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Features at Public Opinion Pros magazine

The "Swift Boat Ads" and the John Kerry Campaign: A Question of Advertising Effectiveness

By Christopher P. Borick

In August of 2004 a group of Vietnam Veterans known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) initiated a series of advertisements questioning the legitimacy of presidential candidate John F. Kerry's war record and criticizing his antiwar activities following his military service.

The group was formed in 2004 as a 527 organization, with its first advertisement initially airing on August 5, 2004, in the battleground states of Ohio, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. This advertisement, "Any Questions," featured veterans who served on swift boats at the same time as Kerry making statements that the Democratic nominee had lied about his war record and could not be trusted. The total ad buy was a relatively small $550,000, but the advertisement quickly became the main topic of coverage on nightly cable news shows. This attention also helped fuel substantial internet traffic arriving at the Swift Boat Vets' website, with Nielsen/Net Ratings reporting that just under one million people (966,000) visited Swiftvets.com during the week ending August 8--only about 34,000 less than the Kerry campaign's official site received during the same time period.

The Swift Boat Vets issued their second advertisement, "Sellout," on August 24, with an ad buy of $800,000. Like "Any Questions," this advertisement aired in three battleground states (Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin), with additional airings on cable networks nationwide. Unlike "Any Questions," "Sellout" did not focus on Kerry's honesty, but instead targeted his post-Vietnam denouncement of the war and America's military record. With clips of Kerry's testimony before Congress, the ad charged that Kerry "dishonored his country, but more importantly, the people he served with. He just sold them out."

As the attention surrounding the Swift Boat advertisements mounted, the Kerry campaign began an effort to refute the charges being levied against the senator. Among the cornerstones of the initiative was a TV spot featuring swift boat veteran Jim Rassmann's rejection of the Swift Boat Vets' claims regarding Kerry's record, and his declaration that Kerry saved him from a river under direct enemy fire. This advertisement was issued throughout key swing states and on national cable news.

At the end of August the Swift Vets issued a third advertisement in an internet-only format that challenged the honesty of Kerry's claim that he had been in Cambodia during his tour of duty, once again using first-person narratives about Kerry's lack of credibility.

As the ads and counter ads played out, many national polls began to show a drop in Kerry's numbers. For example, the Los Angeles Times poll showed a surge in support for Bush during August, placing him ahead of Kerry in a head-to-head comparison. In their analysis of the poll results the Times claimed that the Swift Vets' ads had taken their toll:

Although a solid majority of Americans say they believe Kerry served honorably in Vietnam, the poll showed that the fierce attacks on the senator from a group of Vietnam veterans criticizing both his performance in combat and anti-war protests at home have left some marks: Kerry suffered small but consistent erosion compared to July on questions relating to his Vietnam experience, his honesty and his fitness to serve as commander in chief. The Bush campaign is running like a well oiled machine and has been nearly flawless for over three weeks now. They've set traps for Kerry, and the challenger has taken the bait. And now that the SwiftVets have begun their assault on Kerry he seems clueless on how to respond. His entire campaign is struggling just to answer the SwiftVet charges. And while Kerry is distracted with that problem, the president has been using the power of the incumbency to highlight his record.

While the timing between the issuing of the "Any Questions" advertisement and Kerry's fall in the polls appears to be logically related, there is limited evidence to make the direct connection. Did the television spots actually cause the drop in support for Kerry's presidential bid?

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