Americans have been bombarded by more than 200,000 televised political ads in the past five months. They've seen Clinton ads portraying Bob Dole as heartless when it comes to social policies like family leave. They've seen Dole ads describing Bill Clinton as a tax-hiking, double-talking opportunist. They've seen multitudes of ads knocking and boosting state and local candidates. But the real blitz is yet to come.
The Dole ad team will double its efforts to reach a blas public through television. The Clinton team will match them jab for jab. If recent spots are any indication, this end-game ad contest could turn increasingly negative.
So what better time to put the political ad scene in perspective? First, negativity. While discussion of issues should dominate campaign debate, pointing out an opponent's failings has a place in democratic competition. Much depends on how it's done. Is there at least a modicum of documentation that can be checked? Is the tone nasty or reasoned? If "attack ads" are too numerous, a candidate risks having his negative campaign strategy become the story, rather than himself or his issues.
Second, the underlying doctrine of televised political ads - that this is the only way to reach the mass of voters - is in process of revision. The world of TV has been transformed since broadcast campaign ads took hold in the '60s and '70s. Cable and satellite have altered viewing habits, dispersing potential audiences. A given network ad reaches fewer people, and those it does reach are more able, and perhaps more inclined, to tune it out with a click of the remote. Computerized media are claiming more "viewing" time. For all their volume, this year's TV ads may have less impact on voting.
Last, TV ads are an integral part of that modern creation - the packaged candidate. Consultants, media wizards, and pollsters are today's back-room operatives - who sometimes disconcertingly pop onto the front page. The public is leery of candidates whose words and stands seem filed and shaved to fit opinion soundings.
Bob Dole's hidden strength may be his resistance to the imagemakers' efforts. Bill Clinton's weakness may be the perception that he's an imagemaker's dream.
Televised campaign spots may no longer deliver the electoral punch they once did.