John F. Kerry's strategists pride themselves on the sheer speed of their advertising effort as they churn out one response after another to President Bush's attack spots.
Now it turns out that some of the Kerry commercials are being written, edited, produced and put on satellites for the purpose of generating news articles. They have not actually aired on any network or local station -- except in reports about the Democrat's campaign.
Since Sept. 1, the Kerry camp has released and publicized more than half a dozen commercials, on subjects ranging from taxes to health care to the war in Iraq, without buying time for them, either nationally or in battleground states. Others have run in only one or two markets after being unveiled with considerable fanfare. In effect, these have been video news releases purporting to be substantial paid advertising.
"We're certainly not trying to be disingenuous," Tad Devine, a senior Kerry adviser, said yesterday. "We've announced that we've created these and are prepared to use them at a time and place of our choosing." He said the Kerry team had to be able to show Bush's campaign "that the gun is loaded on this side, too."
Evan Tracey, an analyst at TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, called the phantom ads -- which have routinely been covered by The Washington Post and other news organizations -- "political product placement. But they're getting away with it, because the press is playing them. When the press covers a new Bush ad, the story always adds 'and Kerry released an ad of his own.' He's getting into the news chatter."
Mark McKinnon, Bush's media adviser, said the president's campaign has never announced an ad that has not run.
While the Kerry campaign has spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising this fall, Devine described a two-step process that has not been publicly disclosed. First, an ad is made and announced, and then the campaign does research -- including focus groups, people-meter groups and overnight tracking polls -- to determine whether the Bush attacks are working and whether the campaign should spend money on the response spot.
"I'd consider it malpractice in political ad-making not to have the stuff ready and for us to be prepared to be engaged," Devine said. He acknowledged, however, that the ads are announced "to engage in the free media" -- meaning to garner publicity -- regardless of whether they wind up airing.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, said that Kerry aides "shouldn't imply they're going to air something if they're not." But she called the coverage "a failure of journalism to ask the question we ought to ask about every single ad: how much and where."
Two of the Kerry ads released last weekend -- one attacking the Bush administration's handling of flu vaccine, the other accusing the president of a plan to slash Social Security benefits -- have not aired.
Another ad that has not been broadcast responded to a Bush spot that showed Kerry windsurfing in opposite directions by describing American casualties and beheadings in Iraq and accusing the president of running "a juvenile and tasteless attack ad." Still another included footage of a Bush ad slamming Kerry's health care plan, citing media accounts that the Bush attack contained "outright fabrications."
The Kerry campaign has also made small ad buys to draw headlines. On Sept. 25, the Kerry camp released a commercial -- in response to an anti-Kerry ad on terrorism by the independent Progress for America -- that accused Bush of "despicable" and "un-American" politics. It aired only on a Washington cable station.
On Oct. 11, the campaign put out an ad that said: "After nearly four years under George Bush, the middle class is paying the bigger share of America's tax burden and the wealthiest are paying less." A Kerry spokesman said it began airing only yesterday, in Minnesota. An ad about Vice President Cheney and Halliburton has run only five times, in Oregon and Harrisburg, Pa.