Saturday, February 26, 2005

Conservative group to put 9-yr old on the Soc. Sec. stump

Progress for America - the same outfit that ran "Ashley's Story" during the presidential campaign, an emotional ad featuring a girl whose mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks, and that ran misleading attacks on Kerry's voting record - is once again turning to a child to hawk its agenda. The New York Times is reporting that the group will use (I'm tempted to say, exploit) a 9 year old boy to help sell the president's Social Security plan. While "officials say the effort is a lighthearted way to underline Mr. Bush's message" - he'll "travel to a handful of states ahead of visits by the president and will go on radio programs, answer trivia questions and say a few words about Social Security" - there's a serious strategic purpose to the idea. Ultimately, the goal is to "have Noah [the 9-yr old] there as the face of Social Security reform," according to the operative who came up with the idea (more on him below).

Testimonials are always useful for making an issue real to people. A campaign I managed while in college ran an ad featuring a woman who had been raped and became pregnant as a result. She made a powerful appeal to keep abortion legal, which was the hot-button issue in our race. (Importantly, SHE came to US asking what she could do for the campaign and she also happened to be an adult.) We lost, but the race was very close, much closer than it really should have been. Having said that, I think Progress for America's approach in both the Ashley and Noah cases raises some serious ethical questions about the appropriateness of using children for political purposes.

And a footnote to the story: the "brainchild" of the 9 year old stump campaign is Stuart Roy, a former aide to Tom DeLay. Should we be surprised?

UPDATE: The use of children in political ads isn't always problematic. Thousands of candidates, Democrats and Republicans, have shown images of kids playing in a playground or sitting behind desks in school. These nameless (and virtually faceless) children aren't being exploited. But there seems to be something very different about using individual kids as spokespeople (of sorts) for your political agenda.

Since writing the original post, however, I remembered's ad called "Child's Pay," wherein little children are shown working, mostly at jobs requiring manual labor, with a tag line that reads, "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?" And my friend Dale Miller mentioned the Johnson campaign's "Daisy" ad from 1964. Both of these ads seem a more deliberate use of kids to evoke emotion than the typical "students in the classroom" ad. And, yet, the kids aren't offering - under their own names - their personal stories or opinions about the candidates or the issues. So, while MoveOn and the Daisy ad were bumping up against the line, I think they're ethically acceptable.


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