Getting sued by AFLAC Inc. apparently has been one of the best things to happen to Ohio gubernatorial underdog Tim Hagan.
Publicity surrounding the Democratic challenger's flap with the insurer has been largely responsible for 1.2 million visits to TaftQuack.com, the Web site Hagan put up to ridicule Republican Gov. Bob Taft's commercials, according to Hagan's senior campaign consultant, Jerry Austin.
“TaftQuack on its own was out of the box,” Austin said. “Getting AFLAC to do what they did made it even bigger and better. We wouldn't have received the national attention without it.”
Besides appearing in media throughout Ohio, TaftQuack.com has been on “The Tonight Show” twice and Fox morning news. What's more, since launching the Internet-only campaign Aug. 29, Hagan's camp has closed the polling gap on Taft by 8 to 11 percentage points, Austin said.
The site features commercials with a cartoon character consisting of Taft's head on a white duck's body with a yellow duckbill superimposed on his face. In one spot, as Hagan offers point-by-point rebuttals of Taft's commercials, the duck character flaps his wings and says “Taft Quack!”
But AFLAC is not amused. The company since early 2000 has used a white duck with a yellow bill shouting “Aaaaa-Flaaack” to drive consumer awareness. Company officials have credited the mascot with giving AFLAC 90 percent name recognition in the United States.
On Sept. 9, Austin received a letter from the Columbus, GA, insurer complaining that TaftQuack.com infringed on AFLAC's trademark.
Austin said he initially tried to work with AFLAC by proposing to change the duck's color and voice, but that AFLAC made too many demands.
AFLAC claims it is simply protecting its investment in the duck.
“There's a possibility that someone could look at these ads and be led to believe that we are endorsing Mr. Hagan,” said AFLAC spokeswoman Abby Spinello.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen O'Malley in mid-September refused to grant AFLAC a temporary restraining order on TaftQuack.com, saying Hagan's ads are political speech protected by the First Amendment.
AFLAC, an acronym for American Family Life Insurance Co., is still seeking a permanent injunction blocking the ads. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 10 in Cleveland.
For Austin, Oct. 10 and the accompanying publicity can't come soon enough. He said lawyers representing Hagan in the suit have capped their fee at $3,000, and that he couldn't begin to put a price tag on the publicity TaftQuack.com has received.
At press time, the Hagan camp was producing its fourth Internet-only commercial slated to be up by this week called “Meet the Duck,” a takeoff on “Meet the Press.”
Outgunned in campaign funds 14 to 1, Austin determined that a television campaign would be too expensive for Hagan to make any headway before the election Nov. 5. Taft reportedly has $8.4 million compared with Hagan's reported $600,000.
“It was obvious we were not going to be able to compete with the incumbent in terms of buying TV time,” said Austin, estimating that from Oct. 1 to Nov. 5 there will be $17 million to $20 million spent by candidates on television in Ohio. “For me to break through, I would need at least $1 million. If I'm not going to have that, why buy any TV at all?”
Austin said the first ad cost about $10,000 to produce and that subsequent ones have cost $3,500 to $5,000 each.
“When I produce ads for the Internet, I am not confined by 30- or 60-second intervals,” he said. “No. 2, I do not have to back up each spot with $1 million in TV time. Therefore, I have the ability to do as many spots as I want.” The site is also collecting e-mail addresses and soliciting donations.
Though Hagan remains a long shot, Austin thinks the Internet can dramatically affect political campaigning.
“If Tim Hagan wins this race or even comes close, it will say that campaign politics as usual is over, that there is a way to do this without having to raise these enormous amounts of money,” Austin said.
TaftQuack.com also may help Hagan drive his message home more efficiently than television ads would. Visitors spend on average from four to eight minutes on the site, Austin said.
Meanwhile, the Taft camp has struck back at Hagan with an Internet cartoon campaign of its own: “Taxin' Tim.” In it, a cigarette-smoking cartoon character that looks like Hagan with a yellow duck looking over his shoulder plays a slot machine that rings up the cost of Hagan's proposals, such as allowing horse racing tracks to install video lottery terminals, and sounds off a buzzer.
“When You Gamble With Ohio's Future, Voters Lose, Tim,” the ad finishes.