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Tuning In, Not Out 

by Kathy M. Newman

It is one of the most famous spots in advertising history. Known as the "daisy" ad, it aired only once in 1964 and was paid for by Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign. Dramatic in black in white, the daisy ad featured an angelic girl child counting plucked petals. When she hit "10," she looked up, startled, and the commercial cut to footage of an atomic bomb's mushroom cloud. Some credit this ad for Barry Goldwater's defeat.

Earlier this month, an Internet-based progressive political group, Move On, announced that they were launching a TV ad campaign against the potential war in Iraq. The Move On spot offers a modern twist on Johnson's daisy ad, as it features an angelic girl child plucking flower petals and bombs exploding, but this time with added footage of burning oil fields and "chaotic protests in foreign cities." With these images, the ad warns, a war in Iraq could lead to worldwide political instability and the threat of nuclear war. It ends with a simple plea: "Let the Inspections Work."

Significantly, the money that paid for this campaign was raised by individual donations, solicited via e-mail. In just two days during December, when Move On was simply trying to raise $27,000 for a single print ad, the organization raised $400,000 from 14,000 members. After the TV ads started airing, the response was way beyond what the four employees of Move On expected. More than 100,000 new members joined the organization, and they delivered an Internet petition against the war with 310,000 signees. The Internet bubble may have burst because people couldn't figure out how to make money off of it, but Move On seems to be figuring out a use for it.

The Move On anti-war ad is part of a burgeoning trend of political advertising that is funded by independent political groups, focuses on issues rather than candidates, and urges individual political action of some kind. Another such ad, from the "Detroit Project," mimicks recent anti-drug ads that claim drug money fuels terrorism. Instead, these new ones argue that SUV ownership contributes to terrorism and war. The ad features deadly serious forty-something professional types who weave the cliches often spouted by SUV owners with more damning confessions: "I helped hijack an airplane... So what if it gets 11 miles to the gallon... What if I need to go off-road?... It makes me feel safe... I helped our enemies develop weapons of mass destruction... I like to sit up high... I sent our soldiers off to war... Everyone has one... My life, my SUV."

Syndicated columnist Ariana Huffington, who started the Detroit Project, raised $50,000 from individual donors to buy the airtime for these ads. Some of the larger donors included Huffington herself, as well as Seinfeld co-creator Larry David and TV producer Norman Lear. Ironically, then, in the case of these ads, both the tools of and the profits generated by consumer culture are being used to mobilize against a high-end consumer durable.

Political ads with a slightly lighter touch have been produced recently by the animal rights group, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Over the recent Christmas holiday, PETA aired an ad in which a rubber turkey takes over a grocery store and holds the shoppers hostage. The turkey's demand? That the shoppers become vegetarians. The ad is low-tech, campy and has the feel of a puppet show put on by kids in the backyard. Still, PETA has come under attack for using a terrorist setting to spread the gospel of meat-free living.

PETA produces a wide range of humorous ads: On their Web site, check out the cows who sing the praises of "pleather" [fake leather], and an ad advocating the neutering of felines, which shows cats, to the sounds of sexy music, copulating all over the house. PETA has also gone after the California Dairy industry for its campaign claiming that "Great cheese comes from happy cows." These popular ads depict animated dairy cows who spend their days flirting with each other, singing, and grazing peacefully in green meadows. PETA tried (and failed) to get the FTC to ban these commercials on the grounds that they presented false and misleading information.

In reality, PETA points out, dairy cows spend their days in muddy, urine-and-feces infested pens. The cows are also kept continually pregnant, for lactation, and suffer frequent medical complications from the milking machines. The young calves are separated from the mothers at such a young age that both mother and calf spend days bleating and crying for each other. The horrifying footage of real live dairy farms on the PETA Web site, in fact, might be enough to make a milk-o-phile go soy.

In the 1980s, the godfather of rap, Gil Scott-Heron, predicted that "The revolution will not be televised." Ironically, however, left-wing movements are beginning to use television with increasing frequency and success. And even when stations or networks refuse these ads, the controversy they generate draws more attention to the cause. Mass culture is not simply a monolithic machine bent on our ideological submission. On rare occasions, our TVs exhort us not to buy, but to act.

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