Election Day is still a few weeks away, but the 2010 campaign season has already produced plenty of memorable—or at least unforgettable—political ads. We called a couple of veterans of the campaign advertising wars for their opinions of a few selected ads from earlier this year, plus their thoughts on what makes for a great political spot. Bill Hillsman is the head of North Woods Advertising and the creator of campaign ads for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, and Texas troubadour-turned-gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman. Fred Davis is the head of Strategic Perception Inc. and has filmed ads for the Bush-Cheney campaign and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); he's also the brains behind what may be this season's most famous spot so far, California Republican senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina's "Demon Sheep" ad. Roll tape:
1) "GATHER YOUR ARMIES" - Rick Barber (R, Alabama congressional candidate):
Bill Hillsman: They try to be more Hollywood than they can really pull off. There are some shots that are nice, but most of it is just kind of dark and confusing. I think it is very difficult for people to get what the candidate is really talking about. By the end of the thing I didn't know who he was, I didn't know what he was running for. I just knew that he was in favor of revolution. Voters these days are not going to sit through 60 seconds or more of something to try to figure something out unless it's awfully, awfully, awfully interesting.
Is there any advantage to creating an ad that gets seen by a lot of people outside of your district even if they are watching it merely because they think it is silly or they don't like it?
BH: When we were doing Kinky Friedman's campaign four years ago in Texas, we got a tremendous amount of national publicity, international publicity—tons of views on YouTube for stuff that we were doing. But it didn't help. There is the school of thought that says there is no such thing as bad publicity, and certainly a lot of these things come from that school of thought.
Fred Davis: I thought it was too far afield, big stretch. I guess the word "corny" would come to mind.
MJ: Would you ever work on an ad that tries to channel historical figures like that?
FD: If I did, I would do it so differently from that. That's a high-risk strategy, because the corniness factor is really hard to overcome, and I don't think politics works very well with corny.
Fred Davis: You know, I was surprised that the first ad wasn't more effective in Alabama. It certainly got a lot of attention nationwide. I thought it was interesting and colorful, but he must not have run much of a campaign. I've done a lot of work in Alabama and that's the kind of thing that gets attention down there, and it gets positive attention. So I thought the follow-up was probably a fairly clever take-off on the first one. My gut tells me it would have been more effective if the guy won.
Bill Hillsman: They are trying to do something artful with these cuts, where they cut in closer and closer on the guy, but it is really poorly done, and it has the effect of seeming like they were cutting things up to make him say certain things or to make him say something more effectively. But the real problem with the spot is what we used to talk about, the thing in commercial marketing called "vampire video." And that would be: If you have a spokesperson that is receiving all the attention, then the message gets lost. If I'm the McMillan guy, do I want this guy endorsing me? Hell yeah, because he's kind of a phenomenon. But mostly, that ad is about the Peterson brand—it is not about McMillan.
3) "THE SWITCH" - Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa., Senate candidate):
Fred Davis:I thought it was brilliant. Nothing's better than being able to bury your opponent with his own words. I'm afraid really Arlen [Spector] gets the credit for providing them the opportunity for brilliant. That's such a no-brainer quote to kill him on. Man, to have that quote, I probably wouldn't have run any other ads. I'd just run that over, and over and over again.
Bill Hillsman: That one was good. It's very damning. We did something similar in '06 when we did Ned Lamont's race [against Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman]. We basically took George W. Bush speaking and then morphed Bush into Joe Lieberman speaking. So by the end of the commercial it was Lieberman's mouth moving, but it was Bush's voice. And this comes out of that same vein. Anytime you have got your opponent doing something as basically stupid as what Arlen Specter was caught saying, of course you go back to that well again and again and again.
MJ: Ads like this usually make no mention of the challenger's position. It's purely negative.
BH: Oh yeah. But advertising is not supposed to be fair.
4) "WHAT IT'S LIKE" - Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.):
Bill Hillsman:It was well shot. I didn't quite get why everything was overhead. The lighting is nice. But I still don't think it was that effective of a message. It was a good way of making her look anti-Washington even though she is the Washington incumbent. And this whole "one tough lady"—I just don't get all these women trying to be so tough all the time. Pretty soon we are going to see an ad with a woman in it that is like the Dale Peterson ad—she'll be shooting everybody. [This ad came out shortly afterwards.] And I guess—I'm sure this is fake—but they had a dollar, they had one of these fake bills, on top of her head. That basically makes you go, "Why does she have that thing on her head?"
Fred Davis:One of the most effective of this cycle. I thought it was really brilliant. [The ad maker] was faced with a really bizarre communications problem. She was kind of detested in Arkansas. She was detested on the Hill. And people simply didn't like her. It was time for her to go. He needed to do something dramatic to change the prevailing wind. And that ad was so weird and out of left field that I think it did a spectacular job of it. I thought it was a bizarrely creative ad. I came away from it thinking, No. 1, wise move, because you're changing the subject; No. 2, she comes off very nice in it; and No. 3, she comes off very Arkansas-oriented versus DC-oriented.
5) "OBAMACARE" - Dan Fanelli (R, Florida congressional candidate):
Fred Davis:I vaguely remember it. That's a bad sign, that I only vaguely remember it. I didn't think it was ultra special.
Bill Hillsman: It was overacted and it didn't feel very authentic. I actually kept waiting for the funny part at the end. If we would have done that ad there would have been something like, "But I was only 42 when I started waiting." I just think the people who make political commercials don't understand that people are used to seeing really good acting and really artful things in film and TV and even product commercials. And the message was a little hard to understand. It took for granted that the audience would know more about the health care bill than they probably did. I think we make the mistake sometimes—especially with swing voters and independent voters who don't pay that much attention—we think that it is easy enough to fill this stuff in. I'm not sure that that is true.
6) "THE CULTURE OF THE HAIR" - Andy McKenna (R, Illinois gubernatorial candidate):
(Directed by Fred Davis.)
MJ: The next one up is yours.
Fred Davis:Then I bet it's brilliant. [Laughs.]
MJ: Where'd the idea to use the hair as a character come from?
FD: These things just pop into my head and I have no clue where they come from. I try to do something iconic as best I can in anything we do. We had to have some icon for the culture of corruption. And so I started thinking about Blagojevich and his hair, and one thing led to another and within five minutes I'd written it. As long as we were running those [ads] we were dramatically ascending in the polls. As soon as they started talking about issues, the numbers leveled off. So the hair worked. Andy did not work. And that's why he didn't win.
MJ: So you think if they'd stuck with hair, more hair—
FD: I think he'd win. He's a great guy. Here's the sad thing. He would have made by far the best governor of all the options in Illinois.
Bill Hillsman: Because creativity is so absolutely rare in political spots, if there is just one halfway creative or funny thing in an ad, then everybody goes, "Oh hey, what a great ad!" And the only good thing about that was the term "culture of the hair" and the visual of Blagojevich hair on the Capitol. But after that, they didn't do anything with it. There is no reason for someone to ever watch that commercial again. One of the things that we pioneered was that since you are going to see the commercial more than once, hopefully, put something in there that is rewarding each time somebody sees the commercial. If you know it is a one-trick pony and the joke is at the beginning, you are not hanging around after that anymore. If you know there is something funny at the end, you might sit through all of the crap in the middle just to see that and get another giggle out of it.
7) "BLUEGRASS VALUES" - Rand Paul (R, Kentucky Senate):
Fred Davis: I thought it was exactly the right thing to do, because they were totally overlooking his shortfall, which was he could be perceived as a little bit of a right-wing nut. And so instead of putting him on talking about immigration and a gun over his shoulder like the guy in Alabama, they made him into a legitimate politician by not just doing the typical political ad, but doing a nice job of the typical political ad—prettier than most. I think if that's the kind of campaign he ran, I see why he won [the primary]. He didn't do what would be expected like the two that I am most aware of, J.D. Hayworth in Arizona and Chuck DeVore in California. Both of them were trying to kind of be the right-wing nutcase, and they ran right-wing nutcase ads. Had they tried to be more legit, they probably would have done better.
Bill Hillsman:I'm going to say something that I probably have never ever said before in my life. If you ever wanted to actually strategically have a very conventional political commercial, this was the time to do it. I think the more that you could normalize Rand Paul by making him look like every other politician, the better it was going to be for Rand Paul in that particular race. So it is one of the few times where I would say the candidate actually benefits from looking like a regular, kind of run-of-the-mill politician. By running a commercial that looks like every other political spot, showing the kind, gentle Rand Paul, the medium becomes the message. We ran into something similar with Jesse Ventura. You had to make the guy okay enough for people to vote for, so they don't think they are getting into a freak-show situation.
8) "GET OREGON ROLLING" - Bill Bradbury (D, Oregon governor):
Bill Hillsman: Everybody seems to have a fetish with how candidates get around—their transportation. We are as guilty of this as anyone else; we had Wellstone in the Green Bus. And in Oregon, I think they have a fetish with disability, because I remember the guy with the hook instead of the arm was running the last time. And somebody did a pretty good spot with him using the hook as a bottle opener.
MJ: I thought it was interesting that Bradbury would put his illness front and center in the ad.
BH: I think that makes total sense, because it is not like you are going to be able to hide it. You do want to get it out there early so that somebody else can't make an issue out of it. If you show him just behind the desk or something, that doesn't help. So it is interesting from that point of view.
Fred Davis: I thought it was a very smart thing for them to do given his situation.
9) "HOT AIR: THE MOVIE" - Carly Fiorina (R, California Senate):
Bill Hillsman: It's way better than the stupid demon sheep thing that he did. They obviously spent a fair amount of money on this because the special effects are really well done. I love how they have Barbara Boxer speaking through the whole thing. It is really done well on a lot of levels. But it would be hard for somebody in this day and age to sit through that whole thing. The other problem with it was that—I mean, I get that Carly Fiorina smiles a lot, but she doesn't have to smile all the time. She was smiling so hard it looked like it hurt. And certainly she has a better resume than that, but if you watch that commercial somebody would go, "Oh, she is the smiler."
MJ: The ad paints Barbara Boxer to be really grotesque. Can you make an ad that makes your candidate seem too mean?
BH: Oh, yeah. We actually pitched an ad to Lamont in 2006 that was very similar to this in which Joe Lieberman was floating above these various groups at fundraisers saying he was mighty and all-powerful Joe Lieberman. But we never did that one, we did a different one where a Lieberman lookalike keeps running into a brick wall all the time. I really liked what Fred did with that, because I was trying to think of how we would have done it four years ago. But to do something that grotesque, I don't think that's a real big problem.
Fred Davis:Here's the thinking behind that: That was done months before the demon sheep ad. It was seen as the initial salvo, the initial fire across the bow of the primary campaign. It was very purposely derived to be a contrast directly with Barbara Boxer and not mention our [primary] opponent. We wanted to, from day one, position ourselves as the opposite of Barbara Boxer and as the anti-Barbara Boxer.
MJ: If you were running Boxer's campaign, how would you respond to that movie?
FD: I'm not going to tell them that! I think they did a really good job on their follow-up piece to the demon sheep ad. It's great. But very key point: We got a million views on original and I think they got 5 or 600 on the follow-up. It was cute as it can be, but it wasn't new. You gotta do new. So if they're going to try to do blimp two, clearly that isn't going to work. They gotta do something different.
MJ: Sounds like you'd like to see more creativity, more humor in political ads.
FD: No, I'd like to see none, because it works fabulously and I'd like to be the only supplier that knows that! [Laughs.]
Back in 2004, filmmaker Errol Morris made a series of brilliantly simple political ads for MoveOn. Modeled after the Apple "Switch" ads, they featured Republicans explaining why they wouldn't be voting for George W. Bush again. A couple of the ads aired, but otherwise the campaign fizzled, and the rest is history. Morris described the experience as "horrible" when I spoke with him...