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2 Ad Campaigns on Social Security Go Head-to-Head

Times Staff Writer

Harry and Louise, meet Frank and Marge.

Opposing advocacy groups launched ad campaigns Tuesday to sway public opinion on President Bush’s plan to restructure Social Security and let younger workers open private investment accounts.

One ad opposing Bush’s plan features a middle-aged couple worried about the effect of falling stock prices on their retirement income. It mimics the Harry and Louise campaign that contributed to the collapse of President Clinton’s healthcare initiative a decade ago.

“This is terrible, Frank,” says Marge, the fictional wife. “When President Bush and his Wall Street pals privatized Social Security, they never told us we could actually lose our money.”

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“Please don’t cry, honey.... Maybe the kids will take us in,” says Frank.

Political activists and independent analysts said the new campaigns were part of an escalating public relations and legislative lobbying war that had the potential to eclipse past records for spending on public policy issues.

“On both sides, the heat is getting turned up,” said Duane Peterson, director of TrueMajority, the political advocacy group responsible for the Frank and Marge campaign.

The group spent $54,000 to run the 60-second ad for a week in Washington and in the Pennsylvania district of Rep. Charlie Dent, a newly elected Republican who had taken no position on Bush’s restructuring plan. Peterson said the campaign would be expanded to other areas if the response was positive.

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A far costlier effort was unveiled Tuesday by Progress for America, a conservative advocacy group with close ties to the White House. The $2-million “iceberg” campaign features a 60-second television ad that will run for three weeks on national cable networks.

“Some people say Social Security is not in trouble, just like some thought the Titanic was unsinkable,” the announcer intones as a floating ice mass looms ever larger on the screen. “President Bush wants to rescue Social Security now ... before we hit the iceberg.”

Progress for America Executive Director Chris Meyers said the ad buy would be far larger than the group’s previous advertisements aimed at building support for Bush’s restructuring initiative.

“We’re starting to move into the mass-marketing phase of this effort,” said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Va., which tracks political ad spending. “It’s the biggest TV ad buy that we’ve seen ... but this will probably seem small compared to what’s going to get spent over the next 90 days.”

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So far, the deepest pockets in the Social Security restructuring debate have belonged to AARP, the 35-million-member seniors organization that has spent $10 million on full-page print ads in national and regional newspapers.

Several organizations have purchased television, radio, newspaper, magazine and Internet ads to express their support or opposition to Bush’s plan, but many have been narrowly targeted and short-lived. Some were designed to coincide with a presidential visit to a particular city, or to pressure a particular member of Congress.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the Frank and Marge radio ad was accompanied by a rally outside Dent’s district office in Bethlehem.

“Rep. Dent hasn’t been in Congress very long, and we know that the White House will be leaning hard on him,” said Martin Berger, president of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans. “We want to make sure he hears from his friends and neighbors at home.”

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Dent spokesman Gregg Bortz said the ad was unlikely by itself to sway the freshman lawmaker. “Everyone is welcome to weigh in on this issue,” Bortz said, adding that Dent wanted to hear from more constituents before making up his mind on private accounts.

Tracey, of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, said the AARP’s print ads and Progress for America’s television campaign were the only Social Security advertising efforts to top $1 million so far in a public relations offensive that had tended to target opinion leaders and individual lawmakers.

But Tracey said ad spending could eventually exceed the $150 million spent over several years by AARP, the healthcare industry and other groups to shape the 2003 legislation providing the first prescription drug benefit under Medicare. Other historic ad battles involved Clinton’s healthcare initiative and a current campaign to rein in civil litigation costs, each of which generated about $100 million in spending.

“Anything as large as Social Security tends to take a while,” Tracey said. “It’s more of a marathon than a sprint.... The market conditions are there for a long, drawn-out, expensive advertising component to this debate.”

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The new ad campaigns coincide with a stepped-up White House effort to overcome public skepticism and congressional apprehension about the need for Social Security restructuring and private accounts.

The administration announced last week that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and other top officials would visit 60 cities in 60 days to make the case for Bush’s approach to Social Security restructuring.

The president is pushing Congress to act this year to close Social Security’s long-term funding shortfall, estimated at $3.7 trillion over 75 years, an effort that could include benefit reductions for future retirees.

Bush wants Congress to let younger workers divert some of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts. That would help them offset the potential benefit cuts, but could also require the government to borrow several trillion dollars over several decades to replace the diverted payroll tax revenue.

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Recent opinion polls have suggested that Bush’s efforts to sell his program have produced mixed results. Survey respondents appear inclined to believe Social Security is facing major problems, but they have become more wary of private accounts.

The new ad campaigns were tailored to respond to those concerns, and to influence still-fluid public opinion on a complex issue that is only beginning to register with many Americans.

“No matter how much we’ve talked about it in Washington, D.C., and think we’ve heard everybody make every point, most people have barely heard anything about Social Security reform,” said Stuart Roy, a communications consultant for Progress for America. “They’re the actual real people. We’re the weird ones.”

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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