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If there is a wolf...

I just watched the new Bush ad -- "Wolves." The species has been changed to protect the innocent, but otherwise the video, depicting a pack of wolves moving quietly through the woods and then assembling for attack, is a slavish copy of a Reagan ad from 1984: "If There is a Bear."

"If There is a Bear" is one of the most striking political ads of all time, weird and ironic, one of a handful of political ads ever to operate purely on metaphor. Remember how dull all television ads were in 1984 -- most were pretty direct plop-plop-fizz-fizz pitches. An ad like this would certainly catch your attention. Now most political ads are deadly straightforward, while a good number of commercial advertisements operate through indirection, metaphor, parody, or some twist to get your attention.

Here's the transcript of the bear ad:

There is a bear in the woods.
For some people the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all.
Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious. And dangerous.
Since no one can really be sure who is right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear?
If there is a bear.

The narrator was (I've learned today) the gentle-voiced Hal Riney, who did a lot of car commercials and was familiar and reassuring. And the ad didn't just spread fear; it balanced Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign with a logical argument for a strong defense posture. And the gentle, odd conclusion, "if there is a bear," even if totally out of synch with the first assertion, suggested that there was still cause for optimism, that there might be no danger from the Soviet Union (as we now know there was not, at that time), but that we were prepared for anything.

And, of course, there was a genuine difference of opinion between Reagan and Mondale on defense spending.

Contrast the Bush ad, narrated by a woman with a "he's calling from inside your house" voice:

In an increasingly dangerous world...Even after the first terrorist attack on America...John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America's intelligence operations.

By 6 billion dollars.

Cuts so deep they would have weakened America's defenses.

And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.

Not much subtlety, not much optimism. Plus, a pack of lies to go with the pack of wolves. (Bush and Porter Goss proposed even bigger cuts, and of course overextending our military through bad planning in Iraq has done more to weaken America's defenses than any budget cut.) The Reagan ad was brilliant, subtle and charming. This is just Cheneyism: Vote for Bush, or wolves will come and eat you in your bed. (Or, as The Onion put it, "I, Dick Cheney, will personally enter your house and rip you limb from limb.")

Googling for "if there is a bear" and Reagan, I noticed that the conservatives have been pushing for a copy of the Bear Ad all year. Fred Barnes basically wrote them a script in February, Mona Charen pitched it at the end of a column in March, the conservative bloggers at Infinite Monkeys pitched it earlier this month. All of them had a slightly more subtle idea.

Finally, there really does seem to be a creativity gap this year between Bush's ads, which are really lame, old-fashioned hit-you-over-the-head pitches (leaving aside the fear-mongering) and some of the ads for Kerry and those created by independent groups, which manage to be, like the bear-in-the-woods ad, simultaneously clever and emotionally moving.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 22, 2004 | Permalink


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Hi Mark,

You might want to read this piece on Riney from the SF Chronicle a few months back:

Not surprisingly for a San Francisco writer, Riney wrote the Bear ad, Morning in America and one other in a bar on Battery street.

Posted by: j pinson | Oct 22, 2004 2:20:25 PM

Check out the DNC response called "Eagle". It does a much better job of using metaphorical imagery to get its point across. It never explicitly mentions Bush or the Republicans, but its obvious to any casual observer who the Ostrich is supposed to be.

Posted by: Chris Andersen | Oct 22, 2004 4:57:27 PM

As an analogy, the wolves ad fails. A bear can be a formidible threat to a human wandering in woods (they climb trees for one thing) whereas wolves usually give humans a wide berth. Bush's pack look like they just spotted a lamb. Followed immediately with the jarring juxtaposition of a smiling, ad approving Bush, it's the only truth in the ad: Bush thinks American voters are sheep.

Posted by: fastback | Oct 23, 2004 8:03:43 AM


'we were told they were shooting a Greenpeace commercial'

Someone in Bush Central must be c--pping themselves.

End justifies the means, indeed.

Posted by: john | Oct 23, 2004 1:15:15 PM

I think you overplay the uncertainty in the finale of the bear ad by focusing only on the words. The narrator pauses and says "if there is a bear" just as the bear wanders up face to face with a man.

The joke is that if this man was claming there was no bear, he's in deep shit now. It's a very subtle way of sliding the knife deeper into peaceniks while sounding ironic and gentle. Masterful.

Posted by: cw | Oct 24, 2004 8:11:50 AM

Though the swift boat bit was brilliant, Karl Rove is no artist; he's a hitman at heart.

Posted by: Kennedy | Oct 24, 2004 4:40:03 PM

I agree with fastback above. Wolves aren't that scarey, but the GOP, being the party of American weakness (i.e., every kind of threat under the Sun can destroy Our Way of Life), want them to be. What's next--rattlesnakes? A rabid St. Bernard? Sasquach bin Laden? That ad just seemed cheesy in an age over overly violent TV, movies, and video games.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 25, 2004 10:49:17 AM

Reagan's "Bear in the woods" was the first thing I thought of when I watched this ad. I was continually astonished to see no one catch the imitation until now.

The "Wolves" piece isn't a fraction as effective as Reagan's piece, in part because the Reagan ad was puely metaphoric. It didn't mention Mondale. It didn't mention Russia. It didn't even mention Reagan. By screening out any references to the concrete political world, the ad's argument was raised to the purely symbolic level. That makes for a powerful statement.

When you talk about John Kerry while you're showing wolves, or when you're talking about terrorists when you're showing wolves, the subconscious mind will then ask the question: "John Kerry is a wolf?" and produce a silly reaction. When you show a wolf by itself - accompanied by ominous music - you get the impression that Danger Exists. Sicne you understand that the context is a political ad, you understand that the politician (Bush) is meant to protect you from danger. Since the narrative of "Bush Strong, Kerry Weak" has been drummed into swing staters' heads for months now - complete with his eighty squillion votes to disband the Defense Department - trotting out the specific campaign line, rather than simply parroting the Bear ad, simply makes for a weak statement. Mexed missages, as our president would say.

Posted by: C Mas | Oct 25, 2004 12:41:47 PM

Posted by: | Oct 26, 2004 9:20:08 AM

Posted by: | Nov 21, 2004 1:08:48 AM