Damned Spot

Comparison Shopping

“Down,” “Check,” and “College” were produced by Century Media for Gore for President. To see transcripts of the ads, click.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

“Down” is a textbook comparative ad: 15 seconds of mean words about George W. Bush (accompanied by an ominous hum), followed by 15 seconds of nice words about Al Gore (accompanied by a dynamic melody) to wash out the bad taste. The key phrase, “trickle down,” is repeated three times, compounded by Gore’s usual statement of devotion to “the middle class.” On the screen, a giant $100 bill façade dissolves, amid the sound of trickling water, to reveal 62 measly cents—the amount Gore says Bush’s tax cut would give “most taxpayers.” Gore keeps using this figure despite recent articles debunking it. In the positive half of the ad, the scene switches from the impersonal currency metaphor to images of real people fulfilling real needs: a family eating a meal, a doctor examining a patient, college graduates celebrating their commencement. This neatly obscures the fact that many of these people could use a tax cut to pay for the same needs.

“Check” shifts the comparison strategy from half-and-half to side-by-side. It’s a response to Bush’s previous ad, ” Notebook,” which used side-by-side ledgers to compare the candidates’ prescription drug plans. This is the closest thing in political advertising to a compliment—an acknowledgment that the other guy’s ad not only is doing enough damage to require an explicit response, but also has implanted an image (in this case, the notebook) that viewers will instantly recognize.

Gore’s ad crosses out the notebook but uses the same side-by-side format to compare the two plans, essentially inverting Bush’s claims. Bush said Gore’s plan would force seniors into a “drug HMO” or a “government HMO” (a claim that is just as false as Gore’s 62-cents-a-day figure); Gore says Bush’s plan would force seniors “into HMOs and insurance companies.” The checkbook metaphor (“The truth about prescription drugs isn’t in this notebook; it’s in your checkbook”) does convey an important truth obscured by Bush’s ad: While government insurance costs money, so does private insurance.

“College” pays another compliment—this time, to Bush’s “Education Recession” ad, which in my opinion is one of the cleverest spots aired this year. Bush has staked out this issue so early, often, and creatively that Gore can’t beat him on it head-to-head. So Gore tries to outflank him in two ways. Rather than tackle Bush’s arguments about what’s wrong with K-12 education, Gore fast-forwards past those years, changing the focus to college tuition. At this level, Gore feels politically free to offer what Democrats won’t offer for K-12 private schools: a hefty tuition tax break. Gore dubiously portrays this as more important than Bush’s K-12 level. “I’m for a lifelong commitment to education,” he says.

The second end-run in “College” is Gore’s resort to class conflict. While Bush increasingly views every issue through the prism of “trust,” Gore increasingly views every issue through the prism of the “middle class.” That phrase appears four times in this commercial. The ad opens with pictures of men in suits in high-rise offices, as the announcer complains, “Big corporations get a tax write-off for education for their high-paid executives.” Bill Clinton never had to invoke this kind of envy to justify education assistance. It was obvious that education was good, and voters would appreciate help paying for it. Gore’s gratuitous use of “high-paid executives” as a foil for his college tax-break pitch is a testament to how fully—and perhaps dangerously—his campaign is committed to populist resentment.