TV Ads Push Iraq War Support
By Mike Dorning
The Chicago Tribune
Tuesday 28 February 2006
Washington - In an early sign of the imagery that may flood the nation's television screens as congressional elections approach this fall, a conservative political group closely aligned with the Bush administration has launched a blitz of television ads to shore up sagging public support for the war in Iraq.
The television commercials feature vivid portraits of smoke pouring from the World Trade Center and the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Madrid and London as veterans of the Iraq war and parents of fallen soldiers make the case for continuing the US military campaign in Iraq.
In what appears to be a test before the advertising campaign is rolled out to a broader audience, the political group Progress for America spent more than $1 million to air the commercials in Minnesota over a two-week period, according to a source familiar with the ad buy.
Progress for America spokesman Stuart Roy said the group purchased "a saturation buy" in which the average Minnesota television viewer saw two pro-war commercials a combined total of 22 times between Feb. 9 and 22.
Minnesota, a Middle American state whose politics have been trending more conservative and Republican over the last decade, has a highly competitive Senate race and two competitive House races and can be seen as a sort of test market for ads that might play in swing districts across the country.
The pro-war advertising campaign exemplifies the increasingly important role that well-funded, little-scrutinized political groups have assumed in the political debate as changes in campaign finance law have cut down the direct flow of money from wealthy individuals and corporations to political parties.
On the left and right, so-called 527 groups, named after the section of the Internal Revenue Code that authorizes them, have emerged as a loosely regulated preferred alternative to channel cash into political activity. Progress for America is among the most prominent of such groups on the conservative side while Moveon.org is among the best known of the liberal groups.
Progress for America's activities have closely tracked the White House's political agenda. The group spent more than $35 million in support of President Bush during the 2004 campaign. One of the group's commercials, described by Advertising Age as perhaps the most influential in the campaign and one that aired nearly 30,000 times in nine swing states, also addressed terrorist fears. Dubbed "Ashley's Story," the commercial featured a snapshot of an embrace Bush gave a young girl whose mother died in the Sept. 11 attacks. "He's the most powerful man in the world," Ashley said in the ad, "and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe, that I'm OK."
Since the election, the group mounted advertising campaigns on behalf of the administration's political priorities, including Social Security reform and confirmation of the president's two Supreme Court nominees.
Roy said bolstering support for the war now "will be a major focus, if not the major focus of Progress for America."
The television commercials also reflect a political debate in which both sides have sought credibility through associations with the military.
Bush regularly surrounds himself with uniformed members of the military when he speaks about the war. Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq, rapidly became one of the war's most visible critics after protesting outside the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. And Democrats have recruited several Iraq veterans, including Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, to run for Congress this year on platforms critical of Bush's conduct of the war.
"What's so effective is the messengers," Roy said, describing the Progress ad. "The returning veterans are talking about what they saw in Iraq. The family members are talking about their loved ones."
The commercials feature testimonials from members of Families United in Support of Our Troops and Their Mission, an advocacy group of Iraq veterans and their families founded by Chuck Larson, a Iowa legislator and former state Republican party chairman who served in Iraq as an Army reservist.
Though the ads feature the words of veterans and family members, their messages match familiar White House talking points on the war: that the nation must be in Iraq to fight terrorists who would otherwise attack America at home and that the effort is progressing well.
One of the ads includes complaints that the media coverage of the war has been misleading.
"You'd never know it from the news reports, but our enemy in Iraq is Al Qaeda, the same terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11," the ad says.
Most military intelligence analyses released by the Pentagon have found that the anti-American insurgency in Iraq draws most of its support from a home-grown resistance including former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, nationalists and members of the Sunni minority disenchanted by the prospect of a Shiite-dominated government. Foreign fighters, including supporters of Al Qaeda, are generally credited with a significant but minority role.
"They're trying to use the credibility of veterans and their families," said Bill Hillsman, a Minneapolis media consultant who has worked on behalf of Democrats and independents. "They're really trying to say, 'Don't believe all the stuff you're seeing and reading and hearing because the news media is giving you a skewed view of this.'"
The ABC affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul declined to air the commercial because of its charge that the media is misleading the public, although other stations accepted the ad.
Rob Hubbard, the station's general manager, said, "The first spot had two statements that implied the media intentionally withheld good news and intentionally distorted reporting from Iraq. We know that's not true about KSTP. So we declined to run the ad."
Erik Smith, who worked during the 2004 election for the Media Fund, a 527 political group supportive of Democrats, said the Minnesota campaign had all the hallmarks of a test buy. In such a case, the conservative group would conduct polls to assess the ad's impact and take the results to wealthy potential donors to seek funding for a larger campaign.
Progress for America is considering a follow-up ad campaign in Minnesota and expanding the advertisements to other states but has yet to make a final decision, Roy said. He declined to identify potential future targets. But Larson said Families United, which has established chapters in six states, plans to open chapters in March in Ohio and Pennsylvania, both swing states with highly competitive Senate races.