Clinton’s ‘red phone ad’ has a familiar (1984) ring

That red phone Hillary Rodham Clinton has used in her gasping campaign has been ringing since 1984.

Roy Spence, an ad guy from Austin, Texas, first created the red phone ad for our own Walter Mondale when he was in a competitive race with Gary Hart for the Democratic nomination for president. By simply reaching into his old file cabinet, Spence created the same ad for Clinton.

The main style difference is that in the Mondale ad we see the red phone as the message is delivered. In the Clinton ad, we hear the phone ringing while we watch children, safely asleep.

The Mondale ad, below, ended with this line: “This president will know what he’s doing, and that’s the difference between Gary Hart and Walter Mondale.” 

The Clinton ad ends: “It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?” 

Spence, now 60, does not answer reporters’ questions about the ad, so it’s not known if Clinton received a discount for purchasing a recycled product. But, if nothing else, the ad shows that there’s nothing really new in political advertising in terms of basic campaign appeals to voters.

Mondale believes phone ad is fair, effective
Mondale, a superdelegate who still is supporting Clinton, believes that the ad, then and now, was fair. In fact, he thinks it was an important piece of his victory over Hart. (He lost the general election to Ronald Reagan.)

“The issue was that I had a lot of experience and my opponent did not,” the former vice president said. “My ad guy came up with the red phone. It was a symbol of a point we were trying to make. I believe, in my case, it was really effective in New York and New Jersey.”

In a perfect world, Mondale said, advertising wouldn’t be so important to candidates. Instead, huge audiences would listen carefully as politicians stated their positions in thoughtfully written speeches.

But the fact is, most of us don’t listen.

“During my campaign, I was committed to giving one dignified speech a week about something very important,” recalled Mondale. “The people around me started saying I had St. Anselm’s disease, because my first lecture was given at St. Anselm College (in New Hampshire). When you stand out there and give a substantive speech, the first thing you notice is the members of the press falling asleep in the front row. Then, your staff leaves the room, and then the audience starts getting very restless.”

The end result, Mondale said, is that important speeches get little or no media attention. But crisp ads and catchy phrases do.

‘Where’s the beef’ line destined to follow Mondale

Mondale’s political career will be forever tied to a comment he made to Hart in the midst of a debate. Hart was going on and on about “new ideas.” Mondale, leaning toward him, asked, “When I hear you talk about new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad ‘Where’s the beef?’ ”

The ad promoted the Wendy’s hamburger chain. Mondale’s campaign chief, Bob Beckel, had first suggested to Mondale that he drop the line on Hart. Mondale never was much of a television viewer.

“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Mondale said.

But Beckel understood that most in the country would get it. Mondale agreed to give the line a try.

Beyond catchy phrases, there are the ads, most of which are incredibly predictable.

“Regular advertising agencies don’t do political ads,” said Lee Lynch, retired CEO of the advertising agency Carmichael Lynch. “So you have the same five companies doing the same ads every year. You have the same voices, the same images. You have ‘flip flop’ in every market. You have images of jail cells …”

Disclosure time: Lynch is the chairman of the board of MinnPost. He’s also a board member of Growth & Justice, the progressive economic think tank that is holding its second quadrennial “Worst Political Advertising in America Awards” fundraising event Wednesday night at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis.

One of the political ad campaigns that will be featured at the fundraiser comes from close to home.

Millions of so-called soft dollars were spent by conservative organizations to knock Justice Louis Butler off the Wisconsin Supreme Court bench. In the ads, Butler was referred to as “Loophole Louie.” Last month, he lost his race to an unknown Burnett County judge, Michael Gableman, who benefited from the mudslinging ads without getting his fingers dirty.

A few years ago, embarrassed for his profession by the ugly political advertising, Lynch led an organization that dreamed of creating cleaner ad campaigns. There was nothing so radical in this. Campaigns agreed to abide by the code, which required that the candidate would deliver the message during at least half of the commercial’s length. They agreed that if negative things were said about their opponent in an ad, they would say it themselves. They agreed to not do such things as distort the image of their opponent.

Scores of people running for state legislative offices jumped at the chance. But other than Paul Wellstone, those running for national offices were reluctant to jump on this bandwagon.

But the effort finally failed because of a loophole in Section 527 of the IRS code covering political organizations. The 527s, as they’ve become known, are the third-party organizations that create often brutally dishonest ads (think Swift Boat) but ostensibly have no connection to the candidate who benefits from the ads.

“The heaviest contributors expect candidates to hire the biggest hatchet men in the business,” said Lynch.

No candidate wants to disappoint heavy contributors. 

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