Voters May See Less Mud In Candidates' TV Spots

Bob Dole addresses the camera square on, looking as serious as usual despite the fact that he's doffed his coat. "In a Dole administration, we'll once again set about fighting and winning the war on drugs," he says.

Bill Clinton is positioned in front of a bookcase. Like Mr. Dole, he's shown only from the shoulders up. "We've fought hard for tested, effective antidrug programs in our classrooms," he insists.

These political ads, which Fox TV broadcast free this week, are short, boring - and informative. They may be evidence of a trend some analysts see in 1996 presidential campaign advertising: a move towards more substance.

This doesn't mean lots of mud won't fly before November, or that stirring music, flags, and purposeful striding will be absent from candidate spots. It does mean that new forces - media criticism among them - may be pushing the candidates to address issues more seriously on the small screen.

Since the GOP convention in August, fully 78 percent of televised presidential ads have compared candidates' stands, for instance, says one study. Only 8 percent of ads in the Bush-Clinton race of '92 took such an approach, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.

Such contrasting ads "are the most useful for voters, because they enable an immediate comparison between the candidates," notes a recent Annenberg report.

And TV ads remain the most important tool that the Clinton and Dole teams have at hand, despite the rise of the Internet and other unconventional means of directly reaching voters. By Election Day the campaigns will have spent $100 million apiece on commercials. Together they've already broadcast 200,000 messages, according to one estimate.

Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition

One big change this year is that the campaigns haven't had to pay for all these spots. This week's Fox ads on the drug issue were the first fruit of efforts by a band of reformers who are trying to promote a trade: free air time for the candidates if, in return, the ads broadcast are straight-ahead shots of the candidate doing nothing but discussing an issue.

The Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, led by former Washington Post political reporter Paul Taylor, proposed that all the TV networks air such unembellished, 2-1/2-minute TV speeches. So far, Fox is the only commercial network to fully accept the coalition's offer (PBS will air the spots, as well). Other nets are proposing variations on the theme: CNN, for instance, has offered to air candidate-produced spots during its "Inside Politics" program. NBC has similarly said it would air 1-1/2-minute candidate responses to questions on its "Dateline" news show.

This effort to improve political discourse is "extremely positive," judges Doug Bailey, a former political consultant who now publishes the political newsletter Hotline. It would likely be much more effective, however, if ads ran at set times on all networks, so they would be both hard to avoid and easy to find. "It would be a kind of ongoing debate that would be very current," he says.

Meanwhile, attack advertising has increasingly fallen into disfavor. Voter cynicism, media "adwatch" features, and candidate charges about opponents "going negative" have made pure assault ads a more problematic approach, say political consultants.

Voter disgust at the tone of candidate ads is widely thought to have depressed turnout in this spring's Iowa caucuses, for example, with disastrous results for candidate Steve Forbes, who'd blitzed the state with ads blasting opponents. Earlier this year, in an effort to rouse his sagging campaign, Senate candidate Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon swore off negative ads in a special election fight - and won.

Not that political advertising has suddenly become all-heartwarming, as if it were selling soda. Instead, the Dole and Clinton camps this year appear to have opted for "comparative discourse" - first you say what you believe your opponent has done wrong, then you say what your position is on the matter.

'Negative' but not misleading

Such ads can still be "negative" - the Dole campaign, for instance, charges that more than 98 percent of Clinton ads are negative-oriented - while being substantive at the same time. The Annenberg study notes that a Democratic ad first aired last week, named "Parents" by the campaign, contrasted Dole's and Clinton's positions on the Family and Medical Leave Act. A two-minute Dole biographical ad now airing widely across the country combines discussion of Dole's war recovery with an implicit attack on the president: "Drug use is up. The wrong messages are being sent to our youth," it says.

In general, "negative ads are an important part of the political discourse," says Lynda Lee Kaid, director of the University of Oklahoma's Political Communication Center. "My only problem with negative ads are with ones that don't have accurate information."

She is concerned about the increasing use of video and computer technology to make distortions in ads. She says that some Clinton ads this year have used computers to erase color from pictures of Dole or to shave his face in an apparent attempt to make him look older.

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