ATLANTA -- No doubt, people hate political TV commercials. So before the 2018 campaign ends, we want to tell the story of what may be the greatest political commercial ever made. It only aired once. And it helped propel the career of one of the state’s best known politicians. It aired 26 years ago.
Nathan Deal was in a political dogfight in 1992. He was a state legislator trying to make the leap from the state Capitol to the US Congress.
The incumbent, Democrat Ed Jenkins had retired from the seat, which covered north Georgia from Alabama to South Carolina. Nathan Deal – who was then a Democrat – wanted to replace him. But so did Tom Ramsey, another Democrat who had actually been in the legislature longer than Deal had. Asked last month of he should have been the front runner in that race, Ramsey said: "Should have been yes. Yep. Should have been." But he went on to say that such predeterminations are easily upended in politics.
"It was a tough race," Deal, who is about to retire from politics after eight years as Georgia's governor, told us of the '92 race. "And we were running short on money."
But Ramsey wasn’t broke. He had enough campaign money to buy 30 minutes of air time on a Chattanooga TV station two days before his primary runoff with Deal. "We were going to do what would be in today’s parlance an infomercial," Ramsey said.
Ramsey would appear in a studio before a friendly audience answering easy questions and talking about why he should be in Congress and not Nathan Deal. So Deal’s media consultant got an idea: Let’s buy a thirty second commercial that runs immediately before Ramsey’s infomercial.
"Oh, it was clever. I’ll give you that. It was clever," said Ramsey. He still lives in Chatsworth and unlike Deal, still calls himself a Democrat.
With an audience tuned in to see Tom Ramsey’s infomercial, what they saw beforehand is what may be the greatest single thirty-second political commercial ever. The actual commercial is lost to history.
But it was thirty seconds of what TV folks call "bars and tone." Mostly vertical bars of color, followed by a 1000 hertz tone -- the equivalent of what used to be called a "test pattern." Ramsey, who was in the studio preparing for his infomercial, didn't see it on-air. But he heard about it shortly after his 30 minute program went off the air.
"It was just the tone and bars and that was it," Ramsey said. "That just simply looked as if the tv station was off the air. And I had people tell me, 'well I tuned in to watch you. But the station was off.' And no, it wasn't. It was just a commercial."
Deal still chuckles about the gambit, 26 years later. "In hindsight at least, I thought it was a rather easy way to divert attention without being mean," Deal said. "It was a unique approach."
Neither Deal nor Ramsey believe the commercial was the decisive factor in the primary runoff. Nor is either man willing to describe it as the greatest commercial of all time. But neither says he can name a single 30 second TV ad in the campaign that was more effective.
"And it wasn’t personal. It wasn’t vindictive. It didn’t talk about personal life or anything like that. It was just a pretty darn good political trick when you sit back twenty five years and look at it. It was a pretty darn good political trick," Ramsey said.
"It wasn’t fun at the time." Ramsey said the trick angered him
Deal won the runoff, won a total of nine terms in congress – and then went on to do a little more time at the state capitol.