Will Heisman campaigns turn to attack ads?

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
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College football cartoonKurt Snibbe/ESPN.com

Athletic programs have run promotional campaigns for their Heisman Trophy candidates since at least 1970, when Notre Dame suggested Joe Theismann change the pronunciation of his name (it originally was pronounced Thees-man) so that it would rhyme with the most prestigious award in football.

Notre Dame wasn’t alone in its campaigning that year. Mississippi sent out dolls, bumper stickers and recordings of the “Ballad of Archie Manning’’ to pump its candidate. Alas, both Theismann and Manning finished behind winner Jim Plunkett, partially due to a Stanford promotional brochure that courted sympathy by prominently mentioning Plunkett’s blind parents.

Songs, dolls, bumper stickers, brochures and posters seem as quaintly old-school these days as a bowl game without a corporate sponsor. They also seldom work. To mount an effective campaign that sways Heisman voters, athletic departments must take a lesson from modern politics and run negative ads.

As we see over and over again each campaign season, what your candidate will do in office is not nearly as important as blasting your opponent for what he or she already has done or will do. If you have to distort the truth a little (or a lot), so what? The key is keeping the voters outraged and scared at all times.

With the Heisman Trophy winner being announced Saturday, these are the attack ads shrewd schools should have run against the three finalists:

Attack ad No. 1

We see a video of freshman Johnny Manziel’s smiling face on a "Johnny Football" poster. The image grows darker, however, as it is first replaced by an unflattering A&M yearbook photo from last year, then a fake driver’s license and finally a big question mark that obscures Manziel’s entire face. As the video plays, we hear an ominous voice.

“Texas A&M boasts that Johnny Manziel could become the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy. But is he truly a freshman? This is Manziel’s second year at A&M, and even the Aggies’ own website states he will be a junior academically this spring. And last summer when the quarterback was jailed for disorderly conduct, he gave officers a driver’s license that stated Manziel was actually 21. And even though Manziel supposedly has lived his entire life in Texas, he gave the police a Louisiana driver’s license.

“Who is ‘Johnny Football,’ really? And why has he yet to produce his long-form birth certificate?

“We can’t trust Johnny Manziel, A&M’s alleged ‘freshman.’ Vote instead for experience. Vote for fifth-year senior quarterback Collin Klein.”

(Paid for by Wildcats Birthers for Experience and Integrity.)

Attack ad No. 2

We see video of Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein throwing interception after interception in Kansas State’s upset loss to Baylor. The video grows darker until it finishes with Klein walking slowly off the field, his head down and the scoreboard showing the final score: Baylor 52, Kansas State 24. Throughout the video, we hear an ominous voice.

“Kansas State likes to tell you how converted receiver Collin Klein lifted the Wildcats from mediocrity. How the quarterback’s combination of running and passing took K-State to the very top of the BCS standings this season. But what the Wildcats don’t mention is how Klein reacted after that. How when he reached the top, Klein suddenly developed a nasty case of vertigo. How when the quarterback had the chance to send K-State to the BCS title game, he choked. How he threw three interceptions in a 52-24 loss to Baylor, a team that was unranked and had a losing record at the time.

“Is this the way a Heisman Trophy winner plays when it matters most? By flopping against a losing team? We don’t think so. Don’t vote for a loser. Vote for a champion. Vote for Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o.’’

(Paid for by Our Lady of Spin.)

Attack ad No. 3

We see a montage of great college scoring plays. Sixty-yard bombs. Eighty-yard dashes while breaking multiple tackles. Improbable 100-yard kick returns. The Play from the 1982 Cal-Stanford game. The video eventually shifts to a shot of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o simply standing idle on the sidelines while an ominous voice speaks.

“Notre Dame says Manti Te’o should be the Heisman Trophy winner, but how many touchdowns has he ever scored? Zero. That’s right. In his four years at Notre Dame, Te’o never created a single touchdown. Not one. America did not become the greatest nation on earth by sitting around, playing defense, building walls and isolating ourselves while the rest of the world took control. Notre Dame can talk all it wants about the value of ‘defense,’ but offense wins championships. You have to score to win a game -- and Manti Te’o never has.

“Vote for a touchdown creator. Vote for Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.’’

(Paid for by Aggies for a Strong America.)

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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