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The Ads That Aren't

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

When Democrats turned their attention to national security themes at their nominating convention last month, Sen. John McCain's campaign was ready. In a withering TV commercial called "Tiny," McCain claimed that Sen. Barack Obama had called Iran a "tiny" country that "doesn't pose a serious threat."

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As reporters scrambled to vet the claims -- which, it reportedly turned out, distorted Obama's comments -- few noticed something curious about the commercial itself: "Tiny" appeared almost nowhere on the air except in news accounts. Since introducing the much-discussed commercial two weeks ago, in fact, McCain's campaign has bought airtime for it just 10 times.

The McCain ad, in other words, wasn't really much of an ad at all.

In political parlance, "Tiny" was a "vapor," or "ghost," ad. The goal of such spots is to stir up news-media interest rather than to reach voters directly through the purchase of expensive TV time.

Campaign ads-that-aren't are "the oldest trick going," says Kenneth Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who tracks political advertising. "You call a press conference, announce the ad, then run it once or twice. It's like Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown."

This time around, both major-party candidates have been playing the game, reaping a small bonanza of attention from cable and local news stations that have given the ads a free ride. McCain's campaign has been more aggressive and arguably more effective than Obama's, launching spots that have undercut Obama just when he seemed to be on the ascent.

Yesterday, for instance, the McCain campaign released a commercial called "Lipstick," which attacks Obama for allegedly smearing vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin by saying "You can't put lipstick on a pig." The ad, however, appears to be more of a video press release than a traditional commercial. McCain hasn't announced any airtime buys for it, and at 35 seconds, its length isn't standard for a TV commercial.

Obama's representatives have repeatedly complained about the content of McCain's vapor ads, as well as about the media's coverage of them. Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro blasted McCain for the strategy, saying in a statement that McCain was using "Bush political tactics" to try to "distract the media."

One ad unveiled by McCain quotes unfavorable comments about Obama made by the Democratic nominee's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, during the primaries; this ad has aired just seven times since it was announced two weeks ago, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), an Arlington-based firm that tracks political advertising. Another McCain spot that claimed -- erroneously -- that Obama "made time to go the gym" instead of visiting wounded troops during his visit to Europe this summer has aired just nine times, appearing in only three cities.

In each case, however, broadcast and print reporters gave McCain's claims wide circulation.

By contrast, an ad in which McCain compared Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears has aired more than 12,000 times as a paid spot across the country, according to CMAG. "They've used this tactic to a T," says Evan Tracey, who heads CMAG. "These [ads] feed the media beast the right food at just the right time. It has kept [McCain] relevant and part of the dialogue" at a time when Obama might have commanded the spotlight alone.

A spokesman for McCain, Brian Rogers, declined to discuss the frequency of the ads or other tactics. But he noted that "the reason our ads have gotten so much attention is that they reflect timely and compelling issues in this campaign. . . . The central question is: Is Barack Obama ready to be president?"


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