By Published on .

Slime. Garbage. Torture. Sleaze.

And those were the printable assessments of this year's strain of negative political commercials by a handful of top advertising creatives who bemoaned the plight of politics and political marketing in 1994.

"For my money, it was the sin-gle worst collection of political advertising ever-absolute garbage-can stuff with words and language I've never heard before in advertisements," said Phil Dusenberry, vice chairman, BBDO Worldwide. "For God's sake, I heard the word `scumbag' in one commercial.

"But what was even worse," Mr. Dusenberry added, "was that there were no ideas. It all looked like it had been done overnight for about $3. In the past, negative advertising had been a weapon but this year it was the weapon-and everyone was doing it."

Mr. Dusenberry, who helped craft campaign ads for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, went so far as to predict a 1996 backlash against a continuation of the hit-and-run tactics that characterized this year's contests. "I think that in two years the people just won't sit through something like this again," he said.

Similar revulsion was expressed by Sean Fitzpatrick, vice chairman North America, McCann-Erickson Worldwide, over the political spots, especially in California. There incendiary issues such as illegal immigration, crime and tobacco smoke produced mind-numbing 30-second bombs.

"I've been in California a lot lately and it's just beyond belief what you will see out there on TV," said Mr. Fitzpatrick, who did ad work for President Bush in 1992. "I saw an ad from the attorney general's race there where a girl had been raped and no one had been captured and the ad blamed it all on one guy, the opponent. Everyone is all caught up in the sleaze."

"In the political consultants' eagerness to make an overnight sale, they've sacrificed the building of a brand for expediency," said Mike Hughes, vice chairman/creative director, the Martin Agency, Richmond, Va.

Adding to the negative swirl was the ever-increasing advertising by interest groups with a stake in an election's outcome. They also added to the bottom line of ad spending for Campaign '94, estimated at $1 billion.

As in 1992, the National Rifle Association was in the forefront. The group used TV ads in a half-dozen states to undercut candidates who supported legislation that banned some assault weapons earlier this year.

Spending about $2 million, the NRA claimed its ads from Ackerman McQueen, Washington, contributed to the defeat of House Speaker Tom Foley (D., Wash.). However, a similar TV effort failed to prevent the re-election of Sen. Bob Kerrey (D., Neb.).

The mudslinging was waged on a national level as well as in the local trenches. After more than 300 Republican lawmakers and candidates signed their "Contract with America" on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the Democratic National Committee unleashed a $2 million ad blitz. Its attacks, by White House consultants Grunwald, Eskew & Donilon, labeled the contract a return to Rea-gan-era economics.

In return, the Republican National Committee unleashed a $2 million ad buy, delivering mostly positive ads that promised to implement the controversial "contract" upon election.

Both the DNC and the RNC eschewed national TV for selected markets. But the Republican campaign, prepared in-house, obviously resonated with voters and gave them a tangible reason for voting GOP.

Jeff Goodby, partner, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, stopped short of advocating ad restrictions, but marveled at the different standards for political and commercial advertising.

"With [client] Sega, we've got to take our ads through censors, whether we're fairly or unfairly trashing a competitor like Nintendo, and our lawyers are constantly holding us to the truth," Mr. Goodby said. "It surprises me that the network people .*.*. demand such support from us for our ads, then turn around and accept political ads with their eyes closed. I think this is the responsibility of the networks, but they abrogate it" for political speech.

But the networks are trapped; commercial speech, including advertisements, can be regulated, while political speech is virtually uncensorable.

"Should it be controlled?" asked Jeb Brown, chairman, Earle Palmer Brown, Bethesda, Md. "Absolutely. Can it be controlled? I don't know."

Mr. Brown joined a growing number of ad industry figures in calling for some sort of filtering mechanism through which political ads would have to pass before public viewing.

"I think it's time for reform of the most acute nature," added Carl Spielvogel, former chairman/CEO of Backer Spielvogel Bates Worldwide. "I think it's time the federal government gave money to each congressional and Senate candidate ... and with that money they could do talking-head ads only in which they addressed only the issues. Period.

"See, political advertising works, but it also puts into the running people who are not qualified but who have the resources to outspend others."

So incensed was ad legend Jerry Della Femina and some 30 cohorts at Jerry & Ketchum, New York, about the season's political ads that they decided to go on the attack with an ad of their own.

"I wrote it in about 20 minutes, which shows how passionate I am on this subject," Mr. Della Femina said. The full-page ad appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times under the headline "Don't call it advertising."

It blasted negative political ads, and suggested formation of a panel, comprised of advertising, broadcast and publishing executives, to "hold political advertising to the same standards you hold consumer advertising."

Most Popular
In this article: