Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: Buckle your seatbelts and get ready for attack ad barrage
The Unspin Room
WESTPORT, Conn. — It's promising to be a banner year for the business of media, thanks to the elections 360 days away. It couldn't come at a better time, with retail advertising continuing to shrink in the Amazon kingdom, and paid Google ranking the order of the day. Were it not for Big Pharma, the evening news would go begging for sponsorship.
We will soon experience again, as we did two short years ago, that opposing Congressional candidates are devils in disguise, and if Katy doesn't bar the door, as was sung in a Scottish ballad in the telltale year of 1776, you will find that they will come for your guns, reproductive rights, freedom to choose medical care you can't afford, and hordes swimming across the Rio Grande to take your service industry jobs.
According to the largest media investment outfit in the country, WPP's Group M unit, which places more than $45 billion in ad buys annually, next year will continue an upward trend that has blown through the stratosphere since the last presidential elections. Group M tabs political spending in 2016 at $6.3 billion, and the typically lackluster midterms in 2018 at several billion more. With no end in sight, Group M's prediction for 2020 is $9.9 billion, on its way to breaking the $10 billion political pitch sound barrier. You will need to turn off the world to avoid it, and good luck with that.
It wasn't always thus. The Brookings Institute has tallied $2.5 million in ad spending to "like Ike" in 1952 — that is, about $20 million today in inflation-adjusted dollars. It's a long way from the more than $1 billion the presidential candidates will fork out this year. By the time of JFK's tussle with Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary in 1960, JFK had spent an unheard-of $72,000 — about $575,000 in 2019 bucks — leading Humphrey to bemoan JFK's outlay as "the most highly financed, the most plush, the most extravagant in the history of politics in the U.S." To say nothing of whatever it took for JFK's old man to purchase Illinois.
If a "Medicare for all" Democrat wins the nomination, we could see a McCarthy-era assault on their supposedly un-American socialism — it ain't just Bernie anymore — that might rival the doozy of a daisy unleashed by LBJ's ad-meisters in 1964. In that first burst of ad diction, three-year-old Monique M. Corzilius — known in attack ad history as "Daisy Girl" — plucks a flower's petals in a lush field full of a sound mixer's overlay of chirping birds. As she counts the petals and reaches "nine," a male voice intones "ten" and begins a missile-launch countdown. It all crescendos in a flash of light and footage of nuclear detonations. LBJ intones over this implied blast at Barry Goldwater: "These are the stakes We must either love each other, or we must die." LBJ won the election.
In years following, attack ads have multiplied and continued to demonstrate power in swaying elections. George H. W. Bush went after Michael Dukakis in 1988 with an ad slamming the Massachusetts prison furlough program that freed murder inmate Willie Horton to commit assault, armed robbery and rape. After reminding us of Vice President Bush's support for the death penalty, the ad concluded: "Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime." As if this weren't enough, the GOP struck again, mocking Dukakis riding a tank, with faked audio of the tank's gears grinding to a halt — even though tanks don't have gears that grind — which double-punch helped H. W. win.
SCARE TACTICS WORK
By 2008, intraparty pummeling was as bad as that between the parties. Duking it out in the Texas primary, Hillary Clinton's campaign hit hard at Barack Obama with an image of a 3 a.m. phone ringing in the White House. The nightmare question followed: whether Texans wanted a president "tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world" or, by implication, an unprepared Obama? The eventual two-term president decried such ads as "the kind that play on peoples' fears to scare up votes." Indeed, scare tactics can work, as Clinton bested Obama in the Texas primary by 100,000 votes. Later, as secretary of state, she was presumably calling her President at 3 a.m.
In today's bitterest of political climes, with megabucks to wage media spending wars, buckle your seat belts. There will be no punches pulled as both the presidency and Congressional control are in contention. Stock up on microwave popcorn now, as there will be 435 fights for the House of Representatives, 34 Senate slugfests, and 13 state and territorial governorship battles.
Much is at stake in the halls of power, but political spending is a windfall for financially stressed media. Rest assured of one thing: nobody will underplay the story. There's gold in this water. Keep panning.
Dalton Delan, a regular Eagle contributor, has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.
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