Ronald Reagan, a candidate with more than 30 years' experience on television, is performing this year for living-room audiences in a series of 30-and 60-second political commercials that appear to make a strong, positive impression on viewers.
Curiously, Reagan's commercials are the least dramatic of any candidate's this year, but that seems to be part of their appeal. A group of 12 citizens of Albany from a wide variety of backgrounds looked at all the current candidates' advertisements for The Washington Post, and found the Reagan ads better than any of the others except President Carter's.
In this group, Reagan's commercials actually made a better impression on Democrats than Republicans. There were four of each on this informal panel, plus three independents and one liberal.
Watching political commercials with a group like this cannot lead to any scientific conclusions, but it is a fascinating way to observe the interaction between candidates and public through the medium that both seem to prefer, television.
Two Reagan commercials, produced by Philadelphia ad man Elliot Curson, that claim great accomplishments by Reagan when he was governor of California made the best impression here. An announcer begins one of them like this:
"When Ronald Reagan became governor, California's welfare system was in such bad shape that the only hope seemed to be a federal takeover. When he left office, 340,000 fewer people were on welfare; benefits were 43 percent higher; and the system was a model for 11 other states."
As this message is read, the screen shows headlines from California newspapers which suggest first that the state welfare program is in a mess, then that things are improving. When the announcer has finished, Reagan appears on the screen. His figure fills the screen; there are no props.
"In California, the answer to the welfare problem wasn't more power for Washington, it was less," Reagan declares. "The closer programs are brought to the people, the better they'll work. It's time we had a president who knows how to make this happen."
A second, similar ad carries the message that Reagan inherited a mess in Sacramento and turned it around, balancing the state budget and returning "$5.7 billion to the people."
In two other ads, Reagan comes out for stronger leadership for America, and for stronger defense and foreign policies.
Mark A. Nordstrom, 29, a Republican and a New York state bureaucrat, volunteered two reactions to the Reagan ads:
"One, I thought his makeup man did a great job. [This remark provoked general laughter. In the ads Reagan's face does look either made or lit up to de-emphasize wrinkles.] The other thing is -- I'm not particularly enamored with Ronald Reagan, and the thing that surprises me, and he convincingly portrayed, is the job he apparently must have done in California, which is probably a rather unwieldly state. In terms of the things he brings to his candidacy, that's one of the more convincing things he has to draw on."
Only one in the group questioned the claims the ads made for Reagan's governorship, though they are all debatable.
One panelist, a 54-year-old secretary named Barbara Perry, said she thought commercials like these were unlikely to have much influence on voters, but no one else agreed with her. George Carpinello, 29, a lawyer and registered Democrat, offered a more representative view:
"We all tend to think that we're not swayed by ads, but I think we make up our minds kind of as a composite of little snippets here and there . . . I think a couple of the Reagan ads wre very effective in bringing across his performance in California, and I think that will stick in your mind. That's just one fact someone's going to tuck away until they finally make their decision."
That fact won't make Carpinello a Reagan voter, however; the commercials "didn't convince me, didn't sway my personal feeling," he said.
"In my mind he's still a movie star," added Emily L. Grisom, 51, a clerk and Albany homeowner who is a registered Liberal. "He's definitely not the man for the job in my opinion."
But the consensus on Reagan's commercials was favorable, even friendly. "They are very quiet ads," said Doris Davis, a 38-year-old Republican housewife. "They're not noisy and abrasive. I think that's important."
By contrast, commercials made for George Bush by Robert Goodman of Baltimore are much more dramatic. Most of the Bush ads shown to this group were made early in his campaign. They packed dozens of images into 30- and 60-second packages, with dramatic backgrounds music composed by Goodman behind cinema-verite film clips showing Bush campaigning, being applauded by crowds, making speeches. Goodman's desire, he explained in a recent interview, was to create a good feeling about Bush while suggesting that his campaign was building momentum.
In one commercial of a different sort, Bush, sitting in a library and looking straight into the camera, lectures Jimmy Carter on the facts of political life: "President Carter, what you don't seem to understand is, people are really fed up . . . This country is not ready to give up its future."
The Bush ads end with a slogan: "George Bush, a president we won't have to train." The first time this group of citizens heard the line, many of them laughed -- a foretaste of the sharply divided reaction to the slick commercials.
Nat Boynton, 62, editor of a weekly newspaper and a Bush supporter, said he felt better about his man after seeing the commercials than he had before. But Steven Billmyer, 19, a college student and Democrat, said he was "amazed how Bush said absolutely nothing . . . These commercials seemed useless."
John P. Jehu, 71, a retired attorney, found Bush's ads "somewhat underwhelming. They didn't tell me anything about him."
Carpinello thought he had an explanation for this -- either you could make a straight ad on the issues, like Reagan, he said, or you can "give them 30 seconds of slush, which is what Bush did. I don't mean that perjoratively. It's a mood ad, and all it was meant to do was to portray Bush as a kind of debonair campaigner, a Robert Redford type almost."
John Anderson's commercials, produced by R. J. Sann of New York, are as unorthodox as Anderson's candidacy. They emphasize Anderson's distance from the other Republican candidates, some of them showing the Illinois congressman in front of TV monitors which carry the faces of other Republicans who have been or are still in the race. Anderson speaks earnestly into the camera, enunciating his position: "I alone support the ERA extension . . . the backbone of the women's movement," for example. In other ads he preaches the need for sacrifice.
The commercials all include an oftrepeated slogan: "Think about the Anderson Difference," an echo of a current ad for Anacin, though only one member of this group picked it up.
The reaction to Anderson's ads was friendly but reserved. There was only one Anderson supporter in the group, Doris Davis, and she liked them. No one criticized them.Mark Nordstrom made these observations:
"It seemed to me he was getting at an underlying anxiety that the nation feels about all these problems that seem to be insoluble, and if someone would only tell me what hard decision to make, I'll make it. And he's willing to tell you . . ."
Grisom added: "Each time that he's talking, I'm trying to relate just where he's coming from, other than the issues he's standing on. What will he actually do other than this? I mean, there are so many other things that he has got to deal with [besides the issues mentioned in the ads]."
Grisom didn't feel she knew Anderson, before or after she saw the commercials.