Battle of the NBC titans!

In dueling ads for and against war with Iraq, conservative Fred Thompson of "Law and Order" faces down "The West Wing's" Martin Sheen. Who wins? Salon's ad panel decides.

Published March 4, 2003 7:06PM (EST)

Former Republican senator Fred Thompson teamed up with the right-wing organization Citizens United this week to air a TV commercial supporting the war on Iraq. But Thompson's decision to take this very public pro-war stance goes deeper than politics. Thompson, who appears on NBC's "Law & Order," is directly challenging fellow NBC star (of the "The West Wing") Martin Sheen's own TV ad, which encourages viewers to mount a "virtual march" on Washington against the war. According to Citizens United's Web site, the dueling ads represent some kind of intra-Hollywood showdown: "Fight the Hollywood left/ support President Bush on Iraq -- Fred Thompson vs. Martin Sheen."

So, which actor's ad actually works? Our experts weigh in.

Warren Berger is the author of "Advertising Today" and writes for Business 2.0 magazine:

Political ads tend to be the worst form of advertising -- unsophisticated, heavy-handed, lots of pandering with very little wit. Often the ads are not created by ad professionals but by political consultants. Or if ad guys are involved, they get hamstrung by the consultants in charge. Don't know who created these ads, but they're typical political dreck. Not likely to change any minds, that's for sure. The Sheen ad is less offensive, at least. He looks like he's in full "West Wing" character, which, who knows, may fool some people who have trouble distinguishing TV drama from reality. Martin takes a minimalist approach: "Inspections work. War won't." 'Nuf said, apparently. That's not too persuasive -- I personally support further inspections, but that doesn't mean I'm convinced that "inspections work." I think we all know that so far they haven't worked, which is why we're in this mess. Maybe they'll work in the future, but let's be honest about the problems we're dealing with. On the plus side, I like the in-your-face graphics at the beginning, with words flying at you like incoming bombers.

As for the Thompson ad: horrendous. He talks to the audience as if they're children (is this running on Nickelodeon perhaps?). He even refers to playing "kick the can." But the worst part of the ad is the twisted logic at the end, when Thompson says the following: "When people ask, What has Saddam done to us? I say, What had the 9/11 bombers done to us -- before 9/11?" OK, let's think about this logic. It could basically be used to justify attacking anyone, anywhere, for no reason -- just because 9/11 took us by surprise. As in: "What have the Canadians ever done to us? Well, I say, What had the 9/11 bombers done to us before 9/11?" Or, "What has the city of Cleveland ever done to us? Well, I say..."

Freelance journalist Anthony Vagnoni is the former creative editor of Advertising Age:

These are emotional issues that both Sheen and Thompson tackle here, but these ads have about as different an emotional feel as night and day. The Thompson spot seeks to come off as patriotic and heroic -- the former senator delivers his pitch with gravity, against a backdrop of a soft-focus flag waving in the wind. Sheen, on the other hand, appears cut-and-pasted into what's essentially a direct-response spot, one not all that different than late-night wonders urging us call that number on our screens now for great savings. Thompson leverages his Capitol Hill role, whereas "The West Wing's" Josiah Bartlet looks about as presidential as a store clerk. Regardless of how you feel about Iraq (and understanding that both of these spots are preaching to the converted), if the goal of any good advertisement is to use all the tools of visual communications to persuade viewers, then Sheen falls flat, while Thompson has a much better chance of scoring points.

Glenn W. Richardson Jr. is an assistant professor of political science at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and the author of "Pulp Politics: How Political Advertising Tells the Stories of American Politics."

This ad's strength is the way it addresses a singular need of the antiwar movement: a visually credible personification of opposition to President Bush. Nowhere in the ad is Martin Sheen visually identified as Josiah Bartlet, but the ad's soundtrack (evocative of "The West Wing's" solemn opening-scene drumroll) serves to trigger associations in viewers' minds with both the TV drama and the majesty of the nation's highest office.

As Mr. Sheen appears, the ad cleverly balances evocation and distancing. The soundtrack evokes "The West Wing" (including the tone and tenor of the actor's voice), but the plain white backdrop subtly avoids reinforcing the fictional nature of the character the way a more recognizably political backdrop almost surely would have done.

Nevertheless, as visual communication, the ad has several subtle liabilities. The stylized text appearing onscreen at the beginning of the ad (first, the words "you can help prevent war in Iraq," one word at a time) is effective as an attention grabber. But when the words "March on Washington" appear on-screen, crawling out toward the viewer, followed by a red line dividing that phrase from the words "without leaving home," which appear beneath it, then in succession, "computer," "phone" and "fax," viewers may be distracted by the visuals from processing the ad's message about a novel form of political action.

The phrase "without leaving home" which appears on the screen and in the narration, suggests consumer comfort, not the act of an engaged citizen. No doubt convenience has its appeal, but it is an appeal not necessarily consistent with mass mobilization.

While the narrator speaks "your computer," "your phone," "your fax," the word "your" does not appear in the on-screen text. Doing so would have underscored the ad's participatory appeal. The visual message is reduced to the white words on black background, "March on Washington ... without leaving home. Computer. Phone. Fax." Surely enough to get the point across, but in the hyperkinetic world of TV advertising, perhaps visual reinforcement would have been helpful: for example, images of citizens enthusiastically sending e-mails, etc. Perhaps one of those graphics with the screen divided up into dozens of small video boxes with different scenes in each? That would underscore the mass-movement aspect of the appeal. Instead, we hear the ambiguous phrase "virtual march on Washington" and are left to draw pictures in our mind's eye.

When Mr. Sheen appears, he asserts, without supportive evidence or reasoning, that "inspections work, war won't." Given that the ad is not aimed to persuade but rather to motivate, this is understandable. He is effective in urging viewers to "stand up and be counted." When he concludes his remarks, the URL appears, in red, white, and blue, though hardly a full-blown evocation of patriotic dissent. Then Mr. Sheen appears in a small box in the left corner of the screen, urging viewers to visit the Web site and thanking them. While preserving screen space for the Web address, relegating the actor to a small box tends to undo the "West Wing" majesty the ad had created up to that point.

As a political tactic the virtual march may leave something to be desired. It is not clear that the march's end result wouldn't be a backlash among those whose e-mail and fax systems are overwhelmed with protest messages.

Even some war opponents may be left with a murky, wistful reaction to the thought of deploying the technology of the Internet age in service of the old-fashioned notion of the voice of the people to persuade a president who was elected with fewer votes than his opponent and who acts as if his pollsters have told him it's better if voters don't think he listens to pollsters to abandon his push for war because it's unpopular. Still, for many, any appeal to opposition will be welcome.

[Richardson on the Thompson ad]

The Citizens United ad featuring Fred Thompson is deceptively simple. It evokes the timeless appeal of the American flag in an ad that could only have been produced with state-of-the-art production capabilities.

Complex ads are subject to myriad interpretations. The ad is visually appealing, with the billowing flag background in "letterbox" style. The flag image (whose motion serves to sustain attention) has been digitally processed, and a golden shading partially obscures the flag while providing some visual distance between Mr. Thompson and the flag. Does the shading create something of a modified halo effect surrounding the actor as he speaks? Or does the fact that the flag is partially obscured suggest a nation at risk? Or both?

In any event, Mr. Thompson is an exceptionally gifted TV presence. He emphasizes his points nodding and tilting his head, glancing away from the camera momentarily to suggest contemplation, moving his eyebrows, and momentarily freezing his facial expression for punctuation, all while speaking in a rich, deep voice.

His visual persona is contemplative and logical, but his script is grounded in emotional communication. It is loaded with words like "courage," "protect," "goodness," "appease," "murderous," and "aggressive," each of which he delivers with force. His is a folksy style, as he describes the position of opponents of President Bush as "kicking the can down the road" in regards to Saddam Hussein.

Similarly, he concludes by saying, "And when people ask what Saddam has done to us, I ask, What had the 9/11 hijackers done to us, before 9/11?" There are certainly more cogent reasons to support Mr. Bush's position, but perhaps none more emotionally riveting. Surely Mr. Thompson is aware that al-Qaida had detonated the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, as well as bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and the U.S.S. Cole along the way to establishing themselves as one of America's most troublesome adversaries, all before 9/11. One suspects this will not be the last political ad that will seek to harness the emotional force of America's darkest day in this century.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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