McCain's Ad Formula Employs Lowest Common Denominator

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2008

RACINE, Wis., July 31 -- In a celebrity-driven culture that has left little space for John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate has decided to go tabloid.

By featuring Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in an attack ad against Barack Obama, the senator from Arizona has risked charges of silliness to draw attention to his frequently overshadowed campaign. And on one level, it has worked: Television, with its love of pop culture, has replayed the spot hundreds of times, and the NBC, MSNBC and Fox morning shows had aides to McCain and Obama debating it Thursday.

At the same time, analysts questioned what message McCain was sending by interspersing footage of his Democratic opponent before a huge crowd in Berlin with that of two socialites famous for their irresponsible antics.

"I don't get it," said Ken Goldstein, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "Is it valid to go after Barack Obama on inexperience, being a bit glib, perhaps even a bit arrogant for doing the European tour? Absolutely. But you just sound dopey when you put Paris Hilton in an ad."

Shanto Iyengar, a professor of political science and communications at Stanford University, said McCain needs "to come up with a more affirmative narrative for his candidacy -- Why is he running? What does he stand for? -- before going after Barack Obama." But he added: "McCain has lost the free media contest over the past couple of weeks; he's desperate to make the news, and controversial attacks are more newsworthy than boilerplate positive ads."

The commercial, which calls Obama "the biggest celebrity in the world," reflects frustration with the sizable imbalance in media coverage, with the senator from Illinois featured in recent weeks in People, Us Weekly and Rolling Stone and on "Access Hollywood." Unable to compete on that playing field, McCain operatives have taken to mocking Obama's global fame.

McCain said at a town hall meeting here that he is "proud" of the ad as stressing "substance and not style," and his spokeswoman, Nicolle Wallace, defended it. "The ad is meant to acknowledge reality -- that he is huge, that he is a celebrity," she said of Obama. "It wasn't meant to be insulting. One of the things we learned from Hillary Clinton running against Obama is that railing against his celebrity, whining about his celebrity, doesn't work."

Obama aides dismiss the latest ad as pointless. "To inject Britney Spears and Paris Hilton into the debate is beneath what America deserves," spokesman Bill Burton said. "It was a way for them to get attention for yet another inaccurate, misleading negative attack. People are caught up with the gimmick."

Responding to earlier negative spots by McCain, the Obama camp rolled out a counterattack ad with the line: "John McCain. Same old politics; same failed policies." That ad drew on widespread media criticism of the recent McCain commercials, which a New York Times editorial called "low road," a USA Today editorial dubbed "baloney" and Time described as "baseless."

The televised attacks by McCain represent a decision that he must tarnish Obama as an out-of-touch tax-raiser with little sympathy for the military, much as President Bush devoted the bulk of his 2004 advertising to denigrating Democratic nominee John F. Kerry. The McCain camp said it has aired four positive spots for every negative one, beginning in June.

One McCain ad assailed Obama for deciding against visiting soldiers at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center while he was in Germany, saying that "he made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops." Several news organizations, including The Washington Post, said there was no evidence to support the ad's key allegations.

Another ad blamed Obama for "rising prices at the pump," although he has been a senator for four years and McCain has said increased energy prices represent a problem that developed over 30 years.

Despite the media criticism, the ads have forced Obama to play defense on such issues as his opposition to offshore oil drilling, which McCain opposed in his 2000 campaign but now supports. "Every time they put up a negative ad, we're going to respond with the force of truth," said Burton, the Obama spokesman.

Even some McCain allies have winced at the Paris/Britney spot. Republican strategist Dan Schnur, a former McCain adviser, said that "most voters won't see the parallels between a presidential candidate and two party girls. So a legitimate point about inexperience gets lost in the appearance of name-calling."

Still, McCain has succeeded in using meager ad buys to generate free news coverage.

Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group said the ad on the canceled troops visit, which dominated cable news for days, has aired just nine times.

"If you're running against a rock star and have a huge disadvantage in money, you do the oldest trick in the book," Goldstein said.

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