The charge that TV ads debase American politics has been around at least since 1952, when the Democrats sniffed at Eisenhower's ``Ivory Soap versus Palmolive'' campaign. The 36-year-old question is still unanswered, and more insistent: Will the man with the best commercials win? George Bush and Michael Dukakis, together, will spend about $167 million trying to get you to vote for them. More than half that sum will go for TV commercials.
Critics are rightfully skeptical of political ``spots,'' says Robert Shrum, who helped create the ``$48,000 K-car'' ad and others for Rep. Richard Gephardt's unsuccessful Democratic campaign. But don't blame the politicians for going to the people, he says.
``If we really do believe in democratic values,'' Mr. Shrum argues, we must concede that voters ``have chosen where they're going to get their political information. They have also chosen how much attention they are going to give politics.''
``You have to go where the voters are: in front of their TV sets,'' says Gary Orren. It's a situation the Harvard media-studies professor finds ``extremely disturbing.''
In political ads, the ``worst of all possible worlds'' is the negative ad, says Professor Orren. The public says it hates them, the press excoriates them. But the fact is, he says, negative advertising ``works on people ... it actually moves people's attitudes.''
``The big news this year,'' says Shrum, ``is that we're going to see negative media at a level we've never seen before in a presidential campaign.'' He sees Dukakis running a ``competence'' theme, casting a critical eye on Reagan administration ``sleaze.'' Bush, meanwhile, tells people ``you never had it so good,'' reminding them of what things were like under President Carter.
Two examples of negative ads from this year's primaries are the ``flip-flop'' ad Dukakis used against Mr. Gephardt, and the ``straddler'' spot Bush ran against Sen. Robert Dole. The former featured an acrobat doing front and back flips while an announcer intoned the positions Gephardt appeared to have taken and then reversed. The Bush spot accused Senator Dole of indecision. Both ads were seen as having boosted the eventual nominees.
Dwight Eisenhower was the first to use TV ads in a presidential campaign. Rosser Reeves, the adman who brought us the ``melts in your mouth, not in your hand'' slogan for M&Ms, created an ``Eisenhower Answers America'' campaign. In an all-day filming session, General Eisenhower ``answered'' 40 questions, reading cue cards printed so large he could see them without his glasses. The prescribed questions, posed by ``ordinary citizens'' recruited from the ticket line at Radio City Music Hall, were filmed later.
Ike's opponent, Adlai Stevenson, had a less successful TV strategy offered to him by a Hollywood booster group. One commercial they made (it was not widely broadcast) featured an attractive blonde in a black evening dress singing a song entitled ``I Love the Gov (of Illinois).'' ``He is the gov nobody can shove,'' she sings brightly. The fact that one of the ``gov's'' unspoken campaign liabilities was his then-scandalous status as a divorced man prompted a top Stevenson aide to sputter: ``What the blazes are we supposed to do with this hip-swinging bimbo?'' The same singer, in the same dress, crooned ``Vote Stevenson'' to the tune of ``O Tannenbaum'' in another ad.
Admakers and audiences are more sophisticated today. Television technology, public-opinion sampling, and marketing strategies are light years ahead of where they were in the '50s.
TV viewers now have little difficulty telling actors from ``real'' people, and are just as apt to ``zap'' a political spot (by killing the sound, changing the channel, or fast-forwarding the VCR) as they are a dog-food commercial. In order to be seen, political ``spots'' must be as compelling as the commercials that don't get zapped. But how do you dress your candidate as a California raisin?
Long-time Democratic political admaker David Garth claims he's found two ways to ``zap proof'' commercials, but he's not telling.``I don't want the other boys to catch up,'' he explains.
An ad that looks like an ad - ```advertisey' advertising'' - is a problem, he says. He cites the recent 30-second spot sponsored by the Republican National Committee that featured a seven-year-old girl and a voice-over saying how fortunate her life has been under the Republicans: ``No one believes that's a real girl,'' he says. ``It's a total waste of money.''
Presidential campaigns are likely to be far ``cleaner'' than local races, state campaigns, or primaries in general, say admen and scholars, because of the press's presence. ``It's important to have a very aggressive press so the ads don't go overboard,'' says GOP adman John Deardourff, who worked on President Ford's campaign, among many others. On the other hand, one is not likely to see questionable campaign methods until the final, desperate weeks of a campaign.
Both John O'Toole, director of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Washington office, and Mr. Shrum offered similar strategies for reform: Get radio and TV stations to donate a certain amount of air time to each candidate for him to use as he chooses. ``If nothing else, it would eliminate this terrible scramble for money,'' says O'Toole.
Shrum agrees, but adds: ``Nobody's ever going to pay attention to this.'' The networks won't, because they make too much money selling ad time. The incumbents won't, because they don't want to give up their fund-raising advantage.
For longtime political admaker Tony Schwartz, the answer is ``teaching morality in kindergarten - not in college, but in kindergarten.''
Fortunately, says Orren, ``real world events ... by and large dominate voters' decisions, and are more important.''
A guide to political ads: What to watch for in '88
Bio, or ID ads. The first ads you're likely to see. Soon, ``we'll all know that Bush is a war hero; we'll all know that Dukakis's snowblower is 25 years old,'' says one admaker.
Attack ads. Negative advertising is risky, but the payoff can be big. Several types have been used again and again:
``Weathervane'' ads. An opponent is pictured as changing his mind with every political wind shift. Spinning faces and leaping acrobats are other images.
Scare tactics. The infamous ``Daisy'' ad sought to link Barry Goldwater to a nuclear holocaust. Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign also produced, but never ran, a commercial suggesting Goldwater was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
The ``man in the street.'' If you interview enough people, admakers admit, someone will say what you want. ``Testimonial'' ads can also be used negatively: A celebrity, or some other ``credible'' surrogate, makes an attack on the candidate's behalf.
Confessional ads. If the attack is true, a candidate's best defense may be to beg for mercy.
A pre-emptive ``confessional'' approach is the ``inoculation'' ad: Admit your shortcomings before an opponent exposes them. This was the strategy behind Kitty Dukakis's confession of her former drug dependency early in her husband's campaign. Admaker David Garth suggests George Bush use a similar strategy to deal with the Iran-contra affair.
Free media. Voters find newscast footage more believable, so ``news'' footage may be used in commercials. An early Eisenhower ``bio'' ad quite consciously copied the ``March of Time'' newsreels popular at the time.
At least one Senate campaign this year features ``pseudo-newscast'' ads, in which an actor posing as a TV reporter reads a ``campaign update.'' He mentions both candidates, but the glowing ``news'' is reserved for the ad's sponsor. The required disclaimer runs at the beginning of the spot, where it can be mistaken for applying to the previous commercial.
`Dream' ads. Toward the end of October, you're bound to see commercials connecting the candidates to the American values of family, progress, peace. A recent example: Reagan's 1984 ads, which were written and narrated by the creator of Gallo Wines' ``All the Best'' campaign. Film for the Reagan spots was processed to have the same ``golden glow'' as the wine ads.
`Hey, Martha!' ads. So named by Ken Swope, who has a berth on Michael Dukakis's effort. You may look in vain for the humorous spot that makes you want to call ``Martha'' in to see this crazy commercial. Humor is rarely used, for fear it will backfire.
The Ottinger effect. New York politician Richard Ottinger's TV ads in his 1970 bid for the US Senate were widely seen as very effective. But in a live, three-way debate, Mr. Ottinger fell short of his televised image. He lost.
Sen. John Glenn ran into similar trouble when he failed to live up to the promise of his '84 ads.