There have been a lot of firsts in the 27-year history of MTV, but beginning Wednesday night (July 23), the channel will begin airing something it never has before: a political advertisement. "Both Ways Barack," the attack ad from conservative group Let Freedom Ring, takes aim at presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama for what it calls a history of trying to take opposing positions on the same issue.
The 30-second clip opens with a folksy-voiced narrator claiming, "People are saying that Senator Obama's recent changes of position have made him a flip-flopper." Newspaper headlines appear on the screen, reading, "Obama aide signals shift on Iraq troop withdrawal," "Shift on war hits Obama's liberal base, " "Obama's Enigma" and "Obama's Changes Raise Issue: Can You Believe Him?"
The question "Flip-Flopper?" flashes, and the narrator exclaims, "He's not! Flip-floppers only hold one position at a time." A stern image of Obama pointing his finger is then transposed to the other side of the screen as the narrator adds, "Senator Obama is different: He holds two positions at the same time."
Using mirror images of Obama's head pointing in opposite directions, the ad then claims Obama has voted both for and against banning handguns, public campaign financing and withdrawing from Iraq, citing sources including ABC News, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. "He wants to have them all both ways," says the narrator, concluding, "He's 'Both Ways Barack' — worse than a flip-flopper!"
Let Freedom Ring is described as a nonprofit, grassroots organization supporting a conservative agenda, which includes "promoting constitutional government, economic freedom and traditional values." The founder and president of the four-year-old organization, Colin Hanna, said he was not aware that the spot would be the first political ad ever to air on MTV, but that he didn't mind "breaking the mold." Hanna said the inspiration came from his feeling that Obama was not so much a flip-flopper — a term he felt was dated — but someone who "seemed to be holding conflicting positions at the same time."
He shared the ad's concept with donors, and they liked it enough to fund the ad, which will air around 100 times between now and Friday on MTV, VH1, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News (all but MTV began airing the ad on Tuesday), costing the organization "several hundred thousand dollars."
Hanna said the MTV buy was an attempt to reach a different audience. "If I were to criticize my own buy, I'd say I would like to see more MTV and less Fox News than we wound up buying," he said, noting that the commercial's voice-over was meant to have a playful tone. "We want to go after people who are in the political middle and are not fully committed on this race."
In addition to the heavy advertising buys from the campaigns of Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain, so-called "third-party" ads from unaffiliated groups like Let Freedom Ring have begun to flood the airwaves across the country recently. These groups are allowed to spend as much as they want on the commercials, as long as they don't work with either campaign to create them. Planned Parenthood rolled out an ad in six potential swing states that mocks McCain's stumbling answer to a recent question about whether he thinks it's unfair that health insurance companies cover Viagra but not birth control. A recent spot from On Message Inc., an independent arm of the Republican National Committee, also aired in a number of potential swing states and accused Obama of following the Democratic Party line in not voting to allow more gas and oil production in the United States.
After announcing its decision to begin airing political ads this year, MTV said it would accept spots from the candidates and party committees, but would consider ads from unaffiliated, so-called "527" groups and political action committees on a case-by-case basis. Hanna stressed that his organization is not a 527 group; 527s are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission and are not subject to the same contribution limits as political action committees.
McCain has been outspoken in his dislike for third-party ads, but a spokesperson said the campaign had no response to the "Both Ways Barack" commercial. A spokesperson for the Obama campaign could not be reached for comment at press time.
These kind of 527 ads will likely be even more ubiquitous in this election than they were four years ago, according to Andrew Rasiej, chairman of Howard Dean's Technology Advisory Council in 2004 and co-founder of TechPresident.com, which tracks how the candidates are using the Internet.
"527s have become established as part of a genre called 'swiftboating,' " he said, referring to the notorious "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" 527 ad that ran in the 2004 election and questioned Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry's Vietnam record. "It follows that 2008 will be more of the same, but with the added wrinkle of Internet distribution being so much more robust that they may have an even bigger impact."
With more Americans online now, and more political sites following the election, Rasiej said these kinds of ads will have the ability to be seen many more times than they were just four years ago.
"What's interesting about this ad airing on MTV," he said, "is that they are taking a play right out of Obama's playbook and trying to reach young people who could potentially be active in the campaign by delivering a message where they already are."
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