Presidential campaigns always seem to begin with Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball and descend into a mudslinging mush of negative ads. But sneakers ads?
Yes, sneakers ads. Hitching a ride on publicity for mega-competitor Nike Inc.'s "Ken Griffey Jr. for President" ad campaign, Hunt Valley-based Fila USA is launching a negative campaign -- bashing the Seattle Mariners slugger as too inexperienced and, as a candy bar endorser, wrong on health care issues to boot.
It began with the weekend coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament. Upstart Fila launched a humorous salvo featuring former Orioles and current Cleveland Indians first baseman Eddie Murray attacking Mr. Griffey.
"You can't run a campaign with only one candidate; it's not fair," Fila advertising vice president Howe Burch said. "America deserves a choice. We have the candidate with more experience. And his actions speak louder than his words."
Do they ever. Mr. Murray, despite 3,000 big-league hits and nearly 500 home runs, has a low profile for such an accomplished player because he has a surly relationship with reporters, whom he usually avoids as if they were poisonous snakes.
Nike began the campaign war with a series of Griffey spots featuring political consultant James Carville touting the center fielder as a natural because "people don't want someone coming out of left field and they sure don't want somebody who plays too far right." The ads also cast Parliament/Funkadelic music group star George Clinton as Mr. Griffey's campaign manager, who tells viewers, "My name might be Clinton, but I know what I'm talking about -- Vote Griffey."
Nike's ads, heavily rotated on sports programming, have been a big hit with advertising critics and a boost to Nike's $135-a-pair Air Max Griffey cross-trainer. Even Fila loved the ads enough to bite at its ad agency's proposal to knock them off, Mr. Burch admits.
"Awareness of the presidential election is very high. Nike is drafting off that" and Fila is drafting off Nike, he said. "It's a small tactical effort to make a little noise. We're not going to get into a spending contest. We don't want to buy the election."
The 30-second Fila spot, which initially will be shown only in Cleveland and will likely air in Baltimore when the Indians play the Orioles, opens with a stentorian-voiced announcer intoning, "A ball player from Seattle wants to be your next president -- but does he have the experience? There's a better choice: Eddie Murray."
The spot descends into a parody of the pseudo-fact "bullets" and capital letter graphics of attack spots.
"Fact: In 1977, Eddie was putting on his first uniform. His opponent? His jammies," the off-camera announcer seethes, as the camera dissolves to a toddler in pajamas and the screen pulses with the word "JAMMIES."
"Fact: Eddie's played the bulk of his career on grass. His opponent? Artificial turf," the announcer says, as the camera shows an Astroturf doormat tossed into the frame by an unseen hand and the text screams, "TOO LIBERAL."
"Fact: Our opponent advocates candy bars. Do you think he understands health care?" The screen shifts to a scene of Mr. Murray throwing carrots to kids at the Indians' spring training complex, as the text yells "CAVITIES."
Mr. Carville is unimpressed.
"They're going negative because they want to hide the fact that their shoe wears out every 2,500 steps," he deadpanned. "We're going to stay positive."
Nonetheless, two leading critics of real-life negative campaigns said they think the Nike/Fila contretemps is a hoot.
"The counterattack is funnier than the original, which is usually the case," said University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, author of "Feeding Frenzy," a book that rips modern political tactics. "People complain about negative ads in public, but in private they love it. They love the mudslinging."
Parodying negative political ads for commerce was so natural that it was only a matter of time before someone did it, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor whose 1992 book "Dirty Politics" is a leading study of negative advertising.
"Negative ads are very ripe for satire," Ms. Jamieson said, pronouncing Fila's script as being as funny as anything she's seen since a "Saturday Night Live" skit featuring a hooded executioner as candidate, vowing to be so tough on crime he'd kill the miscreants himself. "We've reached the point where some real attack ads look like parodies themselves because they make such trivial claims."
But Ms. Jamieson said the campaign can serve an important commercial purpose for Fila even if the company doesn't spend much money on it.
"This is called guerrilla advertising," she said. It could generate many times the value of the money spent on the ad in the form of free attention from news outlets that generate stories or jokes about it.
The classic case is the 1988 Willie Horton spot, attacking Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis for the Massachusetts prison inmate furlough program notoriously abused by Horton, who spent his weekend off terrorizing a Maryland couple, landing him in the Maryland Penitentiary. The Republicans didn't show the Horton spot very much; they relied more on a less vicious ad attacking the furloughs. But Willie Horton became a household name through the free media attention.
"The political ads most likely to get free time are either really dirty or really funny," Ms. Jamieson said.
Nike took Fila's joke well enough. Spokesman Tom Feuer, aside from making the expected observation about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, warned Fila that Mr. Murray won't be Mr. Griffey's running mate. The Mariners' Moose mascot is on the Griffey ticket, he said.
So, Ken Griffey has the moose. Bill Clinton has Al Gore. But Bob Dole still needs a running mate. Everyone else seems to be on the list. What about Eddie? Like Colin Powell, no one knows anything about his politics.
Mr. Dole's campaign staff said the prospective GOP nominee was headed for a vacation and couldn't comment. But Ms. Jamieson is on board.
"If this person could make Dole smile," she said, "he'd be someone to consider."
Pub Date: 4/01/96