TAKE ONE: A panicked housewife and her 18-month-old baby face imminent nuclear annihilation in the kitchen. Sirens blare. Suddenly an urgent voice is heard: "Once nuclear missiles are launched, we cannot shoot them down. All we can do is . . . wait." Fade to portrait of Ronald Reagan. "But there is hope."
TAKE TWO: Bob and Harry are lounging on a park bench one fine afternoon. "Hey, Harry, know anything about this 'Star Wars' stuff?" Bob asks. "Yeah," says Harry. "Turns out that all this time we've never had a way to keep nuclear missiles from getting here." Bob looks surprised. "Never had a way?" Harry nods. "Nope."
How to market the Strategic Defense Initiative, otherwise known as "Star Wars"? The question was taxing the best and the brightest of television advertising late last summer, as High Frontier, the preeminent SDI advocacy group, invited some of the ad game's most creative minds to bid on the "Star Wars" account.
The ideas that came back were creative indeed, worthy of Wheaties and Calvin Klein. National Media, for one, proposed the housewife/baby spot, while Ringe Media Inc. offered the park bench vignette. A third agency, Hal Larson etc., even went so far as to rename the futuristic defense system of space-based lasers "The New Freeze," thus stealing verbal thunder from the politically hostile "Nuclear Freeze."
" 'Freeze' can become a weapon to help save an essential strategic system," the Larson proposal explained. "We can co-opt their central concept . . . The idea is audacious, even outrageous."
The privately funded High Frontier and its public relations arm, the Coalition for the Strategic Defense Initiative, rejected dozens of such suggestions from 12 different ad agencies before getting its commercial to the airwaves in late October. In early September, with no decision made, the group had invited Don Ringe, he of the park bench, to pitch another idea.
The curly-haired, mustachioed head of Washington's Ringe Media Inc., a former TV news director given to open-necked shirts, showed up at the High Frontier's downtown offices with two Crayola doodles on scrap paper (dashed off, left-handed, by his right-handed girlfriend, computer analyst June Kelty) of stick figures, a house and a sad-eyed sun, all huddled together under a sweeping arc.
The arc -- a wan, gray line in the first doodle -- was a cheery rainbow in the second. It depicted, as Ringe informed the assembled High Frontiersmen, the "Peace Shield."
"I thought, 'Oh, for God's sake! This will never work,' " recalls retired lieutenant general Daniel O. Graham, High Frontier's commander-in-chief. "I really thought this is too, uh, childish."
Ringe's "Peace Shield" commercials, Crayola doodles galore, is now the talk of TV advertising -- admired for its artistry by political professionals and reviled for its message by "Star Wars" foes. It has run eight times locally, on Channels 7 and 9 (at a cost of $49,000), since Oct. 22, and tomorrow will debut on prime time in seven states in the South and Midwest.
The spot, which cost $50,000 to make, has become the centerpiece de resistance of High Frontier's projected $1.7 million campaign to sell the Strategic Defense Initiative to the public at large.
"I think it's effective," says Democratic television consultant Robert Squier, no fan of SDI, "because it takes an incredibly complicated idea and boils it down to a completely uncomplicated essence. The commercial so powerful that it may get 'Peace Shield' into the lexicon. Of course, in the process you completely lose what this debate is all about -- that instead of trying to level off the arms race, [SDI supporters] are proposing to put a whole new set of defensive weapons into orbit."
Presidential assistant Mitchell Daniels, whose job it is to gather political support for Reagan administration policies, calls the commercial "a useful contribution to the debate. It has two virtues of effective advertising -- it catches your attention and it communicates."
It is a calculated response to recent polls showing that people react negatively to the phrase "Star Wars," and don't understand the dauntingly complex missile-defense system proposed by President Reagan. It is designed to redefine the debate and radically streamline the discussion -- in all of 27 seconds.
"I don't think the American public wants to be bothered with the what, when and how of lasers in space and things like that," says Rick Sellers, executive director of the Coalition for SDI. "Whether the technology will work or how much it will cost -- these are peripheral arguments."
Sellers says the main argument -- and the purpose of the "Peace Shield" spot -- is to "let the American public know, 'You are not defended.' Give them an option. 'You can be defended. Or you don't have to be.' "
This the spot does with breathtaking simplicity, employing a childlike animation of stick people, a dog, a house and a sun -- remarkably faithful to the original scribbles -- and the cute-as-a-button voice of a 7-year-old girl over the playful tones of a toy piano.
"I asked my daddy what this 'Star Wars' stuff is all about." A dome-like Crayola arc is drawn over the scene. "He said that right now we can't protect ourselves from nuclear weapons, and that's why the president wants to build a peace shield." Stick people and sun frown as fat red missiles bounce against the arc. The missiles pop like bubbles and vanish.
"It would stop missiles in outer space so they couldn't hit our house. Then nobody could win a war." Missiles stop coming. "And if nobody could win a war, there's no reason to start one." The arc becomes a rainbow, and the people and sun smile. The house unfurls an American flag. "My daddy's smart."
In exploiting the archetypal image of childhood to address nuclear horror, Don Ringe, who specializes in political advertising, is honoring a tradition that dates back to 1964 and the famous little-girl-picking-daisies commercial used in President Johnson's campaign against Barry Goldwater (the spot ends with an atomic blast and an admonition to go vote). More recently, there was this summer's anti-SDI spot from the Union of Concerned Scientists, featuring a young boy stargazing (everything explodes here, too).
"Kids have a way of telling you things the way they really are," Ringe says, lounging on a sofa and sipping a can of beer in the downtown row house that serves as his office. "The spot is really a child's representation of what the Strategic Defense Initiative would be. When you're watching a TV spot, it's almost like a poem. There's a purity to it. And the little girl's voice brings in a quality of simplicity, of innocence . . .
"What I felt had to be done is that rather than to intimidate the audience with a threatening visual, we really had to address the issue in a nonthreatening manner. This is what we call a 'passive-aggressive mode.' So we made the sun shine in the end and turned a negative into a positive, turned the protective shield into a rainbow -- and gave the story a happy ending."
Ringe -- who at 39, describes himself as "a moderate Republican, prodefense, top-of-the-baby-boom-bubble Yuppie" -- says he hit upon the idea while having dinner with his friend June Kelty over Labor Day weekend in Chincoteague, Va. Kelty, no artist, scribbled her original drawing on a paper place mat, while Ringe wrote out the script.
Unlike "Star Wars," which came from a hit movie, the genesis of the term "Peace Shield" remains vague. Ringe says he coined "Peace Shield" with Synfuels Corp. Chairman Edward E. Noble, whose conservative Noble Foundation contributed $75,000 toward production and broadcast costs.
Using Kelty's doodles as a guide, an Austin, Tex., firm called UMA Mirage produced the animation and mixed in the music and sound effects. A Boston company, Soundtrack, found a 7-year-old child actor named Kria Sakakeeny to read the script. "It was a little bit challenging," says Kria, who was paid $250 for her work. "I don't know, it tells you that you're growing up or something."
As for Kria's daddy, when asked, just like in the commercial, what this "Star Wars" stuff is all about, he gives a startling reply.
"I think it's counterproductive, personally," says Khalil Sakakeeny, a Boston documentary filmmaker. "It might be a good bargaining tool, which the president could use as leverage -- but mechanically, financially and politically, it seems to me like a white elephant."