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A tale of two ads October 29, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Advertising.

Getting down and dirty in political advertising during a pre-election period is by no means unusual, since politicians generally attempt to smear their opponents by any possible way.

Two rather interesting political advertisements recently popped up in the United States in the final run up to the November 7 mid-term elections. The first one, cynically designed or not to tug the heart strings, resulted in a major outrage that hit the headlines. The second, a much more sinister offering, was barely mentioned except among a handful of bloggers and one or two mainstream media outlets.

Appearing in an advertisement for a Missouri democrat, actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and was clearly showing the shaky symptoms of his condition, appealed to voters to choose a candidate that supported stem-cell research, which many doctors believe could hold a cure for Parkinson’s and other diseases.

President George Bush vetoed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which would have expanded stem cell lines that were eligible for federal funding. The furore over the pro-Democrat ad erupted when conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh accused Fox of faking it. Imitating the actor’s shaking movements on camera, Limbaugh said: “This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn’t take his medication or he’s acting, one of the two.”

Limbaugh half apologised the next day, but the day after that he retracted his half apology. The rest of the Republican media bandwagon, while not going as far as Limbaugh, criticised Fox for “cynically using his condition” to secure votes for the Democrats.

Naturally they all overlooked the real issues; the merits or demerits of stem-cell research and the fact that Michael J. Fox actually has an extremely debilitating disease, and might also be entitled to the “right to life”. Ironically, the fuss made over the ad ensured it received nationwide coverage instead of passing relatively unnoticed in Missouri. Whether or not Fox deliberately exaggerated his condition on air, the ad is neither more or less than what one would expect in a political campaign. Candidates are supposed to offer a vision of a better future to the voters.

Which brings us to our second advertisement. This was no Mickey Mouse effort from a backwater candidate. It was released by the Republican National Committee, a blockbuster if you will. And what better future does it promise in return for voting Republican? Tax cuts, jobs, an Iraq withdrawal? Nope. It promises death and destruction at the hands of al Qaeda if you don’t vote Republican.

According to one description: “The ad dramatically sets quotes from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri against a black background with the sound of a ticking clock. The quotes highlight phrases like “kill the Americans” and “nothing compared to what you see next”. The ad climaxes with a mushroom-esque cloud exploding behind the text. [The words] ‘These are the stakes’ then appear on the screen.”

The only other organisation that produces threatening videos like this is al Qaeda itself. They do it of course to scare Americans. Republicans show suitcase nukes being detonated so that Americans can remember that Osama bin Laden is still out there gunning for them.

No matter how you spin it, like al Qaeda, they too do it to scare Americans, because frankly it’s hard to see how such an ad could make people feel safer, or tempt any thinking person to vote for the administration that has so far failed to catch bin Laden.

Strange how the shadow of bin Laden surfaces at crucial moments for the Bush administration. If it’s not a “timely” video released by al Qaeda, it’s the Republicans producing a video starring bin Laden. What would they do if he was actually caught?

And just in case the public isn’t scared enough by the Osama ad, there is a Plan B. There are reports that Saddam Hussein will be sentenced just two days before the elections. That about covers the length of time the average Fox News viewer can retain information relating to world affairs. Harsh but true. A good number still believe that Iraq was behind 9/11, despite the recent clear admission by Bush that Saddam had nothing to do with it.

The Republicans claim that their scaremongering ad “underscores the high stakes America faces in the global war on terror”, according to a statement.

But MSNBC’s Countdown host Keith Olbermann, one of very few journalists in the US mainstream media who openly criticises the Bush administration on national television, accused the White House of terrorism. He likened the ad to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Citing the dictionary definition of the word “terrorise” as to “fill or overpower with terror; terrify. To coerce by intimidation or fear”, Olbermann reaches the only logical conclusion that “the leading terrorist group in this country right now is the Republican Party”.

“This administration has derived benefit and power from terrorising the very people it claims to be protecting from terror. It may be the oldest trick in the political book: scare people into believing they are in danger and that only you can save them. It’s cynical and barbaric.”

Yes indeed. Where is Rush Limbaugh’s outrage that his government is exploiting its own people’s already ingrained fear of terrorism?

The scare tactics call to mind the 2004 BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares in which British director Adam Curtis argues that during the 20th Century, politicians lost the power to inspire the masses, and that the optimistic visions and ideologies they had offered were perceived to have failed.

Incidentally, the documentary was turned down by the majority of American television stations. One producer tellingly said his station would be “slaughtered” if he allowed it to air. The documentary asserts that politicians, having failed to deliver on their promises of better things, consequently sought a new role that would restore their power and authority. Curtis says in the film’s introduction: “Instead of delivering dreams, politicians instead promise now to protect us from nightmares”. It’s all they have left.

Sounds very much like the Republicans have adopted this philosophy, given their ad. Of course they might also be taking a leaf out of this book: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. Tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger.”

That might sound like something that Noam Chomsky or some other liberal intellectual might theorise upon. But it’s not. It’s a quote by Herman Goering at the Nuremburg trials, and he should know.

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