Varnish Remover

Harry and Louise Go to Kyoto

U.N. Map, produced by Goddard*Claussen/First Tuesday for the Global Climate Information Project.

The ad agency that helped scuttle Clinton’s health plan with the “Harry and Louise” spots is back with an attack on the global-warming treaty, which is scheduled to be signed next month in Kyoto, Japan. U.N. Map, produced by Goddard*Claussen/First Tuesday, is different in style from the “Harry and Louise” spots, but similar in fundamentals. Its message is simple and populist, and its visual elements linger in the viewer’s mind long after the ad ends.

The first shot is a graphic–“The World According to the U.N.”–which exploits the national anti-U.N. suspicion that “good” Americans will always be outsmarted by “clever” foreigners. The isolationism that prevailed until 60 years ago was rooted in–and reinforced–that belief, and it has yet to fade. Why does the United Nations vote against us when we pay most of the bills?

The graphic dissolves to a world map, and a hand appears to grasp a pair of scissors. The voice-over informs us that the United States is “preparing to sign” the global-warming treaty and the image warns us that there’s a catch–or a cut. Just as campaign spots confer legitimacy to their charges by citing a source, this one quotes the United Nations as saying that 132 countries will be exempt from the treaty. The scissors snip China, India, Algeria, and Mexico out of the map to reinforce the point. The United States will be “forced to make drastic cuts in energy,” the spot says, while these other countries do nothing.

Brazil–and later, Thailand–are clipped out for good measure. The free riders are all Asian, North African, or Latin American. Sub-Saharan African nations, which are also exempt from the emissions portions of the treaty, aren’t singled out. One reason may be that the sponsors of the spot include the Black Chamber of Commerce. Another is that all but the most xenophobic Americans recognize that Africa is so economically desperate that it can’t afford to sacrifice anything.

Citing sources again–the United Nations and the U.S. Department of Energy–the voice-over explains that the exempt nations are “responsible for almost half the world’s emissions.” In fact, the treaty does shield the developing world on the grounds that advanced economies like the United States and Europe have already harvested more than their share of the gains from industrialization.

U.N. Map suggests that the treaty is a hidden form of foreign aid–one of the most unpopular of all federal programs. The Senate has already voted 95-0 against an exemption for developing nations, although the resolution was carefully worded not to demand equal cutbacks for those nations because this would leave many low-energy-consuming countries with little or no right to burn any fuel.

As the hands hold up the map with gaping holes where there were once nations, the viewer assumes that the United States has been played for a sucker again. No wonder the Clinton administration has been debating whether it should even send Al Gore to the Kyoto conference.

The ad offers to provide additional “facts” with a toll-free number (888-54FACTS) and a Web address ( The list of sponsoring organizations goes beyond auto manufacturers, who are almost certainly paying the bulk of the broadcast costs, to include farmers, blacks, and small business. There are other sponsors not cited here: the AFL-CIO and the National Association of Manufacturers, who find themselves in rare agreement. For big business, populism has its occasional uses.

Broadcasters are required to accept ads for candidates, but not for issues. CNN briefly refused to continue running this spot because, the sponsors alleged, Ted Turner’s wife, Jane Fonda, didn’t approve. The network denied that accusation and the spot is back on CNN, but it understandably infuriates environmentalists. Depending on your point of view, the ad is either edgy or diabolical. But nobody can deny its effectiveness. A map with holes in it is a mnemonic for the global-warming treaty and its supposedly glaring loopholes. Whenever viewers hear of the treaty again, the first thing they’re likely to think of is that map–just as the phrase “Clinton health plan” came to trigger the picture of Harry and Louise being denied the right to choose their own doctor.

The health plan lost. If this spot is any indication, so will the treaty. Complex proposals and positions don’t fare well in the arena of 30-second debates–especially when the negative spots are as well done as this one and as well grounded in ingrained popular attitudes. So look for warmer weather ahead.

–Robert Shrum