Ad Report Card

The Ads of War

Martin Sheen vs. Tom Ridge in a battle of commercials.

Martin Sheen acting the part
Martin Sheen acting the part

The official word from the U.S. government, as I understand it, is that there is no connection between a potential war with Iraq and the recent uptick of terror fright. The Ad Report Card has a different take and believes it is perfectly valid to use one column to look at two current campaigns: one that opposes war in Iraq, and one that encourages you to “be ready,” in a calm and rational way, for terrorist attacks.

Win Without War is a “coalition” of groups “that aim to Keep America Safe by advocating alternatives to pre-emptive war in Iraq,” according to its Web site—where you can view three related TV ads. In the most recent spot, actor Martin Sheen touts the “virtual March on Washington,” which apparently means sending anti-war faxes and e-mail and so on to relevant government officials. “Don’t invade Iraq,” Sheen declares. “Inspections work. War won’t.” In an earlier ad, comedian Janeane Garofalo informs viewers of a U.N. estimate of half a million casualties “if we invade Iraq.” She asks, “Do we have the right to do that to a country that’s done nothing to us?” The question is answered by Bishop Melvin Talbert of United Methodist Church—”President Bush’s church.” And a still earlier ad shows a little girl picking petals off a daisy. As she does, a grave-sounding voice-over wonders what might happen if a war in Iraq does not end quickly. “Maybe extremists will take over countries with nuclear weapons.” There’s a countdown, an extreme close-up of the little girl, and a cut to a mushroom cloud. “Let the inspections work,” the narrator implores.

That last ad is of course an homage to—or a straight rip-off of—one of the most famous and most effective political ads ever (you can see it here, click “Daisy”), from the 1964 presidential campaign in which LBJ thumped Barry Goldwater. Although the new and warmed-over Daisy ad is not as cleanly executed or as effective as the still-chilling original, it’s probably the best of the anti-war spots that have aired so far. One simple reason is that it is celebrity free.

Garofalo has complained that TV news shows book actors to voice the anti-war line “so they can marginalize the movement.” Maybe so. But if the famous-face factor devalues the message, then what are celebrities doing in these ads? If I’m going to hear, say, Martin Sheen talk about foreign policy, I’d rather hear him in an actual debate (where we could judge whether he knows what he’s talking about) than listen to him airily declare that an offensive on Iraq won’t work and tell me I should write my congressman because he says so. This is how old-school celebrity endorsements were thought to work—viewers soaked in the famous person’s aura and bought whatever he or she said. But there’s a reason you don’t see many ads like that anymore.

Anyway, it seems that the message that the anti-war crowd really wants to get out is that lots of your fellow Americans have doubts about the direction our Iraq policy seems to be headed. If that’s the case, hearing from some of those folks would have been a lot more effective than hearing from the man who plays a president on TV. (I mean Sheen, not Dubya.)

The government, meanwhile, has gone more Main Street in its “Be Ready” campaign. (Production costs for these were actually covered not by the government but by a private nonprofit group called the Sloan Foundation, which counts bioterrorism threats among its pet issues; free airtime is being sought by the Ad Council, whose site has all the spots.) In one called “Every Family,” Tom Ridge, against a plain gray backdrop and speaking in no-nonsense tones, says, “Every family in America should prepare itself for a terrorist attack.” He suggests visiting or calling 1-800-BE-READY for a brochure. But in other ads, like the longer one called “Plans,” featuring New York City firefighters, “Security is not always a given,” as one of them says. Another suggests rounding up a radio, flashlight, and so on. Ridge chimes in to say, “You’ll have done something to prepare. You’re in control, you had a choice. We’re asking America to be ready.”

Ridge has had a bit of a rough time recently, what with his early advice about duct tape transforming itself into a coast-to-coast punch line overnight. “It’s not always easy to know the right thing to say,” he commented recently. Yet that sentiment has not stopped the current barrage of “readiness” information and warnings. It was shrewd to use firefighters, who have a good deal more credibility these days than either actors or politicians. But the campaign still seems more than anything else to be a replay of the Cold War “civil-defense” plans that David Greenberg assessed in a recent Slate piece: The real point is simply to make you feel as though, whatever happens, you can do something.

It’s easy to spot one theme that links these two campaigns: fear. The new “Daisy” spot scares you into opposing war, the security spots scare you into making a survival kit. The line “Every family in America should prepare itself for a terrorist attack,” for example, could be part of either campaign. And actually, it’s not hard to imagine the anti-war crowd borrowing, and challenging, a line from one of the readiness ads: “You’re in control, you had a choice.”