Variety editorial

Coming soon to a polling place near you: Election 2004!

Political campaigns are being waged like tentpole-movie ad blitzes. Democrats and Republicans want their contenders to be four-quadrant candidates; they want 100% awareness of their campaign messages. At the first sign of vulnerability, they panic and flood the airwaves with millions of dollars in TV ads.

Last week, both parties aired their first attack ads in what promises to be a long, combative race for the White House. There are new calls to regulate such spending, and to rein in TV ads by partisan groups like MoveOn.org and Citizens United.

Watchdog groups are right to worry about the pervasive influence of soft money on public policy. But the debate over campaign advertising is a sideshow.

Movie studios long ago learned that the right TV blitz may goose opening-weekend grosses, but if the product doesn’t have the goods, the public will stay away. In other words, you can buy the public’s attention, but not its affection. You can stir up audience interest in a film, but you can’t convince them they enjoyed it, and word of mouth moves quickly.

It’s the same with political ads. Last week, Republicans cried foul that groups like MoveOn.org were outspending the RNC in some TV markets by exploiting a loophole in the new campaign-finance laws. Dems complain it’s hard to compete with a Bush war chest topping $100 million.

But campaign advertising will prove tough to regulate. Both parties keep finding new ways to throw money at the process..

TV ads may sway some voters, but in a tight election like this one, the real catalysts will be the debates, the party conventions and such unforeseeable external events as last week’s terrorist attack in Madrid and the state of the economy come November.

You can’t buy an Oscar, you can’t buy a movie audience’s enthusiasm and you can’t buy a presidential election.

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