One of the most potent of the negative ads that helped defeat Michael Dukakis was the soft-on-crime 30-second TV spot called "Revolving Door."
When I learned through a reference to it on National Public Radio that the spot had been shot at the Utah State Prison, I was intrigued enough to call the ad agency that created it. The spot was conceived by Dennis Frankenberry, a partner in the Milwaukee firm of Frankenberry, Laughlin and Constable, for George Bush's creative task force, the Tuesday Team.I wanted to find out not only why it was shot here but also how spots like this are created. I wondered, incidentally, also whether he felt a twinge of conscience because of all the furor over this season's negative political ads. (He didn't.)
-Why the Utah Prison, so far from Washington and even Milwaukee? Frankenberry said it was picked because the prison was film friendly - that is, had worked well with other film crews. A number of movie and TV scenes have been shot there, most recently for "Halloween 4," "At Mother's Request" and "The Deliberate Stranger." The producers liked working with our film editing companies, the Utah Film Commission and prison administrators such as Jim Smith, the administrative assistant to the warden.
The site was scouted out by a Dallas company called the James Gang, which Frankenberry hired to do the shooting.
Frankenberry got involved because the Bush people liked the commercials he was delivering for clients like Oshkosh B'Gosh overalls and Kohler of Kohler plumbing fixtures. The vice president's group invited him to come back to Washington and pitch some ideas for commercials around the themes the Bush advisers were running up the flagpole.
Frankenberry wants it known that the idea he came up with didn't mention Willie Horton, the now-famous Massachusetts convict. The Willie Horton ad wasn't authorized by the Bush campaign, he says.
The Frankenberry creation itself was hard-hitting enough. It assailed the furlough program and the Dukakis stand against the death penalty. It showed convict after convict walking through a revolving prison door. The agency rounded up 50 volunteers, mostly College Republican chapter members from Brigham Young University and some from the University of Utah, to act as prisoners.
The crew chose two locations, one outside a tower, where a guard was shown climbing the stairs, and an exterior compound between two gates, where a revolving door was built as prop. The ad was shot in color but ultimately appeared in the starker black and white.
-I told Frankenberry that many Salt Lake ad agencies really don't care to do political ads. A brief flurry of protest swirled around the Wayne Owens and Ted Wilson ads because they were created out of state, but most big ad companies figure such ads drain the agency's resources, and the political accounts don't pay a lot.
Frankenberry says, "Fortunately, we were in a position to commit our resources to the campaign just then." Also he liked the psychic benefits, like spending a day at the vice president's home. And he and his partners were philosophically in tune with the GOP, so much so that they didn't mark up their work, but billed only for time and materials.
-There's an ironic sidelight to Frankenberry's involvement in the furlough ad. He himself was the beneficiary of a prison release program. In 1986, after his conviction in a drunken driving case in which two people were injured, he served 68 days in a house of corrections, but was released during the day to go to work. Frankenberry says it's painful to discuss the incident, but he sees a lot of difference between his situation and the Massachusetts furloughs, where "unsupervised passes were issued for murderers not eligible for parole."
-Altogether Frankenberry did 25 ads for Bush, about three-fourths of the total. They included such memorable spots as "Boston Harbor," which showed sludge in the waters, and "Tax Blizzard," which portrayed IRS envelopes shooting through a home door over the shoulders of a concerned couple. He also did an "Oath of Allegiance" ad that was never used because the oath receded as a campaign issue, he says; but some of the footage wound up on Bush's election eve half-hour special.
Not all the ads were negative, Frankenberry says. Some were like the "Economy Spot," which talked about where the Bush people said the economy is today. The "Revolving Door" and "Boston Harbor" ads were the ones that got most media attention because they were "forceful and dramatic."
However, he defends these, which he calls comparative ads. Comparative advertising, which is encouraged by the Federal Trade Commission, knocks the competing product and is common in pitches for pain remedies and soft drinks. Furthermore, he contends that "negative ads are as old as politics. There hasn't been an election in this country that hasn't used some form of them."
-That's true. For many elections, certainly since the early 1960s, television ads have helped reduce complex issues like penal reform to the banality of a few simplistic statements.
As the trade magazine Advertising Age also has indicated in recent weeks, the viciousness of the TV spots hasn't grown but the volume has, dramatically, because it works.
And now ads are designed to get reporters to write about them. Ad Age quotes Bush media adviser Roger Ailes: "News is who has the hottest attack ads and who can get the highest ratings. What would a journalist rather cover - new TV ads or the latest proposal to change the capital gains tax?"
A Dukakis aide said the ads were important this last election because they had to supply the passion the candidates could not. "The candidates have become almost irrelevant to what's going on."
Most telling is the comment of Phil Dusenberry, vice chairman of the giant agency BBDO Worldwide: "Usually the candidates attack each other, but now they're taking pokes at each other's ads. They're calling attention to the ads and not the issues. In the cola wars, people ask, `Who won, Coke or Pepsi?' Well, both win because the ads increase attention and awareness. Here, I'm not sure the candidates win." He might have said the electoral process was the loser.