Tonight in New York, the Needham-based team of author Janet Tashjian and ad agency partners Fred Surr and Ted Page will find out whether they have a future in the bruising world of political advertising.
Tashjian, Surr, and Page produced one of the more than 1,500 ads entered in a contest sponsored by the liberal nonprofit organization MoveOn.org. The group had put out a call for any citizen or resident alien over the age of 15 to create a 30-second ad that could help the public "understand the truth about George Bush." The local trio's entry -- titled "What Are We Teaching Our Children?" -- is among the 14 finalists.
The contest is called "Bush in 30 Seconds," and it has attracted a good deal of media attention -- and traffic to the MoveOn.org website. The submissions were winnowed to the pool of finalists through online voting. The contest has also generated some controversy because two of the ads compared Bush to Adolf Hitler.
The winner of this unique exercise in grass-roots advertising advocacy -- to be announced tonight after judging by a panel of celebrities who range from actor Jack Black to Democratic consultant James Carville -- will be aired on television during the week of the State of the Union address.
Eli Pariser, campaigns director for MoveOn.org, said the contest was an effort to tap new sources of creativity. "We were looking at spending a lot of money on political ads, [but] you see the same ideas, the same scripts, sometimes the same actors rehashed over and over again. They're dull and sometimes boring."
Tashjian, a novelist and member of MoveOn.org, learned of the competition via e-mail and contacted Surr, who is a partner with Page in the Captains of Industry ad agency. "It's sort of a personal project for us," says Surr. "As we were creating a political spot, we realized we had something to say." Page is blunter, asserting that "it's almost like three years of frustration and anger with the Bush administration boiled down to 30 seconds."
In the spot, children take turns speaking at a podium marked "The Next President," delivering campaign promises that mock Bush's record while adults in the audience look on with increasing concern.
"If elected, I'll lie about weapons of mass destruction as a pretext to invade another country," one kid declares. "I'll call myself an environmentalist and gut clean air standards," says another. "Our allies will go from respecting us to hating us, and I don't care," exclaims a third. The commercial was produced on a shoestring. ("We had to buy lunch for everybody," says Surr.) Two of the kids in the ad are Surr's children; most of the adults in the audience are friends and neighbors.
The finalists in the contest range from messages that are grim and funereal to those that rely on humor and irony, but all are relentless in their assault on the Bush White House. The war in Iraq is a frequent target, as is the budget deficit. In several ads, children are depicted as the victims of Bush policies.
"Ours, like many in the contest, involved children," Tashjian says. "One of the points of the ad is to put the onus on parents and on voters."
Lewis Mazanti, curator for the Political Communication Center at the University of Oklahoma, which has archived political ads going back to 1950, viewed the finalists posted on the Web. "In terms of the quality and creativity of the ads, I thought some people had pretty good stuff," Mazanti says. "In these kinds of ads, the main tool is an emotional appeal. You need to try and make it hit home."
The MoveOn organization was founded in 1998 by Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, two West Coast entrepreneurs famous for their flying-toaster screen savers, in reaction to the impeachment process against Bill Clinton. The organization began with an e-mail to about 100 friends that turned into a massive online petition drive to censure, rather than impeach, the president. The group then turned its attention to issues such as the environment and campaign finance reform. Pariser says opposition to the war in Iraq has galvanized support and helped triple the membership to 1.7 million Americans.
When MoveOn.org conceived of the ad contest, it expected about 300 entries, Pariser says. While five times that many rolled in, the Hitler ads have produced some embarrassment for the organization.
Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie issued a statement calling it a "despicable tactic" and asking for an apology. In response, Boyd acknowledged that the two ads -- which are not finalists but had been available for viewing on the website -- "were in poor taste." He added: "We deeply regret that they slipped through our screening process."
Tony Welch, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, says DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe "denounced those ads" during an appearance on CNN's "Crossfire." But Welch lauds the MoveOn.org ad initiative."I think you have to admire it and you have to applaud that they've tapped into a way to activate the grass-roots," he says.
RNC spokeswoman Christine Iverson counters: "They should rename the contest `30 seconds of fear and loathing.' They have nothing to offer. All you see is protest, pessimism, and relentless attacks on the president of the United States."
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