Contractors’ Ads Tout Pet Projects : ‘Advocacy’ Messages Timed to Win Support in Congress


As sprightly martial music thrums in the background, the screen fills with grainy film clips of military planes in action. Each one, an announcer intones, was built or designed by Northrop Corp. “Now, the B-2,” the voice-over says, as the sleek black vehicle wheels into view. “America’s most thoroughly tested new bomber.”

Northrop, which has been running that 30-second ad for the past few days, isn’t asking viewers of “Good Morning America” and “The Tonight Show” to purchase a Stealth bomber of their very own--not at $530 million apiece--but it’s doing a selling job nevertheless.

With Congress preparing to debate the defense budget this week, the Southern California-based aerospace contractor has been flooding Washington’s airwaves as part of its lobbying efforts to save the $70-billion project, of which it is the prime contractor.

In a flurry of local newspaper ads and television commercials, other military-hardware manufacturers are scrambling to raise their profiles, too.


TV Ads for V-22 Osprey

McDonnell Douglas Corp., the prime contractor on the F-15E, a controversial jet fighter project, for example, has been telling readers of the Washington Post and other publications circulated in Washington that its aircraft “is twice the plane compared to any single fighter.” Viewers of Sunday morning public affairs shows have been getting a look at the V-22 Osprey, a plane that takes off like a helicopter, thanks to Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing-Vertol, its co-manufacturers.

Buying an ad to tout a pet project has long been used to support more conventional forms of lobbying, but the current outpouring of “advocacy” messages comes at a time when Congress faces an unusual number of hard choices involving military procurement. After years of steady buildup at the Defense Department, the federal budget deficit is forcing Capital Hill to consider scrapping several big-ticket projects, including the B-2, F-15E, V-22 and an upgraded F-14.

These high-stakes decisions appear to be compelling the blitz of advertising: “We’re seeing the whole defense industry under attack,” said Jerry Mosier, a New York advertising executive who edits a newsletter about advocacy campaigns. “Everyone from the F-14 makers to the nuclear-widget industry is out there trying to get its message across.”


Expensive Advertising

Mosier said the number of advocacy ads has increased 35% since last year, with defense-related ads up strongly, according to a cross section of national publications tracked by his publication.

Unlike traditional advertising, which seeks to influence a broad number of people, advocacy ads that appear in Washington are ultimately aimed at one of the smallest audiences around: the 535 members of Congress.

This makes advocacy advertising unusually expensive on a cost-per-viewer basis. A full-page ad that appears once in the Post, for instance, costs $36,894 ($45,144 on Sunday), a page in the New York Times’ National Edition runs $45,677 ($55,244 on Sunday), and the Wall Street Journal gets $41,665 for a full page in the edition that circulates in Washington. Northrop is spending more than $60,000 on its B-2 television spots, which will run for the next several weeks primarily on news shows, said Les Daly, the company’s senior vice president of advertising. Daly wouldn’t disclose the print budget.


Those who create advocacy campaigns said that to persuade members of Congress first requires convincing the people immediately around them, including staffs, lobbyists, Administration officials and the media.

Ads Are Risky

“All of this is to give the various companies visibility with some of the people here who may have influence” on the decision makers, said Loye Miller, a spokesman for Northrop’s local office.

Added Tom Garbett, a consultant who helps create corporate ad campaigns, “The content of the ad may or may not convince someone, but it creates an atmosphere, an ambience in which the issue is important. It helps establish it in the public debate. Unfortunately, congressmen and their staffs aren’t dealing with the public, but if they perceive it as important to them, it puts the issue right in front of them.”


While it’s often difficult to measure the effectiveness of any advocacy ad, several consultants say they can do as much harm as good. Some ads wind up galvanizing an otherwise disorganized opposition, Garbett said.

Al Ries, a marketing consultant who co-authored the books “Positioning” and “Marketing Warfare,” said Northrop in particular is risking a strong backlash by taking its case to the public. “People are going to think, ‘why the hell do we need the B-2 when everything is candy and flowers between us and the U.S.S.R? What in the hell are we spending $500 million per plane for?’ ”

Noting that development costs on the B-2 already have surpassed $22 billion, Ries suggested that Northrop should have adopted “the shame approach” in its campaign. “The message should be, ‘we’ve put so much money into this plane on the ground, it would be a shame not to put it into the air now.’ ”