In the Media
'Softer Voices' Aims Commercials At Women Voters
By Luiza Savage
New York Sun - Oct. 21, 2004
Two New York women are behind a unique political ad aimed at convincing mothers that only President Bush can keep their children safe. Their nascent political advocacy group, Softer Voices, is part of a broader conservative effort to close the gender gap that has traditionally favored Democrats.
The key is turning terrorism into a bedrock women's issue, say Lisa Schiffren and Heather Higgens. If the group succeeds, they plan to use this election as a springboard to create a conservative women's coalition to fight the possible 2008 presidential candidacy of Senator Clinton, among other things.
So far, their carefully crafted pitch stands out from the raging sea of campaign noise with its calm and reassuring tone reflected in the group's name - one they admit is not without irony, since their own voices are not known for softness.
The public face of the group, Ms. Schiffren, is a Republican speechwriter perhaps best known for Vice President Quayle's censure of Murphy Brown, the unwed television character who had a baby on the show of the same name. Ms. Schiffren again raised a stir last spring by describing the flight suit-clad president as "hot, as in virile, sexy, and powerful" in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Another driving force behind the project is Ms. Higgins, the chairwoman of the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group whose mission is "to combat the women-as-victim, pro-big-government ideology of radical feminism." The group counts Lynne Cheney as a past director.
Backed by donors who came up with $300,000 in two weeks, and using an ad firm whose roster of conservative clients includes the influential Club for Growth, they may stand a greater chance than most of being heard through the cacophony of campaign rhetoric.
"We have both believed forever that there is a large swath of conservative women who may not be doctrinally conservative or think of themselves as political at all, but whose instincts and views on the big issues are conservative. Nobody speaks to them or for them," said Ms. Schiffren in a telephone interview as she waited for her son to finish soccer practice.
Both she and Ms. Higgins have three young children. Their roles as mothers have given them a heightened interest in the war on terrorism, Ms. Schiffren said.
They also see a watershed opportunity to take their case to other women in the wake of the school siege in Beslan, Russia, in which hundreds of schoolchildren were slaughtered by Chechen rebels.
"After Beslan this summer, I don't think any woman in this country hasn't thought once or twice about what they would do if their kid's school was taken over. ... I was on vacation in the country when it happened, and I couldn't bring myself to read the stories, and I couldn't not read them. However you want to put it, I thought, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I,'" she said.
Reaching similar mothers requires a new voice, Ms. Schiffren said, citing public-opinion research that showed early pro-Bush campaign ads were viewed as too "gung ho and militaristic."
The task also required a different messenger. The well-known conservative women who populate television talk shows, such as the author Anne Coulter, are not necessarily the best emissaries for conservative-leaning moms, she said.
"I love Anne. I think she does a fabulous job making her case. At the same time, I'm not 100% sure she speaks to and for moms with kids. You need Anne out there, and you also need the kind of more sober middle-aged women with families who are dealing with the world from a different bent," she said.
The women behind Softer Voices include several mothers and a grandmother, the author Midge Decter, who penned a biography of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.
"I don't think screaming works, not with women. They want people to be sensible and give them reasoned argument. That's one reason we eschewed anything abrasive," Ms. Higgins said.
To figure out what would work for its ads, Softer Voices held focus groups and hired ad-maker Jonathan Baron to sculpt their message to those women. The result is a TV spot that begins with a globe spinning through space, and zooms in on the patchwork fields of an unnamed rural American state through which three young children are running.
"In the war on terrorism, America knows our enemies are here, planning, waiting, watching... The threat is real, the dangers are great. Who will lead the fight for our freedoms, who will defend our families? Who can America trust to win the war on terrorism?" says a male narrator who concludes that the answer is George W. Bush.
The group has spent $250,000 to run the ad in Toledo, Ohio; Pittsburg, and Washington, D.C.
According to Mr. Baron, the spinning globe reflects "the nation and the earth hanging in the balance." The view from space is meant to communicate "a greater perspective, seeing the issues across space and time." The children are not just children, but are meant to invoke "future generations."
Mr. Baron calls the ad "a pause in the cacophony, a quiet moment."
The male voice-over was not chosen because research showed that "women sometimes better react better to information from men than women. We didn't want people to think they were being instructed or talked to by a colleague or peer, but a person with a vast overview of the landscape," he said.
Ms. Higgins said the idea was that the voice be "God-like."
The ad's effectiveness remains to be seen, but Ms. Schiffren said she is convinced that women who would not have voted Republican in the past will consider doing so this year.
"I think there are a lot of people in New York City, including many Upper West Side Jews, who are voting for Bush, both because he is pro-Israel and they were here and knew that happened, and it trumps the other issues," she said.
Ms. Higgins also sees a future for the Softer Voices group.
"Our goal is to stay in business after this election, through the next election, where national security will be a significant issue, and we will have a stronger Democratic candidate who will present her case for opposing war better than this candidate does," she said, referring to Mrs. Clinton, whom she called "polished and disciplined" and a "political genius."
"It will be interesting to see if women respond," Ms. Schiffren said.
Reprinted with permission.