Political ads are often dull, dumb, misleading, or repetitive – and frequently all of the above. But in Bill Hillsman’s hands, they can also be creative, funny, memorable – not to mention effective.
Starting with Paul Wellstone’s first Senate campaign in 1990, Hillsman’s Minnesota-based North Woods Advertising has applied its successful marketing strategies to political candidates like Wellstone, Jesse Ventura and Ralph Nader. Hillsman’s entertaining ads helped those underdogs compete with better-funded and more entrenched candidates. In his new book, “Run the Other Way,” Hillsman shares his experiences working on those campaigns and designing unusual spots that got voters talking. Hillsman shared some stories and lessons from the campaign trail with MotherJones.com.
MotherJones.com: Why haven’t more political campaigns applied the insights of commercial advertising?
Bill Hillsman: They’re still using these concepts that we figured out stopped working back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, then we figured out they didn’t work again in the 1970s. It’s these ads that are sort of research-driven, rote repetition, very little art to them. That technique – which really embodies what most political advertising is — very formulaic and highly repetitive. It just doesn’t work. All it does is telegraph that they’re political commercials. Then, as consumers, our defensive mechanisms against advertising are up right away. And if you telegraph the fact that you’re an ad to somebody, they’ll know right away to ignore it or leave the room to go do something more worthwhile with the next 30-60 seconds of their life.
It really doesn’t have to do so much with the parties as it has to with the practitioners. These practitioners are really lousy at what they do. They wouldn’t be able to do this commercially, which is why they’re stuck doing it politically. But what they’re good at is cronyism. If you follow the personnel that move through the hierarchy of the party committees themselves, and through the consultants and through the advisers to the campaigns, it’s the same people. So consequently, there’s an approved group of consultants for each of the parties, and the parties tend to reward those people who are loyal to the party and who are their friends, basically. It’s not done on the basis of merit, I’ll put it that way.
MJ.com: You say politicians need to do a better job stressing “benefits” over “features.” What do you mean?
BH: If I’m going to be effective as an advertising practitioner, I really have to know what the consumer is thinking, and I have to view things through the eyes of the consumer. Now, most manufacturers, inventors or salespeople — as opposed to marketing people — are stuck on features. They’re stuck on all the great things that make their product what it is; they can’t wait to tell you way more than you ever wanted to know about the features of the product. What they do a lousy job of is converting that to benefits, which is really what consumers are interested in. Nobody really cares so much about the toothpaste as what the toothpaste is going to do: is it going to prevent cavities? Is it going to whiten my teeth? is it going to freshen my breath? etc. Those are the types of things consumers are interested in, while the product itself is just a ways to that end.
Most political practitioners, most campaign managers and most candidates are stuck on the candidates. They’re stuck on who the candidate is, what the background is, and you see very little time spent drawing the connections between what that candidate’s been able to accomplish that’s made a difference in somebody’s day-to-day life.
MJ.com: What do you look for in a candidate when deciding whether to work with them?
BH: They’re sort of self-selecting, since we obviously don’t get referrals from the major parties or from the people in Washington who are currently practitioners. We tend to get more challengers than incumbents, because incumbents are used to getting re-elected with the same methods and teams they’ve used in the past. In many cases, it’s people who do have a better sense than most in politics of business, advertising and marketing, because they understand that how we go about it is very similar to the way it’s done in business. So if it’s somebody who understands commercial marketing, we usually have a leg up versus the Washington practitioners.
MJ.com: How important is a candidate’s ideology to your approach?
BH: I don’t know that it’s all that important. I guess you could say that they’re all sort of renegades, but in each case, it’s a little bit different. Ventura obviously knew that we understood popular culture. In Paul’s case, it was simply because I was the only person he knew in advertising. In Ralph’s case, it was because he felt that with so little money, we would be the best chance of accomplishing the goal that he set out, which was major-party status. In Jack Ryan’s case, he wanted to send a message to the Republicans in Illinois and in DC that he was going to do it his way.
MJ.com: How difficult is it to get candidates on board with your ideas?
BH: The only one who really got it was Ventura. And that’s simply because he was a creature of popular culture. He understood that what we were doing was going to have resonance and traction with people who were interested in popular culture — TV watchers. He’s really the only candidate I’ve had that, at the time we were presenting the work, understood and was enthusiastic about it. With Paul, we actually had to kind of trick him into doing the commercials at first – he wouldn’t put the first commercial on the air. When it finally did get on the air and got such great reaction, then all of a sudden he was willing to let us do more of the things we wanted to do.
Ventura was amazing. With the action-figure commercial, it literally took him two and a half seconds to approve that. And I would say that’s one of the riskiest political commercials that’s been put in front of anybody at any time. Most people would say, “This is crazy. You’ve got kids playing with a doll, and that’s supposed to somehow benefit me as a candidate? I don’t see the connection here.” Most of the time, it would take you so long to explain it not just to the candidate, but to all the advisers who are against these kinds of things all the time. They just keep coming at you in waves with reasons why not to do this stuff. And Ventura just said, “That’s brilliant. We’re doing that for sure. What else do you have?”
MJ.com: How did your approach differ with Nader running as a candidate nationwide in 2000?
BH: We didn’t really have enough money to do a national race. In almost every national race, you’re approaching it the same way you would approach a national marketing campaign, which is to say, I know I’m going to get more of my sales from certain areas, so I’m going to deploy more of my resources in certain areas. In Nader’s case, there were a number of things we could have done differently to get to five percent of the votes, and I’m sure we probably would have. But he didn’t get to what I’d call critical mass in media. You don’t have to spend the type of money that candidates are spending these days, but you do need to get to critical mass. In Ralph’s campaign, the reality of it was we only spent $1.5 million, and $1.2 million of that was spent in the primaries – we only spent about $300,000 in the damn general election.
There were a number of strategic things that we could have done differently that Ralph didn’t want to do. For example, Ralph hated to give money to TV stations, and you have to, if you’re going to campaign on a mass basis. Ralph was enamored of these super-rallies that he would have. He was really happy that he sold out Madison Square Garden, got 17,000 people to show up at Madison Square Garden and got a story on the New York Times’ front page the next day. And I said, “Ralph, you had 17,000 people show up. Let’s assume all 17,000 of those people are going to vote for you – they’re not, but let’s assume that. You need five million votes.” Nobody’s going to talk about it the next day or the day after.” If I had an ad up, it’d be running three or four times a day for at least five or ten days in succession. He was happy he sold out the Rose Garden in Portland with about 10,000 people. It’s a long route if you’re doing it in 10,000-person increments.
MJ.com: How can you tell if an ad is working?
BH: If it’s a very closely contested race, I like to go out to the neighborhoods where I know the swing vote is, and I like to sort of eavesdrop more than anything else. I like to go where the types of people who I’m trying to influence are gathering. And I usually sit there, have something to eat and something to drink and pretend like I’m reading the paper, but actually, I’m listening. And if the commercials are coming through, they’re being talked about, so you know. You don’t need polling data. You also know if you’re doing voter contact phone calls. If you’ve got a good list of undecided voters and the campaign is making phone calls, you can get some very valuable feedback just through the volunteer calls. You’ll know if something’s breaking through or not. That’s the cheap way. The expensive way is to do nightly tracking polls, which are usually wrong anyway.
MJ.com: You say a successful candidate needs to establish credibility and legitimacy. What’s the difference and how is it done?
BH: There’s a credibility that has to come with the candidate himself or herself. For instance, nobody thought Jesse Ventura was lying. From the moment Jesse Ventura got into the race, everybody said he was telling the truth – and he was – and people were amazed at his bluntness. But that’s worth a lot of money, because normally a politician has to overcome this inbred notion amongst voters that he’s a politician and therefore he’s lying. And it usually takes about $10 million worth of media just to get you up to zero on the truth level. With candidates like Jesse, or Paul Wellstone, or Ralph Nader, the prevailing notion among the voters is “this person has nothing to lose by telling the truth. There’s no reason for this person to lie.”
MJ.com: What about legitimacy?
BH:That’s a littler harder to come by, because that’s where the press gets involved. The credibility test has almost everything to do with the candidate, while the legitimacy test has almost everything to do with the campaign, a campaign’s operations and the legitimacy bestowed upon a campaign by the media covering it. Too many independent or third-party candidates just get totally written off by the press because they don’t have enough money or they don’t really have a functioning campaign staff or whatever. That makes it doubly hard for those candidates to ever get out of the starting gate because the press has basically decided there’s no possible way that they can win.
MJ.com: How important is it for a candidate to be likeable?
BH: At least in America, we want our politicians to be approachable, we want them to be relatively friendly, and quite frankly, a lot of politicians aren’t that good at that. But the ones that are can do very, very well simply on the basis of that. I maintain that a big reason why Al Gore underperformed so much in 2000 and George Bush overperformed is all about Bush’s likeability and Gore’s lack of it.
Likeability’s very tough to define, and I think it’s more important in a media sense than even in a person-to-person sense. For instance, Paul Wellstone was a goofy-looking guy – he was short, he had weird hair, he had a weird body type. You’d look at this guy, and you knew he made great contact with crowds in person, but you’d think he’s so weird-looking that when you put him on camera he’s just going to come across weird. But in reality, he was amazing. The camera just loves some people and it doesn’t love others. A guy as goofy-looking as Paul Wellstone, the camera loved him and he had great rapport with people through the camera.
On the other hand, even somebody as good-looking as Jack Ryan — who sort of came straight out of Central Casting — the camera didn’t really love Jack Ryan. He was a good-looking guy, but he was stiff in front of the camera and the camera found that out. It was difficult, whereas in Wellstone’s ads you thought “this is the type of guy I’d like to have in my living room.” People aren’t ready to listen to your 12-step economic program until they’re ready to have you sit down in their living room. First, because they have to believe what you’re telling them about your economic plan is true, and second of all, they have to like you well enough to have you in the room long enough to explain it.
MJ.com: How effective are attack ads?
BH: If you’re running a properly planned campaign, you don’t need to worry that much about attack ads. If you’ve done a good job of targeting, if you’ve done a good job figuring out how many votes you need to win the coming election, and if you’re running your own game plan, you’re going to be successful just running that plan. It doesn’t matter what the competition does. I know people think this is absolute heresy, but we did it in Ventura’s campaign, and to a large degree in Wellstone’s first campaign. I think you should generally ignore those kinds of attacks, because all they do is siphon attention and money away from the job you have to do. Attack ads are effective not because of the attack they’re making on the candidate, but because the campaign overreacts, takes resources that are badly needed and diverts them to fight on a different field, on somebody else’s turf.
If you’re a challenger, if you’re not the incumbent, you almost have to use contrast ads. I think the difference between attack ads and contrast ads is that in a contrast ad you present a fair picture, and give a factually fair comparison between positions on issues between the two candidates. It becomes an attack ad when you’re really stretching the truth and you’re doing these ad hominem, slash-and-burn, exaggerated ads – everything to play off the negative emotional cues. I actually don’t think those work that well; I think you could prove there’s a greater backlash to them than effectiveness. Oftentimes, attack ads “work” simply because they hold down voter turnout. If you’re the campaign that stands to benefit from lower voter turnout, you go on the attack, because it makes people who are not that enamored of the political process anyway just stay home.
MJ.com: Your ads have been successful with these insurgent, independent candidates. What would it take for frontrunners to adopt that approach?
BH: The one thing I can think of that would do that is money. If you had an incumbent in a situation where they had to spend ungodly amounts of money to get re-elected the last time, and didn’t want to be put in that position again – either they couldn’t raise that much money or they just found it so absolutely distasteful that they didn’t want to do it again – that’s about the only way I could see somebody in that position abandoning the expensive, consultant Washington crowd and coming to somebody like us.
I also think we really understand independent voters, lapsed voters, these ones who might or might not vote. As more and more voters gravitate toward being self-described independents, and as the parties have less of a hold on the voting population, you might see more candidates come to us just because we understand the swing vote better than anybody else.
MJ.com: Between Bush and Kerry, which campaign do you expect will do a better job reaching swing voters?
BH: I think Bush’s campaign will be better at it. They were in 2000, the Republicans were absolutely better at that during the 2002 midterm elections, and Bush’s people are just better at it than Kerry’s people. In fact, I don’t think Kerry wins unless some independent groups come in and do a good job with those voters. But if you look at what’s been going on so far with the Media Fund people and the MoveOn people, they can’t get out of the way of themselves. They don’t really know how to do ads that are aimed at these swing voters because they’re not those types of people. So they sort of do these “anybody but Bush” ads that have no real relevance to independents or swing voters. All they’re really doing is spending a lot of money to talk to their base, which is already convinced.