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Blowing a Fuse

A black-owned St. Louis advertising firm is stirring the political pot


Don't let the Silicon Valley feel of Fuse advertising agency's offices fool you. Behind the pool table, the weight room, the leather chairs and couches, is the ad firm that produced a series of racially charged ads that hit the airwaves last week. Bankrolled by a liberal nonprofit group, the ad campaign targets African Americans and accuses the Bush administration of opposing civil rights, wanting to eliminate overtime pay, and attempting to suppress black-voter turnout.

The hard-hitting ad campaign was paid for by The Media Fund, a 527 group (the "527" refers to the portion of the tax code governing all such nonprofit political organizations) that has spent almost $43 million in anti-Bush advertising this year. In its latest blitz, the group is zeroing in on a hard-to-reach demographic: the young, alienated and urban African-American voter.

"We did a lot of research and polling and saw that a voting bloc of younger African Americans are more apt to vote this cycle than they have been in years past," says Sarah Leonard, a spokeswoman for The Media Fund, which is supported largely by philanthropist/ financier George Soros. "We chose to work with Fuse because they have expertise with the demographic we are trying to reach."

As one of the nation's largest African-American-owned advertising firms, St. Louis-based Fuse was an obvious choice to produce the provocative spots. Since its creation in 1997, the left-leaning firm has produced a string of media campaigns directed at specific minority groups, including local publicity for Operation Ceasefire and the Gateway Classic.

"Most of our message is cause-related," explains Shari Franklin, one of Fuse's founding partners. "It understands demographic differences. It recognizes these differences, and then finds the similarities."

Nonetheless, the firm's latest crop of fifteen- and thirty-second television and radio ads, airing in the urban markets of eight battleground states, speaks directly to the black electorate.

"Bush is encouraging factory jobs overseas," the narrator of one of the television spots intones. Meanwhile, the screen reads: "Fifteen percent of the factory jobs held by African Americans have disappeared." The narrator continues: "2.7 million factory jobs have disappeared under Bush. Black youth unemployment is over 30 percent. Don't keep getting played."

Though the folks at Fuse and their 527 backers deny an influence, the current series of punishing ads comes on the heels of a similar campaign funded by an opposing 527, People of Color United. That campaign, which began airing on black radio stations last month, featured a spot castigating Kerry as "rich, white and wishy-washy." Another ad took aim at Teresa Heinz Kerry's claim of being an African American, saying "a white woman, raised in Africa, surrounded by servants" is hardly African American.

Recent polls suggest that only 4 percent of Missouri's African Americans support George Bush. Critics say the People of Color United campaign is designed to encourage blacks to sit on their hands come November 2. "We took the opportunity to rebut that with a set of ads that will set the record straight about Republican voter suppression," says Jamal Simmons, a spokesman for The Media Fund.

At times Fuse's "rebuttal" of the earlier, Kerry-slamming ads is direct. "Bush, the Republican Party and the People of Color United are playing a game," says one radio ad set to air in the battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. "The Republicans want you to sit out this election and simply stay at home.... Who are they fooling? These are the same folks that are against affirmative action, oppose civil rights.... Under Bush, 1.1 million more black folks live in poverty than they did before 2001."

The ads have a rough-hewn look, with a grainy, split-screen America of washed-out colors and sepia tones. There are shots of empty streets and lonely workers, and, on the whole, the spots have a very different feel from the Democrats' traditional appeal to inclusivity and improved race relations.

"It's going to be edgy," says Simmons. "It may unsettle some people, but these are unsettling times. So maybe people will get a little unsettled and feel a little uncomfortable with the ad campaign -- then maybe they should do something to make themselves feel more comfortable."

Of course, that something is what the ad makers and their 527 fund-raisers go to great lengths not to discuss. Under their terms of incorporation, 527s cannot explicitly endorse a specific candidate. They can advocate for issues and flay candidates for their voting and service records -- but they cannot tell an audience for whom to vote.

527 groups have been around for years, but the role they play in election politics changed dramatically in the wake of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill, which limited the amount of money political campaigns can raise.

Unlike in a political campaign, there is no limit to the amount of money a 527 can collect or spend on a given issue. "527s became more important because of the finance caps imposed by McCain-Feingold," explains Steven Puro, a Saint Louis University political-science professor who specializes in political advertising. "Until this election, political advertising was almost the exclusive domain of the political parties or the candidates. But now the parties have been unable to raise soft money in the amount they need for these 'issues' ads."

In other words, both the Bush and Kerry campaigns rely on the activities of 527s, even though election law prohibits communication between 527s and campaigns. 527 groups have come to represent the more partisan, fringe elements of a campaign, while simultaneously keeping the politician above the fray.

"Both campaigns are really emphasizing -- at least in the television commercials -- the middle ground," says Puro, who adds that many 527s focus on single issues and voter groups. "Some of the most controversial ads are put out by the 527s; no one's yelling and screaming at the ads that are put on by Bush or Kerry."

The Media Fund's advertising campaign has already drawn fire from conservative quarters. Former Oklahoma Representative J.C. Watts, an African American, issued a statement on behalf of the Republican National Committee, saying, "John Kerry has no record with the black community, and so his supporters in these shadow groups are launching more of the same unfounded, negative and personal attacks against George W. Bush."

In any case, the makers of the "Don't Keep Getting Played" commercials are courting a demographic that might determine whether Missouri ultimately aligns with the Democrats or the Republicans in November. In a campaign season where recent polls show Bush leading Kerry by a seven-point margin in Missouri, the state's estimated 449,000 potential black voters -- roughly 11 percent of the population aged 18 and older -- might have enough clout to snuff out that lead.

"We're trying to make sure that we communicate with these voters very effectively," says The Media Fund's Simmons. "It's a big prize, especially at a time when we believe that every vote is going to count."

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