WASHINGTON -- There was a time in American politics when you could watch a television ad and know at once that it was for one candidate or against another. If it praised or glorified a candidate by name and showed him helping an elderly citizen across the street, you had no doubt what the message was.
You got the message easily, too, when the ad put the rap on the opposition candidate. And a disclaimer bearing the sponsor's name across the bottom of the screen -- Republicans for Joe Smith or Democrats for Jane Doe -- let you know clearly whose money had bought it.
If a serious issue happened to be discussed in the process, it was not presented in much depth and it was always offered in the context of a candidate's bid for public office, or, increasingly as time went by, as part of an effort to defeat a candidate.
All that is changing now that television political advertising has jumped into the business of selling or undermining specific national issues. Last year it was the North American Free Trade Agreement. This year it's health care reform. The actors who play Harry and Louise in the ad against President Clinton's proposals sponsored by a coalition of insurance companies have become as familiar as some of the soap-opera stars they resemble.
Although these ads, too, bear identification of the sponsors, they often are insufficiently revealing of who is paying for them. The disclaimer on the Harry and Louise ad, and the companion Libby and Louise (with Louise in her office) ad, is "Coalition for Health Insurance Choices. Major Funding by the Health Insurance Association of America." If you don't know which major insurance companies are members, and how many of them, it's hard to grasp the clout that is behind the anti-Clinton plan campaign.
It is, says veteran Democratic campaign consultant and television commercial maker Ray Strother, "new generation politics by people who grew up watching television." The targets are not voters approaching an election choice between specific candidates, but voters who may be persuaded to put heat on their members of Congress or directly on the legislators themselves, or even on others who might be moved to write or speak out on the position favored by the ads' sponsors.
Issue-oriented advertising unrelated to a specific candidacy has been purchased in the past, but not with the intensity that is taking place now nor with the front-and-center prominence it is now enjoying. In the enactment of Medicare in 1965, there was considerable advertising, but almost exclusively in newspapers.
Strother recalls that in 1982, when the Ronald Reagan administration considered freezing the cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security payments, the two parties traded ads on the subject. The Republicans ran a reassuring commercial showing a postman delivering a Social Security check. The Democrats countered with a woman going to her mailbox, finding nothing, then peering down the street looking in vain for the postman while the narrator asked, what if the check stopped coming?
Former Republican ad-maker Doug Bailey recalls that the National Rifle Association has also run many anti-gun control television ads featuring actor Charlton Heston, but not in the intensely focused context of a legislative fight as in the NAFTA and health care reform battles. The flood of commercials now, run widely around the country, are more likely to befuddle voters than educate them, he says. "If all the ads running are seen by the voters," Bailey asks, "how could they not be confused?"
The insurance companies' commercials are what are called in the television business "slice of life" ads. And although they may seem contrived, Bailey acknowledges, they do convey a message designed to sow doubt. "If the job was to get you to go to the grocery stores and buy something," he says, "they might not work. But it's so much easier to shoot something down."
Bailey says the country "is going to see more of it rather than less" as supporters and opponents of various issues accept the power of television to make or break causes in the way television has come to be critical in voters' choices of candidates.