One of the most influential advertising campaigns of the 2004 election came not from a candidate, but from a group of Vietnam veterans who mounted an anti-John Kerry offensive with the help of a small set of Republican political consultants.
The group, originally named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, held a news conference in May 2004, but it was sparsely attended.
Rick Reed, of the firm Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, later told University of Rhode Island communications studies professor Patrick Devlin that he went to the conference only to see his uncle Adrian Lonsdale, who was one of the veterans critical of Kerry.
For an article for the journal American Behavioral Scientist, Reed told Devlin that he was surprised that there wasn’t more of a response after the news conference. “The thing that struck me was that [the Swift Boat Veterans] were not political people. … They probably had no idea that this would really shake up the political process,” Reed said.
Reed began producing television ads for the group, the first of which aired in early August. Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm already had some experience in making Democratic candidates look bad. Partner Greg Stevens was responsible for a 1988 ad featuring presidential candidate Michael Dukakis wearing an ill-fitting helmet while riding a tank. The first Swift Boat ad was edited together from interviews of the veterans criticizing Kerry, who had played up his military career at the Democratic convention only days before.
The ad was blunt, beginning with Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards challenging that “if you have any question about what John Kerry is made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him 30 years ago,” followed by a montage of veterans accusing Kerry of “lying about his record” and saying he “betrayed the men and women he served with.”
In nine ads aired over the course of a little more than two months, the Swift Boat Veterans hammered away at Kerry’s service record during the war and the anti-war stance he took after returning from Vietnam. Media reports called into question some accounts in the ads, citing statements given earlier by some Swift Boat Veterans members in support of Kerry, as well as accusations from some group members that seemingly contradicted the official record of events. Lonsdale, for example, who now said Kerry “lacks the capacity to lead” had, in 1996 praised his “bravado and courage,” calling him “among the finest of those Swift Boat drivers.”
Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm was paid less than $300,000 for the Swift Boat ads, a fraction of the more than $56 million they took in from the 2004 election, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of 2003 and 2004 campaign filings. In comparison, South Dakota Republican Larry Diedrich paid the firm more than $1.6 million for its work in his close but ultimately unsuccessful bid for a seat in the House of Representatives.
Though cheap by the standards of political advertising, the ads generated a flood of media attention. Firm partner Erik Potholm told Campaigns & Elections magazine that “initially, the Swift Boat Veterans television buy was limited. But thanks to the enormous national media coverage of the spots, millions of people across the country saw them.” A Gallup poll found that within three weeks after the first ad hit the airwaves, more than 80 percent of the country had seen or heard about it.
At a conference sponsored by the University of Virginia Center for Politics held the month after the November election, Kerry advisor Mike McCurry called the Swift Boat ads “one of the most dishonorable things I’ve ever seen happen in politics.”
The Swift Boat ads were controversial — and influential — enough that when Stevens produced ads in 2005 for Doug Forester’s New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, opponent Jon Corzine mentioned Stevens in his ads, saying that he was hired by Forester “despite his role in orchestrating the Swift Vets smear campaign on behalf of Bush.”
Stevens, founder and president of Stevens and Co. (the firm that would become Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm), was a newspaper reporter in New Jersey before becoming chief of staff to Republican Gov. Thomas Kean. He directed advertising for the 2000 presidential campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain. Reed joined the firm in 1993, leaving a post as political editor for the White House Bulletin, a daily newsletter published in Virginia.
Curcio went from selling mouthwash as an executive for a New York advertising firm to directing advertising for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1984, then became the NRSC’s political director for the 1992 and 1994 election cycles. In 1997, he and Reed became partners in the firm, which changed its name to Stevens Reed Curcio and Co. Erik Potholm’s name was added to the marquee in 2003 after he served as the firm’s vice president.
In July 2006, the firm’s advertisement produced for Republican Sen. Mike DeWine’s Ohio re-election campaign drew fire for drawing smoke. The ad criticizing his Democratic opponent Rep. Sherrod Brown’s voting record on national security used a pre-Sept.11 image of the World Trade Center that had been digitally edited to add billowing smoke. The fakery was uncovered by U.S. News and World Report, and the campaign changed the ad when alerted by the magazine, replacing the footage with an unretouched still photo.
In an editorial calling the ad a “$470,000 embarrassment,” The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer wrote “if DeWine and his campaign continue to make such inexcusable mistakes, DeWine will probably soon be referred to as a former senator.”
For his part, DeWine told U.S. News & World Report he would continue to employ the firm, but he “had some very choice words for them that you can’t print in a family magazine when I found out.”