The power in suggestion Ads: Politically loaded sales pitches on D.C. media seek out the inside-the-Beltway version of the impulse buy.

December 04, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For the person who has everything: How about a brand-new F-22?

On WMAL-AM in Washington, cheerful advertisements hawk the jet fighter during rush-hour drive time, adding sweet, tweeting-bird sound effects while likening the aircraft to a supersonic, invisible sparrow. That each F-22 will go for $192 million gets nary a mention in the 30-second spots now airing.

This is the world of only-in-Washington advertising, where politically loaded sales pitches slip nonchalantly between promotions for frilly lingerie and used-car deals in the local media. Offering everything from attack jets to space vehicles, the radio, print and television ads seek out the inside-the-Beltway version of the impulse buy.

Military contractors, corn growers, defenders of marijuana -- every week, these groups and others send their message into the Washington ether, hoping someone with power breathes it in. In the process, the thousands of people who live here are a captive audience, bombarded by advertising the rest of the country almost never hears or sees.

"People joke and say it would be most cost-effective if you could mail a present or a check to your audience, since sometimes you're advertising to an audience of one," said Carter Eskew, who heads a firm that handles political and issue advocacy advertising. "But what advertising does is takes an argument and dramatizes it, influences it, emotionalizes it."

These ads aim for the powerful through the power of suggestion. But they also seek to connect with a secondary layer of government advisers and congressional staffers to give a product or issue greater name recognition, a positive image and a place in the mainstream.

The use of advocacy spots is growing faster than any other form of inside-the-Beltway advertising, industry specialists say. National Media Inc., a Republican consulting firm that works as a liaison with advertisers, has seen business grow so much in four years that it now uses the same staff and resources year-round that it once required only at election time.

"Advertising is considered more and more part of an action plan," said John Stewart, who connects advertisers with the Washington media market for Alexandria, Va.-based National Media. "You cannot just leave it up to lobbyists anymore. The days of the smoke-filled rooms are long gone. So how do we communicate? We stir people up on the radio, on TV and in print with advertising."

Such ideas were behind Lockheed Martin's attempt this year to gain federal funding for the F-22, a high-tech fighter under development for the Air Force. Several homey postcard ads targeted lawmakers by running in the Washington edition of Time, Defense News and two Capitol Hill publications -- Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.

In one card, dated June 18, 2007, "Katie," a servicewoman in an unnamed overseas conflict, writes to what is assumed to be her husband and son. She tells "Rick and the Jakester" that "the battalion is pretty tense" but not to worry because the F-22s are "covering us like Jake's big fuzzy blue blanket."

The ad generated plenty of attention. But some lawmakers resented the attempt to tug on their heartstrings. "It borders on being sick, in my opinion," Sen. Dale Bumpers, an Arkansas Democrat, told fellow members of the defense appropriations subcommittee in May.

The company disagrees. "We're trying to get past the opposition to people in the position to make decisions," said James Fetig, a spokesman for Bethesda-based Lockheed. "The purpose of these ads is to make sure our side of the story is clearly represented."

This year, the F-22 project secured full federal funding -- $2.7 billion. Defense contractors are barred from using federal dollars for advertising, though critics argue that the public is paying indirectly for those sales pitches because these companies receive so much taxpayer money.

Defense ads may be among the most questionable, but they are not the only promotions in the world of specialized advertising in Washington. Public advocacy groups also have found a captive audience in the city, particularly during rush hour.

WMAL-AM (630), the Washington station that airs Rush Limbaugh, runs spots by everyone from the Florida Sugar Cane Growers to the National Alliance for Mental Health.

"We get one side playing out an issue against the other," said Janice Ockershausen, a senior account executive with WMAL. "It's very effective."

This fall, Enron Corp., an energy marketing firm, ran an ad that piped in fake sound effects from a Redskins game, then socked listeners with a plea to deregulate electric utilities. Another radio spot by the National Association of Manufacturers featured "Joe Manufacturer" on a factory floor, begging the government to lower the capital gains tax.

Increasingly, advertising executives say, interested parties rec ognize that they cannot just sell their products or their agenda to Washington; they must sell themselves.

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