$226 Million in Govt Ads Helped Pave the Way for War

To ultimately be the victor in the war against terrorism, we need all Americans to be engaged.”

– DHS Secretary, Tom Ridge

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge found this exhortation so fine, he used it in two of the radio and television ads that American broadcasters donated in 2003 to DHS for its ostensible terrorism preparedness campaign. Curiously, though the threat to America had been manifest for some 17 months, the government didn’t launch its social marketing campaign until February 2003, less than a month before bombs started falling on Baghdad.

Whether tardy or oh so timely, at $226 million last year, this bellicose DHS campaign received more than twice as much donated time and space as the largest nonprofit ad campaign the year before.

Bellicose? Wasn’t this the “Ready” campaign much beloved by Leno and Letterman for pushing duct tape on a scornful public? Yet, consider another line that Ridge liked so much he repeated it in two of the ads: “Terrorism forces us to make a choice: We can be afraid, or we can be ready.” One short ad featuring this statement from Ridge included little else. Stock up on water and batteries sure. But don’t just stand there quivering in fear, somebody do something – something preemptive.

Ridge also informed us that, “Every family in America should prepare itself for terrorist attack.” If indeed every family is vulnerable – and if Saddam was linked to the terrorists, as the administration maintained – then surely our government must do something proactive, something involving jets and tanks. Well wait a scant month America, for as Bush’s designated terror czar promised: “We’re asking America to be ready – and we will be ready.”

Be ready, for time was short. Though the ads were planned as far back as at least May 2002 – and they employed simple public health maxims of long-standing – there was no perceived need to rush them out despite every reason to fear another attack throughout 2002. Instead, under the overall direction of Bush cabinet official Tom Ridge, the ads were always scheduled for early 2003, as was, apparently, the start of the war on Iraq.

Two private entities and an agency George W. Bush created in the Executive Office of the President joined forces creating the campaign. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation contributed both advice and between $3 and $4 million to the effort. The Ad Council helped shepherd it on to the nations’ airwaves, as it’s done for nonprofit advertising campaigns since WWII. And, with President Bush signing the DHS enabling legislation in November 2002, its predecessor agency, created by executive order, was the Office of Homeland Security. Sloan’s president, Ralph Gomory, said that OHS, Sloan and the Ad Council agreed to the effort in May 2002 and planned to hit the airwaves in January 2003. Regarding the actual launch in February, Gomory said, “We slipped by one month.”

(GOVEXEC.com noted that ex-IBM executive Gomory has served on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology under Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. The council’s members nominated by the president, Gomory’s recurring membership indicates he’s well connected in Republican circles.)

Gomory said that OHS, Sloan and the Ad Council decided on the ads’ basic content. In addition, a Richmond, Virginia-based ad agency, the Martin Agency, helped polish their final presentation. Martin senior vice president of strategic planning Caley Cantrell said, “There were specific dates we wanted to hit when to launch the campaign.” Asked what those dates were, she said, “It launched when it was supposed to launch.”

Given the broadcasters’ huge donation, this information was obviously deemed important to the public’s well-being. So why the many month delay? The portion of the ads’ content that didn’t pander to Mars was the standard disaster preparedness advice of stocking up on nonperishable food and water, batteries and medicine, preparing a communications plan and the like. Dr. Irwin Redlerner, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s medical school, said that the Ready campaign basically echoes advice long given by the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

Yet, Americans left unprepared, there was no perceived need to immediately push something on to the nation’s airwaves, however rushed and therefore aesthetically less than pristine. No. Dilly and dally until the time was deemed right – some 17 months after 9/11.

Media big foot Steven Brill chairs what can be seen as a successor to the Ready campaign, something initiated by the Sloan Foundation with another $3.5 million donation. Called the America Prepared Campaign, Inc., it’s scheduled to launch this summer. Asked about Ready’s prewar timing, Brill said, “To think it was timed for the war is crazy – that’s Michael Moore squared.” (Despite Moore’s recent Palme d’Or at Cannes, Brill means that as an insult.)

The ads’ tardy launch ignored the mandate President Bush gave DHS’s predecessor agency, the OHS, when he established it by executive order and named Tom Ridge its director on October 8, 2001. Bush’s order declared that the new agency must “coordinate national efforts to prepare for and mitigate the consequences of terrorist threats or attacks within the United States.” Under the heading, Public Affairs, the order also required the OHS, under White House direction, to “coordinate the development of programs for educating the public about the nature of terrorist threats and appropriate precautions and responses.”

Lives presumably at risk, the administration proved it could move quickly when it wished. Exigencies were such that the Patriot Act (yes, a matter of more significance than an ad campaign) was rammed through Congress with no time for members even to read it.

Asked about the months fine-tuning how to tell people to stock up on food and water, Mike Hughes, Martin’s president and creative director, clutches at straws. He said that public health experts were still determining what to tell people to have in their supply kit. He said, “There was a constantly changing blueprint of possible hazards, and the scientists were working out what to tell people.” Indeed, one print ad referred to that recent innovation, the sleeping bag. As Redlerner put it, “It’s standard doctrine.”

From viewers’ perspective, there’s little to an ad campaign but timing and content. As to the latter, Gomory said that OHS, Sloan and the Ad Council determined the campaign’s content. And we can imagine which of those three was first among equals. In fact, participants indicate that, with one apparent exception, the jingoistic statements Ridge made that helped grease the wheels for war came from his office.

Martin’s Cantrell said her agency generated the tagline: “Be afraid or be ready.” Ken Hines, Martin’s senior copywriter on the campaign, remembered that Ridge supplied the key pro-war line featured in two separate TV ads, the one about all Americans needing to be engaged for victory in the war against terrorism. What’s more, Ridge approved the content of all the ads, said Hines. And Ridge’s statements were not off-the-cuff musings. He had a lot of time to prepare.

Hearing some of Ridge’s statements in the ads and asked if the campaign could be seen as helping to pave the way for war, Columbia University’s Dr. Redlerner said, “It could be that.” Asked again, he repeated, “It could be.” For his part, Gomory said, “I’m not commenting on the political value of Secretary Ridge’s statements.” Pressed further, he said rather tepidly, “It doesn’t seem to have a political element.”

Martin honcho Hughes said, “Wouldn’t that be a shame if anyone saw that…. I can’t imagine anyone putting that pro-war spin on.” He termed the whole notion, “kinda crazy.” Asked about the propriety of featuring a Bush cabinet official so prominently, Hughes admitted, “It helped that 2003 was not an election year.”

Pointed to the “victor in the war against terrorism” line, Martin’s strategic planner, Cantrell, said, “To survive an act of terrorism with a large percentage of people surviving would be a victory.”  She wouldn’t specify what might constitute a “large percentage.”

DHS Director of Special Projects, Lara Shane justified the ads’ content by saying, “There’s no subtext. The ads just address issues that came out in the focus groups.” But that’s contradicted by the statement from the effort’s chief private funder, Ralph Gomory, that the content was broadly determined prior to any focus groups.

It was left to Brill to mount a more spirited defense. He termed the DHS ads somewhat “dark and forbidding” and also “scary.” Yet he denounced the suggestion that they might have had a pro-war agenda as “one of the stupidest questions I’ve ever heard.”

Yet consider this ad beckoning viewers to adopt the correct mindset. It features a New York emergency worker, one of the many New York cops and firemen that appear in addition to Ridge. It’s unclear what agency he works for (neither Shane at DHS nor anyone at Martin could recall), but this quite compelling guy declares: “I think it’s irrelevant where you live or how many people live in your community. It’s America – America is the target, not just New York. It’s everywhere. And we all have to pitch in.” Pitch in how, exactly – by sending a son or daughter overseas? With a nod to the ads’ ostensible theme of preparedness, he continues, “It’s time to get serious about preparation.” But then it’s back to preemptive doom and gloom: “The threat is very real. We know that….

A Bush cabinet officer approved all this for broadcast starting in February 2003. Did viewers respond in their gut by thinking about stockpiling batteries – or about dropping bombs?

The nation’s media collectively responded to this message with a huge $226 million donation of time and space, almost all of it on radio and television. This was fueled in part by Ridge’s address to a National Association of Broadcasters conference a week after the campaign launched. DHS’s Shane said that the Ready website has gotten some 1.7 billion hits to date and the calling center some 190,000 calls. She noted that during the spring of 2003, the effort achieved a 70% awareness level among those surveyed. Of course, a lot of that came from the widespread duct tape jokes.

By December 2003, however, the Luntz Research Companies found that despite all the ads and ridicule, only 4% of respondents could name “the official government website that offers the most comprehensive information about how citizens can best be prepared for a terrorist attack.” More than four out of five respondents didn’t even hazard a guess.

Given the campaign’s sheer heft, Dr. Redlerner is a bit puzzled by the “public nonacceptance and the public’s disconnect.” He noted the “cynicism regarding the government and cynicism regarding the purpose of the message from government.” Along with Viet Nam and Watergate (or take your pick), Redlerner pointed to post-9/11 confusion over the government’s failed push to inoculate health professionals with the smallpox vaccine and the “unresolved public health mystery” of the anthrax attacks. He also noted that, with no call for joint sacrifice, there’s no coalescing around a war effort as there was during WWII. There’s too much incongruity, he feels, between the exhortations regarding an endless war on terror and all the tax cuts.

There were pre-campaign focus groups in New York, Kansas City, KS and Los Angeles. Cantrell said of the New Yorkers, “People who’ve been that close to seeing a plane slam into that building [realize] there’s not a lot you can get at the hardware store that’s going to protect you from that.” I doubt that propinquity to catastrophe is required for an insight shared nationwide. Nor, as was pointed out by the Progressive Policy Institute, does Ready.gov’s terms of use statement reassure. It states that DHS is “not responsible if information that we make available on this site is not accurate, complete or current … any reliance upon the material found on this site will be at your own risk.”

Foiled in part by the unanticipated reaction to the duct-tape foolishness, DHS has a mixed record in getting the public to store jugs of water under the sink. But that certainly doesn’t diminish the fact that, shrouded in a preparedness fig leaf, the administration loosed hundreds of millions of dollars of pro-war advertising upon the land. It intended these ads to be taken seriously, to – “every family in America” a target – scare the stuffing out of people. And none of the halo-bedecked cops and firemen gracing the ads were laughing. As we learn daily regarding Iraq, simple incompetence does not mask ill intent.

Yet many view another attack as a certainty. Redlerner, who’s on the Advisory Panel for Brill’s America Prepared Campaign, said that, like the long denial about the threat of AIDS, Americans still want to bury their heads in the sand regarding the possibility of another attack. He thinks that, “Disengaged Americans want to feel disconnected from the ills and strife of the rest of the world, but that’s no longer possible.” Redlerner added that many government officials say privately that only another major attack will lead to accepting the need for preparedness as people now embrace the need for seat belts. Redlerner said the Ready campaign is “not getting heard, and this prompted Steve Brill to try to intensify it, to look for a more popular groundswell.”

Declaring that the Ad Council could spend a year setting up a committee to tie its own shoelaces, Brill said his effort eschews its assistance though it will still get free TV spots starting this summer. His ads, some featuring celebrities Brill wouldn’t name, want to get the public to prepare with knowledge, supplies and a plan. There’ll also be billboard and newspaper ads, leaflets at work, school and major retailers (some of which may sell prepackaged supply kits) and help perhaps from NASCAR. While DHS’s Ready is an ongoing effort, Brill hopes to raise the necessary awareness and go out of business by the end of the year.

Brill said that Ridge has already requested he not run a couple of ads slated for this fall, Ridge feeling them too political right before the election. Brill wouldn’t discuss their content or whether he’ll bow to Ridge’s request. So even these campaigns’ proponents recognize the difficulty of divorcing preparedness from politics.

It’s a problem echoed by the suspicion that greeted Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert S. Meuller III’s amorphous – no, entirely nonactionable – announcement on Wednesday of a boy-cries-wolf, hypothetical impending attack. The New York Times quoted administration critics to the effect that, “the timing of the announcement appeared intended in part to distract attention from Mr. Bush’s sagging poll numbers and problems in Iraq.”

With Ready in the top spot, the Ad Council indicated that threat-related government entities were its top three free ads in 2003. Cancer awareness campaigns, the United Negro College Fund and the like march well behind government campaigns with a decided political/security slant. Ready alone got more than four times more media than the largest non-government client: the National Fatherhood Initiative which, at $52 million, was the largest traditional, “do-good” nonprofit.

Redlerner believes another attack on the U.S. is “unavoidable” – especially now that the Iraqi prisoner abuse has surfaced. Despite that and the fact that he’s advising Brill’s campaign, he said, “Preparedness as an activity competes for resources with HIV, tuberculosis, child immunizations, safe water, etc.” He added, “If you took a survey of my colleagues in public health and said we had $100 million, very few would focus that money on preparedness.”

With $69 million worth of ads, said the Ad Council, the U.S. Army’s “Operation Graduation” came in second, and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy came in third at $65 million – though it’s a misnomer to term its ads “donated.”

You might think the Army’s stay-in-school effort is politically neutral and has nothing to do with beefing up an undermanned military. Ad Council spokesperson Ellyn Fisher maintained that Operation Graduation was not related to recruitment.

Yet such a branding effort obviously helps with recruitment. In fact, the person managing the Army’s campaign is an Assistant Deputy for Recruiting and Retention, Dr. Naomi Verdugo. She said that, along with keeping kids in schools, the ads do benefit the Army’s recruiting. Since the Army now accepts almost no high school dropouts, said Verdugo, “To the extent more students graduate high school, it’s a more recruitable population.” Aside from enhancing kids’ potential, she said, “it also aids recruitment.” And why not from the Army’s point of view – it’s free. (Verdugo noted that the Reserves will accept some GED certificate holders.)

The White House drug czar’s office leads the federal government’s propagation of the war on drugs, a war that for political purposes has melded in to the wider war on terror. Before voters went to the polls in 2002, ONDCP blanketed the airwaves with ads that equated even casual marijuana use with blowing up a restaurant and killing firemen(!) along with the garden variety reefer-madness slaying of friends, pedestrians and other innocents. Much of last year’s $65 million in ONDCP/Ad Council placements went to ads promoting local anti-drug groups affiliated with the private Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, which certainly play a political role as staunch proponents of the drug-war status quo. The CADCA member groups get separate federal funding – the lion’s share of $450 million over five years – so these free ads are icing on the cake.

CADCA member coalitions have long been in bed with ONDCP, acting as its de facto local political operatives. As a CADCA spokesperson told The Detroit Free Press, these coalitions “can spend up to 20 percent of their budgets ‘to educate voters.'” And educate them they do, on the perils of state drug reform ballot initiatives among other things. Ex-CADCA executive Mary Anne Solberg is currently ONDCP’s deputy director. Speaking prior to her Senate confirmation, Solberg told the Free Press that she wants both to increase the number of coalitions and, as the paper paraphrased her, “to help them play a key role in opposing any easing of drug laws.”

Another wrinkle to the ONDCP ads, one confirmed by Fisher, is that they are not actually donated. As mandated by congressional authorizations for what’s slated to be a ten-year total value of nearly $4 billion in ONDCP ads, all of them are purchased on a two-for-one, fifty-cents-on-the-dollar basis. With a second five-year authorization (until 2008) pending, that means the nation’s taxpayers will ultimately fork over some $2 billion to get nearly twice that total amount in time and space. Though ONDCP once gave the “second” ad to all sorts of groups, it now reserves that half of its ad buy (disingenuously referred to as a “pro bono match,” there being nothing pro bono about it) increasingly for its own in-house anti-drug ads.

Obscure yet remarkable is the fact that ONDCP’s ad campaign was conceived by Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey in direct response to the passage of the first medical marijuana initiatives in 1996. In a meeting he convened nine days after that 1996 election, McCaffrey, other White House officials, representatives of the DEA, FBI, Justice, HHS, Treasury and private drug warriors discussed the need for taxpyer-funded advertising to thwart subsequent initiatives and maybe even roll back the two that had passed.

Half of ONDCP’s ad buy is directed at adults – otherwise known as voters. It comes as no surprise then to learn, from a government-sponsored University of Pennsylvania study, that the ONDCP ads directed at adults rose by over 300%; that is, from nearly nothing in mid-August 2002 to as high as the equivalent of four exposures per week in late October just as voters in several states prepared to vote on drug reform initiatives. This gross ratings point measure then plunged to the equivalent of under a half-exposure per week after Election Day. An ONDCP memo stated its intent to obtain a total of $96 million in advertising during the fall of 2002. 

That ONDCP reserved more of its total ad buy time for itself in 2003 is in keeping with the general consolidation in the media’s donations and its turn towards favoring threat-related government campaigns. And make no mistake: with the Army canceling out-of-theater rotations and scrambling ever more desperately to conjure up boots on the ground worldwide, ads that enhance the Army’s recruiting are entirely militaristic.

Shed a tear, Smokey the Bear along with that famous Native American crying over the litter befouling the landscape as the nation’s media ushers you out of the spotlight if not quite off stage. The New York Times notes that one cable TV company will reduce its Ad Council clients from twenty down to four or five. Not that the council’s web site gives any indication it’s rapidly becoming an adjunct of the state security apparatus. Highlighting its efforts, the site ignores its top three clients: DHS, the Army and ONDCP, in favor of such more simpatico fare as fighting obesity, asthma and wildfires, becoming a teacher or registering to vote.