ad compared to 22% who did not watch cable news, and those who often listened to talk radio (other than National Public Radio) were more likely to have seen or heard the spot.

But did the ad succeed at reaching the correct target and changing perceptions of Mr. Kerry? It was a close call on believability: 46% of respondents who saw the ad found it believable and 49% who saw it found it very or somewhat unbelievable. (The remainder didn't respond or undecided).

Not surprisingly, Bush supporters were more likely to believe the ad than Kerry supporters. Among independents, the split was 44% believable to 49% unbelievable.

And those who saw the ad were more inclined to question whether Mr. Kerry earned his medals than those who didn't see the spot. A full 31% of those who saw it didn't believe the candidate earned the medals versus 12% holding that belief who did not see the ad.

Ms. Jamieson also said the group's publicity blitz could prompt others to use the model. "The gambit is going to increase."

She said the pattern has precedent. MoveOn.org, a liberal Democratic group, early this year achieved considerable publicity for a spot it tried to place on CBS's Super Bowl telecast. She added that the 1964 "Daisy" commercial spot the Lyndon Johnson campaign ran against Barry Goldwater only ran once and drew most of its attention from media coverage.

Swift Boat Veterans, whose original ad claimed Mr. Kerry lied to get some of his medals, on Aug. 20 moved on to attack Mr. Kerry's post war actions. A new spot claimed the candidate "betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam" and "cannot be trusted." Both ads were created by Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, Alexandria, Va.

"John Kerry gave the enemy for free what many us in prison camps were tortured to avoid saying. ... He betrayed us in the past, how can we be loyal to him now. He dishonored the country and those he served with. He just sold them out," veterans claim in the latest ad.

That same day, the Kerry campaign unveiled its own ad from its team of Shrum Devine & Donilon and Squier Knapp Dunn. "The people attacking John Kerry's war record are funded by Bush's big-money supporters," said the ad, which then featured the lieutenant Mr. Kerry saved, suggesting Mr. Kerry "risked his life to save mine."

A narrator says, "the Navy documented John Kerry's heroism, and awarded him the Bronze Star. Today, he still has shrapnel in his leg from his wounds in Vietnam."

DNC ads

The Democratic National Committee on Aug. 20 launched its own ad from AKP & Associates, Chicago, and Murphy, Putnam & Shorr, Arlington, Va. While the DNC said the ad wasn't directly in response to the Swift Boat charges, the spot features retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, noting that he switched from endorsing President Bush four years ago to endorsing Mr. Kerry.

Gen. McPeak, a former Air Force Chief of Staff, last week made no secret of his feeling on the latest Swift Boat ad. "This is gutter mudslinging. You know where the money [for it] came from and where the ideas came from," he said.

The Swift Boat ad also prompted MoveOn to revive its ad questioning whether President Bush dodged Vietnam service and calling on him to release further records of his reserve service, despite a call from Mr. Kerry to cease the ad.

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