Friday, May 13, 2016

Swiftboat Veterans for Truth and Viagra: Hard Messages to Soft Audiences

Many pundits are calling the current Presidential election with too much confidence.  Politics in America is war limited to words, but it is war. And the outcome of war often turns on surprise: hitting the enemy hard from a place no one saw coming.  From the arrows at Agincourt defeating the French knights to the Scipio beating Hannibal and the Carthaginians at Zama, surprise wins.  And this fall, a surprise no one sees coming may make one of the candidates a winner.  In my view, a surprise attack on John Kerry led to his defeat in 2004.  

More than a decade ago, I was watching a TV and a commercial for Viagra came on the screen.  I was not paying attention until the warning about side effects came on.  Then I could not stop laughing.  I called a couple of friends who were in advertising and we laughed more. 

Until that moment, every drug commercial used an auctioneer for the mandatory health warning at the end of the ad.  In this commercial, the side effects in the middle of the commercial in a deep, slow voice. 

“For an erection lasting more than four hours, seek medical help.  Prolonged use may cause blindness.


Tell a guy who can’t get hard that he may have an erection lasting four hours!  At four hours and one minute that guy will walk into the Emergency Room and let the whole world know he has had a woody for 241 minutes—and counting.

Most Viagra customers are older.  They are old enough to remember being warned as I was in the 1950s that masturbating will make you go blind.  Here is a drug that will make a limp guy hard for four hours AND make you blind.  It must be great stuff. In reality, going blind or a 4-hour erection are much less likely than winning the lottery, but they remind Viagra customers of the days when they were young and the problem they had was being hard all the time!

The commercial won a national Addy Award, the advertising equivalent of the Oscars, as it should! 

What does Viagra have to do with Swift Boat Veterans forTruth—the ad campaign that torpedoed a Vietnam War veteran and let two guys who ducked Vietnam War service win the election?  Those ads told a public that was mostly ignorant of military life that John Kerry was a terrible candidate because he lied about his war record.  In 2001, American soldiers went from Zeroes during the Vietnam War and to Heroes that were defending us from terrorism. By 2004 soldiers were the most trusted people in America. 

This Swift Boat ad campaign would have been met with derision in the decades right after World War 2, when every American family had a soldier in it and everybody knew many soldiers.  Fifteen million soldiers served in World War 2.  And some of them told lies so fantastic they would make Mark Twain blush.  I went to Basic during the Vietnam War and heard some of the most incredible lies I have ever heard from my fellow basic trainees. 

What the Kerry haters really wanted to say was way too complicated and controversial for 30-second TV ad.  They wanted to say Kerry turned on his fellow soldiers when he returned from Viet Nam.  With Jane Fonda in Paris he came way too close to consorting with our enemies.  I have hated John Kerry since he testified before Congress in 1970 and I think of him as an unconvicted traitor. 

Attacking Kerry for his real crime would have failed. Jane Fonda is an icon of film.  And for many people, Jane Fonda did nothing wrong.  So the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked Kerry first as a liar.  The attack worked.  From the first moment I heard that campaign, I knew they were attacking Kerry in a way that most of the public would understand rather than attack him for what most veterans were really angry about. 

Both ads worked because they took amplified minor facts to achieve a major goal:  selling blue pills and defeating John Kerry.  The number of Viagra users who have actually had an erection lasting four hours would fit in a Boston Subway car.  The ones who have actually gone blind could fit in an old-fashioned phone booth. 

As to liars in uniform, the majority of the military consists of men under the age of 24, far from home, insecure and trying to blend with an intensely macho group.  Some of the more incredible lies I have ever heard, I heard in a barracks. 

So both campaigns used facts that would reach their audience to get attention.  Once they had that attention, then they could add in all the other information they really wanted to convey. 

Viagra marketers told their attentive customers how to get the drug through their doctors.  The doctors warned the patients of side effects that actually might happen.  Swift Boat Veterans for Truth amplified every misdeed of John Kerry through and after his service in the Vietnam War.  By the time of the election two guys who stayed home from the war were Heroes and the actual combat veteran was a Zero.

In mass communication, starting with the most important message is often the worst strategy for getting your message to your audience.

Viagra made the rare side effects the center of their message when some bright ad writer realized the warning was just what the audience wanted to hear.

Like the smart guys who sent the murderer Al Capone to prison for tax evasion, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth hit Kerry from an angle he never expected to deny him the biggest job in the world.   

Mission Accomplished.

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