Stand by your ad

Stand by your ad

Mark H. Rodeffer

John Kerry’s first television ads of his presidential campaign were fairly standard, featuring clips from speeches in lowa and Massachusetts bemoaning job losses under President George W. Bush and promising to fight for the middle class. But after each speech, the Massachusetts senator did something unusual in political advertising: he turned away from the crowd and said directly to a camera that he’s John Kerry, and he approved his own message.

Typical to his style, Howard Dean added a more dramatic flair to the standard phrase, adding in a line from his stump speech. Standing before a tractor in one of his first television commercials, the former Vermont governor told viewers, “I’m Howard Dean, and I approve this message because it’s time to take our country back.”

And John Edwards said that he authorized his first presidential advertising foray for trade reasons. “I approve this message because I want to export American products, not American jobs,” explained the North Carolina senator.

The three candidates were making a new requirement from the 2002 federal campaign finance law their own. Under the law, candidates for federal office are required to explicitly approve their television and radio commercials. Candidates must identify themselves and offer approval in their own voice. In television ads, they must make the statement to the camera or their image must accompany a voiceover.


Consultants’ Complaints

The disclaimer aimed to curtail negative advertising, based on the theory that candidates would be less likely to make harsh attacks if their own voices were attached to the ads. While there is no consensus on whether the “stand by your ad” provision has met its goal, media consultants from both parties deplore the disclaimer as burdensome and a waste of precious ad time.


“It’s like throwing a turd in the middle of a punch bowl,” said Karl Struble of the Democratic firm Struble Eichenbaum Communications. “I hate it aesthetically.”

Beyond constraining their creative visions, media consultants’ chief complaint is that the disclaimer costs three or four seconds per commercial. “Thirty seconds is already a very small time window to deliver a message,” said GOP consultant Larry McCarthy of McCarthy Marcus Hennings. “Now it’s cut even further.”

Tackling the Disclaimer

The disclaimer presents the most serious challenges to negative ads, because candidates can be criticized for such ads’ negative tones.

“It’s a lot harder to go after somebody when you have to attach your candidate’s face to the ad,” said Republican consultant Scott Howell of Dallas-based Scott Howell & Co.

One approach puts the candidate offering the disclaimer at the beginning of an ad, the screen going to black for a few frames and proceeding with a typical negative ad. Bush’s early negative commercials featured announcers following his quick disclaimer with charges that Kerry has supported more than 350 tax increases, wants a new $900 billion tax increase, and is soft on the war on terror.

Howell, who is part of Bush’s coterie of media consultants, endorsed that approach. “I think you have to have a one second beat between [the disclaimer and the negative ad],” he said. “You get it out of the way, and then you move through and let the message of your spot resonate with the viewer.”

Jason Ralston, a partner at Democratic ad firm GMMB, said the approach could make viewers tune out. “They might say, ‘Oh, its just another political ad, click, change the channel,'” he said.

Another method is to split a 30-second commercial into two roughly 15-second spots–one negative and one positive, with the disclaimer in the positive portion. Ben Chandler, the Democratic candidate in Kentucky’s 6th District House special election earlier this year, used the tactic.

He won the race, the first federal election completed this cycle with well-funded candidates from two parties.

In one 30-second Chandler ad, the announcer spent the first 18 seconds telling viewers over ominous music that Republican Alice Forgy Kerr “is taking the low road” and “voted eight times to raise taxes … voting to raise her own pay and nearly double her own pension.” With 12 seconds to go in the ad, the music turns upbeat and the voiceover offers: “It’s Ben Chandler who stopped the legislature’s pension increase. He’s always supported tax relief for working families and opposes any tax increase.” Then comes Chandler’s almost cheery disclaimer over the same optimistic music.

Another method, taken by Kerry and others, lets candidates criticize an opponent and use the disclaimer to explain why they approved the message. This approach softens negative ads and makes the delivery of the disclaimer more natural.

Kerry frequently used this approach in his primary and caucus advertising. “We try to build the disclaimer into the advertisement, so that there’s usually something that follows, usually the motivation for the action,” said Tad Devine, who is party of Kerry’s media team at Shrum Devine & Donilon.

In a commercial Kerry ran in Iowa before the state’s caucuses, he charged that Bush “let polluters and oil companies rewrite our environmental laws” and backs “loopholes that let corporations avoid taxes by moving jobs overseas.” Then, he said, “I approved this message because it’s time to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, crack down on corporate corruption, and put opportunity in the hands of all Americans.”

Devine said the approach enhances the authenticity of the ad.

Bush consultant Fred Davis disagreed. “I’m not sure that John Kerry sitting there chatting about a disclaimer in his living room looks very real,” the GOP consultant added.

Decreasing Negative Ads?

U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., authored the “stand by your ad” legislation.

“The consensus seems to be yes, that this is one factor among others that has made for a very positive primary season,” he said.

However, Ken Goldstein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and an expert on political advertising, said the disclaimer has not had an effect. “Primary advertising is always much more positive than general election advertising,” he said. “And the little evidence we have from general election contests is it’s the normal amount.”

Howard Dean and U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the only two major Democratic candidates to attack primary opponents in TV ads, both faltered in Iowa and lasted little past the caucuses. But negative ads often backfire in a primary, a rule consultants said isn’t changed by the disclaimer.

Anita Dunn, a partner at the Democratic firm Squier Knapp Dunn, said that when voters think an ad is overly negative, unfair or untrue, it won’t work.

She doubted the disclaimer rules will change that.

Chris Motolla, a Philadelphia-based GOP consultant who is part of Bush’s ad-making team, agreed, saying “voters are much more sophisticated than the intelligentsia gives them credit for it” and “can smell a negative spot a mile away” even without the disclaimer.

Perhaps, though, the disclaimer can change the hue of negative advertising, making it more based on policy differences and less prone to personal attacks.

“We were extra careful to make sure that the tenor was one that was more disappointed in our opponent’s actions than vitriolic and over the top,” said Ralston, who handled Chandler’s media for GMMB. But Larry McCarthy, the media consultant on the other side of the Kentucky race, said he did not make adjustments in the tone of negative ads because of the disclaimer.

Goldstein questioned the logic behind trying to douse negative ads in the first place. “Negative advertising is empirically more accurate than positive advertising,” he said. “But we should only have ads with candidates walking on the beach with their yellow Labs and not about issues? That’s better?”

Independent groups have spent millions of dollars airing negative TV advertising this cycle, largely because parties can no longer accept soft money, and the cash has materialized in the hands of an array of political action committees, 527 groups (named for their place in the tax code) and other outside organizations.

Although most negative ads from those groups have been based on policy, a few were more of the slash-and-burn variety. One, from the anti-tax Club for Growth, labeled Dean a “body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.” Another, from the Democratic group Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values questioned Dean’s foreign policy and military experience over an image of Osama bin Laden. And a spot from the conservative Citizens United labeled Kerry “another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he’s a man of the people.”

But those ads didn’t have a candidate’s face and voice taking credit and almost certainly would have backfired on any candidate who ran them. For that reason, many expect the harshest of ads will be funded by independent groups.

Voter Reaction

McCarthy, who handled Republican Alice Forgy Kerr’s media in the Kentucky House race, said voters had no clue why the candidates were telling voters they approved of their own TV commercials. “All she ever got was people on the street asking, ‘Why did you have to approve that message?'” he said. “And she got a lot of it.”

But voters are likely to adjust to the disclaimer, and already have in the early primary and battleground states, several consultants said.

Once that happens, the disclaimer will mean less backlash. “After a few thousand impressions, they’re going to get numb to it,” Howell said. “Then they’re going to focus on the message.”

Mark H. Rodeffer is a researcher and off-air reporter at CNN’s political unit. He may be reached at

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