Ad blitz

Bush and Kerry harness the symbolic power of wolves and eagles, and hugs and tears, in their last-minute TV appeals to voters.

By Eric Boehlert
Published October 25, 2004 7:13PM (UTC)
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Dropping the final bombs of the campaign air war, strategists on both sides insist they have saved their best, most thematic television ads for last. The Republicans' high-impact spots feature prowling wolves and a hug, while the Democrats' highlight eagles and a 9/11 widow.

According to CNN, from Oct. 14 to 20, the total number of campaign ads on TV nationwide topped 41,000, with total spending on TV advertising hitting $40 million. This week, the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee are expected to spend an additional $15 million or so on TV ads, with more to come next week, while Democrats pump out $20 million on ads for this and next week and combined, according to the Associated Press.


Bush is counting heavily on an emotional reaction to "Wolves," which opens with blurry, hand-held shots of a dark forest, then reveals a pack of wolves (standing in for terrorists) lying in wait. The voice-over is a quavering female: "In an increasingly dangerous world, even after the first terrorist attack on America, John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America's intelligence operations by $6 billion -- cuts so deep they would have weakened America's defenses. And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm." The spot is an updated imitation of the famous 1984 Reagan commercial dubbed "The Bear," which featured a grizzly symbolizing America's then lurking enemy of the Soviet Union and a hunter representing Reagan. But that ad did not contain any direct attack on Reagan's opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, much less distort his record., run by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, labeled "Wolves" a "direct appeal to fear," calling it "misleading" in its claim that Kerry was "for proposing to cut intelligence spending -- a decade ago, by 4 percent -- when some Republicans also proposed cuts," including then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.

Bush campaign officials told the Washington Post the ad was tested five months ago and that, after it received some of the highest scores from focus groups, was withheld until the closing days of the campaign.


The Kerry campaign has also denounced the "scare tactics" behind "Wolves," and has responded with an ad dubbed "Protect." The ad's imagery consists of an eagle and an ostrich, with the following voice-over: "The eagle soars high above the earth. The ostrich buries its head in the sand. The eagle can see everything for miles around. The ostrich? Can't see at all. Given the choice, in these challenging times, shouldn't we be the eagle again?"

Kerry's ad team hit back against "Wolves" in a second ad aired over the weekend. In "Never," the candidate says: "I will never cede America's security to any institution or to any other country. No one gets a veto over our security, no one. I will never take my eye off Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the terror in Afghanistan."

This week, Kerry unveiled "Across America," which features the Democrat speaking directly into the camera, interspersed with scenes of children playing and an American flag being raised up a pole.


In Florida, where the race is deadlocked, the Bush campaign has begun airing a Spanish-language commercial complete with split images of Fidel Castro and Kerry, that accuses Kerry of backing the Communist dictator's interests. Kerry and the "liberals in Congress," the narrator charges, "don't understand what a dictator is."

On the independent front for Democrats, Win Back Respect, an organization formed to respond rapidly to Republican claims about the Iraq war in the final weeks of the campaign, is airing a spot, "Bush and the Draft," that raises the specter of a return of draft boards. The commercial features unflattering footage of Bush -- looking famously annoyed during the first presidential debate -- while newspaper clips about Army recruiters not being able to meet their quotas flash on-screen. "President Bush has insisted he won't reinstate the draft," warns the female narrator. "But going it alone has taken a heavy toll." (Like "Wolves" with its female voice-over, this ad is undoubtedly targeted toward women, particularly mothers, who might fear a looming military draft.) The spot ends with a graphic that reads: "George Bush and the draft: What is his plan?"


In an official Kerry-Edwards commercial released last week, Kristen Breitweiser, a Sept. 11 widow, criticizes Bush for not making America safer, directly challenging the president's strongest claim. Breitweiser says, "I fought for the 9/11 commission, something George W. Bush -- the man my husband, Ron, and I voted for -- didn't think was necessary. And during the commission hearings, we learned the truth: We are no safer today." As she speaks, the ad shows family photos, including one in which her late husband cuddles their baby girl.

If "Wolves" is aimed at the fear factor, the Bush campaign's "Ashley's Story" is meant to evoke warm, fuzzy feelings. It is based on an encounter Bush had with teenager Ashley Faulkner on May 4, when Ashley, now 16; her father, Lynn Faulkner; and neighbor Linda Prince attended a Bush campaign even in Lebanon, Ohio. Ashley's mother was killed during the attack on the World Trade Center towers. As Bush passed the Faulkners on the rope line, Prince said to him, "Mr. President, this young lady lost her mother in the World Trade Center."

Bush turned back and gave the girl a big hug while Lynn Faulkner took a single picture with his digital camera. The picture shows Ashley's face buried in the president's chest. That night Lynn Faulkner e-mailed his photo to a dozen family members and friends, and two days later the picture appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Says Ashley in the ad: "He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe, that I'm OK."


The 60-second spot represents the most expensive TV ad of the presidential campaign. It is to air in nine states -- Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- on both network and cable channels, at a cost of $14.2 million. Funded by the GOP special-interest group the Progress for America Voter Fund, run by a political consultant who is a protégé of Karl Rove's, the ad is being supported with 2.3 million direct mailings, e-mails, phone calls and a Web site ( Filmed in July, the ad, like "Wolves," has been withheld until the final days of the campaign.

"Brooke's Story," featuring the sister of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, and sponsored by the liberal PAC, is the emotional flip side to "Ashley's Story." Where "Ashley's Story," with its treacly piano score, feels like a made-for-television Hallmark movie, "Brooke's Story" is akin to a "Fahrenheit 9/11" outtake.

It opens up with Bush, dressed in a tuxedo, at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in Washington, joking about being unable to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "Those WMD have got to be somewhere ... Ha, ha ... nope, not over here."


The spot then cuts to Brooke Campbell: "I watched President Bush make a joke. My brother died looking for WMD." Her brother, Sgt. Ryan Campbell, was killed on April 29 in a suicide bomber attack in Iraq.

MoveOn raised $1.2 million from 18,477 members to help get this ad on the air, scheduled for an initial run Monday through Wednesday in the swing states of Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Still, that ad buy is dwarfed by the $14.2 million behind "Ashley's Story."

But the primary difference between these two spots goes beyond the respective media buys. The Bush campaign's ad is a sheer appeal to emotion, while MoveOn's ad is about tragic reality.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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2004 Elections