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The Ads That Aren't
Candidates Let Media Spread the Message

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."

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?"

Obama has played the vapor-ad game, too. After Hillary Clinton launched a spot during the primaries suggesting that she had the experience to handle a world crisis that could break with "a 3 a.m. phone call" to the White House, Obama responded with a spot attesting to his "judgment and courage" in opposing the war in Iraq. That spot, which used some of the same images as Clinton's original commercial, never aired anywhere except in news stories, according to CMAG.

Similarly, an Obama spot that taunted McCain for owning seven houses appeared briefly in paid spots on cable TV, but received coverage on TV and in newspapers.

Ghost political ads have a long and colorful history, and have often had an impact on perceptions of a political race, says the University of Wisconsin's Goldstein. The ads tend to be featured prominently in local TV news stories about campaigns and elections, he says. According to research that Goldstein directed, nearly one-third of TV stories about senatorial races in 2006 mentioned advertising, and about 20 percent of stories about gubernatorial races did so.

He notes that the Democrats' famous "Daisy" commercial -- which raised doubts about Lyndon Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, by using the image of a little girl picking petals off a daisy to evoke the countdown to nuclear war -- ran just once as a paid commercial during the 1964 race. Thanks to massive publicity about it, "Daisy" remains perhaps the most famous, and infamous, political ad of all time.

In 2004, an independent group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth bought airtime in a handful of markets to run commercials questioning Democratic nominee John Kerry's truthfulness and fitness for office. The subsequent media coverage was so heavy -- particularly on cable TV -- that Kerry had to defend himself against the onslaught.

Tracey says vapor ads may be increasing in frequency due to the rise of YouTube and the proliferation of political blogs. Before they were around, it was more difficult for a campaign to persuade reporters to do stories on a new ad until it was in wide circulation, he says. But nowadays, Tracey says, the ad is on the Internet somewhere almost as soon as a candidate announces it, providing an immediate justification for making a news story out of what is little more than a video press release.

"Ten years ago, this was the number one sin between journalists and the campaign," he says. "No one [in the media] wanted to be seen as taking the campaign's bait. Now there's a willingness on the part of both parties to use and be used. There's a much bigger appetite to accept this kind of content."

Advertising experts say that viewers typically remember a TV commercial only after they've been exposed to it repeatedly, typically 10 or 12 times. But even though ghost ads don't come close to that kind of saturation, they are valuable to a campaign for other reasons. Tracey says such ads don't disrupt the candidate's primary advertising campaign but enable him to muddy his opponent's message or image. McCain's "Troops" helped McCain shift attention away from the stirring images of Obama addressing hundreds of thousands of people at a rally in Germany.

TV stations that air the ads as news "end up making the campaign's point for them, with exactly the words and pictures" the campaign wants, he adds. "The campaign is getting a willing partner in the media because [the media is] filling in the rest of the story for them."

But the news media's willingness to turn over airtime for such unfiltered messages troubles some journalists. "Reporters and news executives fall for this every time," says Brooks Jackson, a veteran political reporter who runs the Annenberg Center's FactCheck.org, which vets political speeches and other campaign statements. He says the ads' flashy images and inflammatory rhetoric make them "irresistible" to TV stations.

"When [the campaigns] tell people that an ad is going to be seen and talked about by everyone, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy" when stations put it on the air, Jackson says. With YouTube and such popular Web sites as Drudge.com, however, "the gatekeeper function that the news media executives used to perform is long gone."

At the very least, Jackson says, the news media should be "pushing back" by sorting out what's true and what's false in the ads.

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