John Elliot, John O'Toole
Madison Avenue and the Ethics of Politics
VTR Date: August 7, 1984
Guests: Elliot, John; O'Toole, John
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: John O’Toole and John Elliot
Title: “Madison Avenue & Ethics & Politics”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Just the other day –or it seems that way, anyway – I did an Open Mind program on television and politics. And I’d like to continue it now. Actually, of course, that first program was live, on October 5, 1958. Television has already shown us the political conventions, and in 1952 and 1956, political advertising had become a television phenomenon too. In fact, one of my guests 26 years ago had been very much involved in the Eisenhower presidential television campaign effort. And he just happens to be here again today. John Elliot, Jr., Chairman Emeritus of Ogilvie & Mather. My other guest is John E. O’Toole, Chairman of Foote, Cohn & Belding Communications. Mr. O’Toole is the present Chairman of the American Association of Advertising agencies. Mr. Elliot is a past chairman of the AAAA. Now, since that organization doesn’t want politics to give advertising a bad name, it has long since published a code of ethics for advertising agencies involved in the great American game. Recently, a newspaper had it that the ethical standards of political advertising are on the seeming decline. And I want to ask my guests today whether this is because the ethics of American politics are seeping into advertising, or because the ethics of American advertising are seeping into our politics? Jock Elliot, what do you think?
ELLIOT: Well, Dick, before I plunge into that, let me just tell you that I remember that program of 1958. In those days your little Open Mind symbol used to hang from a string. And today you’ve got this wonderful electronic introduction to your program, so I’d say you’ve made great advances.
HEFFNER: Do you think advertising and politics has made great advances too?
ELLIOT: No, I think advertising and politics has gone downhill. And I think that the fault really lies in the political system and not in the advertising agencies. You see, the advertising agencies, we have a self-regulatory system for all our commercial advertising, and it’s worked so well – we’ve had it gin now for 12 or 13 years – and it’s worked so well that the chairman of the FTC a couple of years ago said that we’d taken all the fun out of it for the FTC and there wasn’t anything for them to regulate anymore. But in the case of politicians, the courts have given the greatest possible latitude under the First Amendment to say and do what they want to do. And there is nobody, no self-regulatory system or no government body, that can regulate what the politicians say. No individual can do it. And I think that results in the campaigns getting dirtier and dirtier. Of advertising all our life. And some of these media consultants don’t have that incentive to keep the standards as high as they should
HEFFNER: does that mean – I don’t know whether you agree with Jock’s sort of disassociation of the agencies from the politicians – is that something that you subscribe to, too?
O’TOOLE: I subscribe to it because fundamentally I believe that advertising products and advertising campaign candidates are two totally different things. I mean, they’re so different that it is almost implicit deception to have a candidate present his qualifications for office in the formats and in the traditional styles of product advertising. I think people are misled by just seeing what appears to be a product commercial suddenly turn into some sort of communication intended to persuade them to put a man into office, a very important office, for the next four, perhaps six years.
HEFFNER: But you can’t both be taking the position – or maybe you are both taking the position – that there’s no one in here but us chickens. Who then is doing what has been done to television and politics, if not the agencies? Candidates?
ELLIOT: Well, it used to be that the political campaigns were handled by agencies. And now, generally speaking, they’re not handled by advertising agencies anymore. Now, generally speaking, they’re handled by so-called media consultants. And the media consultants don’t have as much incentive as people in agencies do to keep the standards up. Because we have to live with the reputation of advertising all our life. And some of these media consultants don’t have that incentive to keep the standards as high as they should be.
HEFFNER: It started then with the agencies. Because, if I remember in our ’58 program, we were talking about the role that the agencies played. When did the consultants move in on the campaigns? When did the advertising agencies begin not to play the role they played initially?
O’TOOLE: I think agencies began t move out after the experience that our colleague Bill Burnbach, and Doubleday & Burnbach had in the campaign in which Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson. They were persuaded to do a commercial that is now called the famous “Daisy commercial.” A little girl plucking leaves off the daisy while the voiceover is intoning the ominous countdown for a nuclear explosion. And indeed that’s the way the commercial ends. And Lyndon Johnson’s voice then comes on saying, “We must all learn to live together or die.” The implicit accusation being then that Barry Goldwater was going to push the button as soon as he got into office. That experience I think led many agencies to avoid political campaigns, particularly on the national level. Some still handle local candidates, but for the most part these campaigns are now handled as Jock said, by the so-called media consultants.
HEFFNER: If you had to scratch the average guy or gal, if you had to scratch a fairly intelligent, fairly well educated American, do you think you would find an understanding of what you both have said now, or do you think you’d find the assumption made that it’s still the advertising agencies?
ELLIOT: No, I’m sure you wouldn’t find an understanding among the general public.
O’TOOLE: You don’t even find it among politicians. That marvelous keynote address that Mario Cuomo made before the Democratic national convention, he made reference t “slick Madison Avenue commercials.” And there’s our governor who doesn’t understand that it is not Madison Avenue or the advertising agency industry that is creating these messages; it is somebody else.
HEFFNER: You mean he thinks Dave Garth is an advertising man?
O’TOOLE: Apparently so. If he does, we don’t share his point of view.
HEFFNER: But you haven’t done that good a job either of disabusing the rest of the nation of that point of view. Now, how do we account for that when here we have the head emeritus and the head of two of the great advertising agencies in this country?
ELLIOT: Well, we haven’t really done a very good job of explaining the advertising process in any way to the American public.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
ELLIOT: Well, I mean that people have a lot of misunderstandings about advertising. And we’re in a process of trying to inform the public about the advertising business in general. John can speak to this better than I can, more up to date, because he’s the present chairman of the AAAA. But we’re having a whole program to inform the public about how advertising… Why don’t you talk about it a bit, John?
O’TOOLE: Well, essentially – this gets off the subject a bit – but we are trhying to inform people through the use of newspaper ads of the…disabuse them of some of the myths that are proposed by consumerists and some in academia about the role of advertising. That advertising does not make you buy products that you don’t want; does not raise the price of products, and that sort of thing. In addition, we are launching a campaign to attempt to reduce the, what is called clutter, the number of messages in a a particular hour of television, and to improve the quality of those messages, and make advertising that people like rather than that irritates people.
ELLIOT: And in the case of politics, we’re setting up a monitoring system. All of AAAA’s agencies are going to be on the alert for political advertising that they can consider unfair or deceptive, and they’re going to report those, and we’re going to have a dirty dozen.
HEFFNER: What makes a political advertisement unfair? What are the ingredients?
O’TOOLE: Well, we have spelled them out – “we” being the AAAA – have spelled them out in what we call a code of ethics for political advertising. That includes the Fair Campaign Practices Committee code that we expect all candidates to sign; and most do, and then promptly forget it. It has to do with disparagement and misrepresentation of…
HEFFNER: Of the other guy.
O’TOOLE: …the other candidate, primarily.
HEFFNER: But you do that in your advertising of products, don’t you?
ELLIOT: Oh, come on.
O’TOOLE: No, no.
HEFFNER: You don’t? You don’t?
ELLIOT: Well, it happens that we don’t, we try not to.
HEFFNER: Ah ha! But now wait a minute, wait a minute. I’m not talking abut Foote, Cohn & Belding, I’m not talking about Ogilvie & Mather, I’m talking about the advertising community.
O’TOOLE: Well, let me point out two essential differences: We do, yes, show people the weakness of one product in comparison with the benefits of the other. That is not what we’re talking about in terms of political candidates. We’re talking about them lying about the other candidate. Misrepresenting his positions. This has happened, it happens time and time again in every campaign. Furthermore, I have to point out the essential difference between advertising a product and presenting a 30-second spot for a candidate for public office. A product is intended…our advertising for a product is intended to Increase its share of market against maybe four or five other competitors; gain one extra percentage point in the market over a period of time. A political campaign is designed to annihilate the opposition. That is unconditional surrender, total victory. They are tempted to do things, towards the end of a campaign particularly, that we would never condone, and I don’t think any advertising agency would condone on the part of its clients.
HEFFNER: Would you buy the idea of no political advertising?
O’TOOLE: I would certainly buy the idea of… I wouldn’t outlaw anything. I don’t think that we should infringe on freedom of speech. I would like to give the candidates something more. I would like to give them free time on television. Every two years I would like to have the networks in terms of the national candidates, and the stations in terms of state candidates, return to the public some of the rights of the airwaves that they have been using for those two years, in the form of…
HEFFNER: You’re giving away their money.
O’TOOLE: No, I’m giving away our airwaves for the public good in terms of an election. As they do in Great Britain where, obviously, television is state-owned, and I’m talking about BBC. But by giving a block of time to a qualified candidate, on the basis of party representation, party membership, you prevent the techniques of a 30-second spot. You give them a half an hour.
HEFFNER: Why do you prevent them, unless you are at the same time saying “You may do this, but you may not use the 30-second spot?” Are you suggesting you would accompany the gift of time with a prohibition?
O’TOOLE: No. As I say, I hate to prohibit anything. I think I would like to make those spots subject to the same self-regulatory systems that product advertising is, starting with giving the station the right to turn it down if they think it’s in bad taste. Which the station cannot do. No, it must accept even a pornographic commercial. Larry Flynt brought that case up two years ago when he said he was going to run for public office, and that he was going to…
HEFFNER: But never tested it.
O’TOOLE: No. But somebody will, one of these days.
HEFFNER: Jock, would you go further than expanding the opportunity for candidates by giving them time for them to use as they see fit?
ELLIOT: Well, I think giving them time would be fine. But I also see nothing wrong with their buying time. I do think that there are a couple of things that can be done that would raise the standards. One is I really don’t think that they ought to be allowed to do 30-secnd or one-minute spots, because the issues in a campaign are too complex to be dealt with that simplistically. Another thing is that I think possibly all political advertising should be limited to the candidate himself. And that would eliminate the advertising-ese techniques that tend to be s misleading in political campaigns.
HEFFNER: You mean advertising determined, bought for, paid for, programmed by the candidate?
ELLIOT: I mean that the candidate buys the time, the party buys the time, and the president or the candidate, he has to appear himself in the commercials, or the congressman or whoever it is, rather than have ads like the mushroom cloud or… Those are the really inaccurate, misleading, dirty kinds of ads.
HEFFNER: All right. But then I do have to ask both of you a fundamental question. You’d say, “This shouldn’t be done; and this should be done.” Who is going to make certain that this is not done and that is done? Are you suggesting there be a… I think you were suggesting, Mr. O’Toole, that the choice should be left in the hands of the candidate. You don’t want to limit anyone’s freedom of speech. Yu don’t want to step on their First Amendment rights. But you say you would give – and I think Jock said too – you would give time to the candidates. If I’m a candidate, and I choose to use my time in a way that you don’t like, what are you going to do?
O’TOOLE: I think that political advertising for candidates is only made possible because of bending the rules to begin with. The 30 seconds… Nowhere else in the world that I know of, except Australia, where there are other restrictions, can an individual go in and buy 30 seconds to sell himself for public office.
HEFFNER: But they don’t have the same rules in many different areas that we do. You don’t want to embrace their system, do you?
ELLIOT: Well, I think ultimately that the people really have t decide ultimately. It’s going to take time. I understand that next year that the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University is going to conduct a year-long study about this whole program of political advertising. Isn’t that correct, John?
O’TOOLE: Yes, yes.
ELLIOT: Are the campaigns too long? How much money is spent on them? What kind of advertising is good and what kind isn’t good? And I think it’s going to be out of studies like that rather than us hip-shooting here now about what’s wrong with the thing and so on, that there’s going to come a consensus of the kind of campaigns we ought to have.
HEFFNER: But, Jock, in 1958, when you and I did that program with the others, you were thinking about this subject. That was a long time ago. We’re not hip-shooting here. I quoted from a newspaper before, and actually it was a column about mixing ethics and politics, and what the AAAA is trying to do about it. In 1968 I directed a Twentieth Century Fund campaign on money, television and politics. So I will offer that credential as saying none of us are shooting from the hip. It comes back, doesn’t it, t what are you going to do about it? Who is going to make the decision? And you say, “in other countries,” is the only nation where we sell time for politics. Whoever heard of selling time? That’s God’s business. And yet here you do for products.
O’TOOLE: And all of the rules are rescinded for a political candidate. Let’s put the rules back. Just have the same kind of rules, if they insist on using the trappings and devices of product advertising, let’s have them abide by the same rules. There’s another thing: Jock talked about buying longer lengths, longer than 30 seconds, longer than a minute. A political candidate, unlike any of our clients, can buy five minutes or 30 minutes at program rates. Now, theoretically, we could go in and buy a five-minute commercial for one of our products, but we’d pay for that on commercial time. Program rates are far, far less. I was an advisor to the Reagan campaign four years ago. They were using a lot of five-minute segments, recognizing that you could buy five minutes for the same price as a 30, because you’re a political candidate. And I think they were very effective.
HEFFNER: If they thought, if the Reagan campaign thought then – and I don’t just mean the Reagan campaign; it could be any campaign, any party – if the party chieftains thought that a five-minute spot was effective, they would make economical use of it. But suppose they conclude that a five-minute spot is not as effective as perhaps a more expensive 30-second spot? Where is it written that at this table or in the accumulated wisdom of the AAAA or anyplace that we have the capacity, the right, the power to do anything at all about it?
O’TOOLE: We don’t, no. I suppose there are really only two bodies that could do something about it: one is the Congress of the United States itself; and the other is the networks and the stations rescinding all of these unique privileges that are delivered upon political advertising.
ELLIOT: See, Dick, when I said “hip-shooting,” I didn’t really mean it in a derogatory sense. What I meant was that over those 26 years, people have been expressing independent opinions by the scores. But as far as I know, the study that is about to be done is the first study that’s ever been made on the subject. So it will help inform individual opinions very much.
HEFFNER: Do I understand then that – it’s not a dirty question. It really isn’t – that you gentlemen would subscribe to conditions being placed upon the use of political advertising time? Is that a fair statement of what you believe?
O’TOOLE: Yeah, yeah. Yes. The same conditions that are applied to every other kind of advertising.
HEFFNER: But you, in the advertising agencies, have subscribed voluntarily to a code; correct?
HEFFNER: Now, the politicians aren’t doing that?
ELLIOT: Well, theoretically they’re subscribing to this code.
HEFFNER: In what way?
ELLIOT: Well, both parties subscribe to it; isn’t that correct?
O’TOOLE: To the code of advertising ethics for political candidates, yes.
HEFFNER: And they don’t police themselves, presumably? Or if they do they’re not being very effective…
O’TOOLE: No. If you look at some of the commercials from the 1982 campaign, which in the view of many of us was a new low, no, obviously not. Jock talked about having the candidate himself appear. In the vast majority of those commercials, you never saw the candidate. There was one commercial for a senator from Montana, John Melcher, in which a herd of cows talked about his qualifications for public office. There was one for another candidate named Barney Frank where his mother spoke for 30 seconds about what a wonderful boy he was. Now, that’s getting a little bit, I think, in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the code of ethics.
HEFFNER: I don’t want anyone watching to think that the AAAA is opposed to mothers…
O’TOOLE: Or cows. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Okay. All right. But, you know, I can’t help but think when you talk about the candidate himself, wasn’t one of your Eisenhower campaigns where we had that, were treated to, I think it was a 30-second spot, maybe 60-second, of the would-be, to-be president carrying a bag of vegetables or groceries and saying, “Mamie tells me…?”
ELLIOT: Well, that’s true. Eisenhower really used television in two ways: he used it in those 20-second spots; and he also appeared on half-hour and hour-length programs with other people, like Democrats for Eisenhower, Women for Eisenhower. On one program he appeared with the 25 Republican governors. It was a wonderful program. And I always felt that those longer programs were good political advertising; good political use of television. And I always thought, and still think, that the 20-second spots were very bad. Incidentally, we did not do the 20-second spots; another agency did. But I was against them at the time, and I’d be against it now.
HEFFNER: But, look, the politicians aren’t dummies. We’ll all make that concession. They’re using them. And they’re not embracing, with some exceptions, the five-minute program or the 30-minute program. They believe that the turnoff factor will be enormous. It’s not meanness of spirit that leads me to say that you gentlemen have pointed the way to the attention span of the American people. If commercial commercials rather than political commercials are that short, and are presumably that effective, then aren’t political commercials going to be? I mean, you opened up Pandora’s box. I don’t mean to point my finger at either one of you; but isn’t that a fact?
ELLIOT: Well, I regret the use of 30-second commercials to the extent that they’re now being used. I think the minutes are much better.
HEFFNER: You mean in commercial commercials, not just political commercials.
ELLIOT: No, I mean in commercial commercials.
ELLIOT: And I think that the 30s result in that much more clutter on television. So, to a certain extent I think they’re self-defeating. I wouldn’t be surprised if we go to 15-second commercials now.
HEFFNER: Well, if we do, since we’re living in an age f deregulation, doesn’t that point perhaps to the futility of this notion that there’s going to be a study next year and we’re going to set things in order and the politicians are going to have to do something or other? Why not bite the bullet and say, “This is the most vital area of our life. The choice of the people who will lead us to peace or to war. The choice of the people who handle our economic situation. And we’re going to have different rules of the game. Not necessarily voluntary rules.” Are you going to go along that far?
O’TOOLE: That may well come from the study, and…
HEFFNER: Would you embrace that if it does?
O’TOOLE: Different rules for politics? Yes. Essentially I would, because I believe that communication between a candidate for public office and the electorate is a totally different kind of thing than the communication between the seller of a product and a possible consumer. So different in kind that really different rules and regulations are required.
HEFFNER: Of course I would imagine that the candidate would say, “So different, so privileged, this relationship between me as a candidate and the public, that don’t touch me no matter what.” Would that be more likely the result of recognizing the difference in the relationship?
ELLIOT: Well, I think that if everybody has to play by the same rules, that most candidates would accept those rules, particularly if the rules are set down by Congress.
HEFFNER: I’m getting a signal. I don’t even know what it is. Is it one minute, two minutes? How much longer do we have to go with our guests? Two minutes. Okay. In these two minutes, with all that rat-tat-tat in the background, that infernal machine that is attempting to destroy our chain of thought, what about that chain of thought? Would you… What would be the bottom line, what would you like to see happen after that report of next year? What do you think would be best for this country, considering our First Amendment rights, considering the nature of American politics, considering the nature of advertising?
O’TOOLE: I would like to refer to one thing that we didn’t get around to , and that is the vast sums of money that are required for a candidate to mount a campaign of television spots. Enormous sums. Seven, eight, ten million dollars for a campaign. Some of that money at least must come from sources that expect something in return. I just think common sense would lead to that. Therefore, I think there are enough dangers in the present system that I hope from this conference comes a different way of candidates communicating with the public. Longer lengths, free time from the networks and stations, but something that takes the whole message out of the trappings and the formats of product advertising.
ELLIOT: I agree with that. But I think that a little too much emphasis is put on the tremendous amounts of money that is spent. Everything is relative. I read that $300 million was going t be spent on the presidential campaigns this year. Well, presumably 150 by one party and 150 by the other, or close to it. Well, that’s a colossal amount of money, and it seems ridiculous. But on the other hand, a couple of years ago, a single cigarette was launched with an annual budget of $150 million. So if $150 million is spent on a cigarette, it doesn’t seem to me so outlandish that we should spend it n a political campaign deciding who’s going to lead the country over the next four years. I agree it’s a tremendous amount of money, but I think you have to put it in perspective.
HEFFNER: Gentlemen, I think that’s probably the point at which we’ll have to end our program, and perhaps ending the program will end all that noise in the background. Thank you so much for joining me today, Mr. O’Toole.
O’TOOLE: Thank you, Dick.
HEFFNER: And thank you so much for joining me today, Jock Elliot.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”