The spot: "Tell Gov. Bush"; produced by MacWilliams, Cosgrove, Smith, Robinson; for Handgun Control
The art of the 30-second political spot, such as it, is conveying an intense mood in a very short time. The Handgun Control ad attempts to create an atmosphere of menace, and does so pretty effectively. It's manipulative, but not overtly deceptive. The ominous music is the kind that plays when the serial killer is about to strike in a made-for-TV movie. The pictures suggest a Columbine amid the tumbleweeds: The image of a faceless man fondling a large revolver and tucking it into his jeans yields to one of a hand taking aim with a revolver, followed by smoke. The smoke clears to reveal a bucolic church under heavy skies, then children on a merry-go-round that looks like a target in a shooting gallery game, then shattering glass, which falls away to reveal the NRA honcho saying that his organization will soon be working out of the White House. The voice-over, meanwhile, draws the connections: Bush to Texas' concealed-carry law and the NRA's extreme views to Bush. I'd say that the ad is basically fair because the connections are genuine. As I wrote in yesterday's "Ballot Box," I think the charge that Bush's views on guns are nearly identical to the NRA's is a legitimate one.
I had three complaints about this ad, each of which had to do with a common practice in campaign ads generally and in "issue ads" such as this one particularly. The curious thing to me is how each of these complaints is mitigated, if not resolved entirely, by linking the ad to the Internet.
One of my pet peeves is the Bogus Imperative at the end of every "issue" ad. This ad gives you a bunch of reasons to vote against George W. Bush. But if they ended the ad by saying, "Vote against Bush," it would be regulated like an election ad. Being regulated in this way would of course be anathema to a devoutly libertarian organization such as Handgun Control. So instead they end the ad by saying, "Tell Gov. Bush the White House is our house. And it shouldn't belong to the NRA."
Ordinarily, the Bogus Imperative is laughable. Half the de facto Clinton re-election ads in 1995 and 1996 ended with lines that were the political equivalent of: "Call Newt Gingrich and tell him to stop molesting our children!" But in this case, the Bogus Imperative is somewhat less bogus, because Handgun Control doesn't just give you Bush's phone number at the end. They give you the URL to a Web site, www.bushandguns.com, which they've set up specifically to back up the ad. That site, in turn, links you to Bush's official e-mail contact page, where you can in fact tell him that the White House shouldn't belong to the NRA. It's almost as though you're working out of his office.
The bushandguns Web site also addresses my other two complaints. One is that they spliced the audio clip from NRA Vice President Kayne Robinson. The whole quote is, "If we win, we'll have a president—with at least one of the people who's running—a president where we work out of their office." The spliced quote, which sounds unedited in the ad, is, "If we win, we'll have a president where we work out of their office." Although this doesn't change the meaning of the sentence, splicing is a creepy practice, because it alters reality in ways the viewer can't see or hear. How do you know whether the person you see speaking actually spoke those words in that order? But if you follow the URL in the ad to the Web site, you can find the whole quote. What the advertiser can't or won't tell you in 30 seconds of television, they have space to explain on the Internet.
Ditto for the ad's claim that Bush "signed the law that allows carrying those concealed handguns in churches, nursing homes, even amusement parks." Watching the spot, I thought that surely this was a typical advertising trick. I thought that the bill in question must have authorized concealed weapons in public places generally, and that Handgun Control had singled out three public places where viewers of the ad would find concealed weapons particularly outrageous. But the Web site devotes an entire page to documenting the literal truth of this claim by quoting from the legislation.
I'm beginning to think this Internet thing isn't such a bad idea.
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