Election 2000 was a political advertising wastelan

Election 2000 was a political advertising wasteland, devoid of the innovative ads from past years. There was no memorable Ronald Reagan “Bear” spot. No hard-hitting Lyndon Johnson “Daisy” ad. No riveting photo of a young William Jefferson Clinton shaking hands with John F. Kennedy. With Madison Avenue’s creative minds reined in by political strategists, the advertising amounted to annoying background noise.

This was a race where advertising was supposed to make a difference. With George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore running in a dead heat, each candidate desperately needed one simple, inspiring message to reach undecided voters. Both failed, despite an estimated $160 million spent on ads in the presidential race.

“You always wish you had that one great spot people will talk about for years and years, and maybe we didn’t do that,” says Young & Rubicam president and chief creative officer Jim Ferguson, who prepared ads for President-elect Bush.

In fact, Ferguson’s favorite spots never ran. The Bush campaign decided early on not to sling mud, and two spots were deemed too negative against Bill Clinton. One featured an image of flagpoles without flags to show how pride had been stripped from the White House—an obvious reference to the Monica Lewinsky affair. A second showed children being asked what they want to be when they grow up. No one mentioned president.

Gore’s biographical ad, titled “1969,” which showed the candidate as a young man in Vietnam, tried the emotional pitch to make voters feel good about him. But the spot lacked a clear vision of how Gore would lead and was lost in the blitzkrieg of informational ads that bombarded voters in the crucial swing states.

“People look for the moments when you can peer inside people’s souls,” says Donny Deutsch, who provided creative input for the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1992. “But the images are so stereotyped at this point. I think political advertising is wallpaper.”

Part of the dilemma lies in the tension that exists when creative ad teams hunker down with political consultants to hammer out ad strategy. The consultants, or “politicos,” say the true measure of a good advertising idea is based on research captured through polling data and focus-group feedback. Madison Avenue creatives counter that emphasis on the math ignores the need for a strong, uplifting message.

“There are too many numbers and too little guts,” says Valerie Graves, svp and chief creative officer of the Uniworld Group, which also worked on Clinton’s 1992 campaign. “In the end, it’s about creating love. You have got to make them love your guy.”

The experts insist it can be done. They point to former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole. How can a relaxed and funny Dole now make effective commercials for Visa and Wal-Mart when the only image voters ever got from his candidacy was a stiff and wooden guy?

“You can do inventive, authentic, honest advertising that makes you feel you know this candidate,” argues John Adams, CEO of The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. “Bob Dole for Visa is a hell of a lot more interesting than Bob Dole for Bob Dole.”

None of the ads in the Bush/Gore battle changed voters’ thinking because they relied too heavily on tired formulas that have been used to market presidents for the last 25 years, says Adams. Formula one is the candidate discussing complex issues through the inadequate medium of a 30-second sound bite. This was the basic format for every Bush and Gore spot that addressed their positions on taxes, education, social security and healthcare, which comprised the bulk of the advertising following the political conventions.

The solution? More humor and old-fashioned storytelling, like the successful interactive spots from Portland, Ore.-based Wieden + Kennedy for Nike’s Air Cross Trainer II, says Adams. Sprinter Marion Jones, snowboarder Rob Kingwill and slugger Mark McGwire appeared in spots with cliffhanger endings in which viewers were invited to continue the action at a Nike Web site.

“Startle people with honesty, and then refer them to a Web site where they get a decent discussion of the issues,” Adams says.

Formula two is the tactic of representing the opponent’s position in a way the viewer understands to be partly true—then take it out of context. The most blatant example was a harsh attack ad sponsored by the Republican National Committee and approved by Bush. It was pulled by Bush just before airing because it used misleading excerpts from a 1994 Gore interview. The ad, which had already been sent to 350 TV stations, featured a stammering Gore telling viewers that President Clinton never told a lie. The footage was taken from an interview six years earlier, before Clinton met Lewinsky.

“The problem is that political advertising is a formula-prone business, but the very nature of successful advertising is that it is anti-formulaic,” says Adams.

Praise is heaped by creative experts on Ralph Nader’s “Priceless Truth” spot for being the only ad in the presidential campaign to abandon formulas. The spot parodied the well-known work for MasterCard created by McCann-Erickson. But it also prompted a $5 million federal lawsuit from the credit-card company against Nader. The subsequent publicity gave the spot greater exposure beyond its limited media buy at a time when the Nader campaign was pushing to get its candidate into the presidential debates.

William Hillsman, chief creative officer of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis and creator of the Nader spot, says the Bush and Gore ads failed because the camps were afraid to take risks. “There was this sit-on-the-ball strategy and run-out-the-clock [idea] and hope somebody else makes a mistake,” he says.

The trick is to embrace negative advertising, not reject it, says Hillsman. He believes well-executed negative messages will not prompt the voter backlash that presidential campaigns fear. While working on the Nader campaign, Hillsman offered to prepare negative ads against Bush for the Democratic National Committee. He had a roster of ideas. As head of a drilling company, Bush couldn’t find oil in Texas. As head of a baseball team, Bush traded Sammy Sosa. And there were also the arrests for drunk driving. “We thought of doing a scorecard,” Hillsman says. “Which ticket had more arrests? We would have driven Bush’s numbers down and had the whole country laughing.”

The Democrats, still smarting over Hillsman’s past work for Jesse Ventura and his involvement with the Nader campaign, stuck with political consultants. Veteran Robert Shrum scored a triple play when he was hired to run New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine’s successful Senate bid, in addition to preparing ads for Gore and the DNC. Shrum, along with political advisers Carter Eskew and Bill Knapp, were not about to rock the boat with edgy creative. They were busy trying to reinvent Gore’s image.

The “Rats” ad, one of the few negative spots in the campaign, was given high marks by the experts for recall, but raised questions about using technology to manipulate voters. In a Republican National Committee ad attacking Gore’s healthcare proposal, the word “rats” in the phrase “bureaucrats decide” was increased in size and flashed briefly. The association Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos wanted viewers to draw was bureaucrats are rats—and so are Democrats.

Advertising analysts objected because the spot “primed” viewers to think negatively about Democrats, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied political advertising. Jamieson argues that political ad makers like Castellanos should not deliberately use technology to distort messages in a way that is not easily detectable by the viewer.

The “Rats” ad may have stood out in the electronic din, but did it change anyone’s mind about who he or she would vote for? David Angelo, chief creative officer of davidandgoliath in Los Angeles and another veteran of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, thinks not. “It didn’t give me a compelling reason to think otherwise. The purpose of the ads is to get people to change their minds,” he says. “I really believe negative advertising, if done right with parody or poking fun, would not be perceived as a bad thing by the public. Consumers love that stuff.”

Angelo points to the Snicker’s ad BBDO created for Mars. A young guy enters a voting booth and then a small, animated donkey jumps on his left shoulder while an animated elephant hops on his right. “My dad was president,” the elephant says. “Big deal,” says the donkey. “My dad was a senator.” “I can wear my dad’s pants,” the elephant responds. “I invented pants,” the donkey rejoins.

Perhaps politicians take themselves too seriously for this kind of banter. “When the politicos talk about a great ad, what they mean is the strategy was right and they had enough money to get it across,” says Tom Messner of Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, who worked on George H. W. Bush’s campaign in 1988.

Messner says this approach actually paid off in critical swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, which went to Gore, and even played a role in making Florida as close as it was. “Pennsylvania has an aging population; they made people see social security as a Gore message,” he says. “In Michigan, where there is a popular Republican governor and Gore is perceived as wanting to replace the internal combustion engine, they went in with ads aimed at working families and won.”

In the critical six days before the election, the Gore campaign moved the advertising from the air to the ground. Voters were besieged with door-knocking drives, pamphlets and phone banks. The two political parties and organized labor picked up the tab for the effort. Democrats spent a bit more than the $40 million spent by Republicans.

“The ground wars counted more than the air wars,” says James Thurber, a professor of political science at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of Crowded Airwaves: Campaign Advertising in Elections. “The ground wars delivered the vote for Gore in the battleground states and kept him in the race. Bush should not have taken those last six days off.”

Each campaign’s early decision to buy airtime regionally instead of nationally skewed the messages, creating a blizzard of political ads in about 17 swing states while leaving a vacuum in the rest of the country. In Philadelphia, for example, three stations, including WPVI-TV, aired 31 political ads during one hour of evening news, charging the sponsors as much as $9,600 a minute. The high volume of ads is the result of a buying strategy based on advertising “points.” Twenty years ago, it took 400 points—one spot seen by a viewer about four times a week—to deliver a message effectively. That number has increased to 1,000 points in the past few years, forcing campaigns to buy 1,200-1,400 points to reach their targeted audience, say media buyers.

“Early on, I thought there should have been more national play,” says Ferguson. “It needs to feel like a national election.”

Messner agrees: “When you consider the argument over the popular vote, there is a reason to advertise nationally.”

Presidential campaigns typically concentrate their media buys in the swing states necessary to achieve victory in the Electoral College. The argument is that campaigns lack the money and the time a corporate client like Anheuser-Busch would spend on advertising. “You go into politics knowing collectively where your ducks are, and that’s why the battle is targeted media, not national in scale,” says Ed Blakely, a political consultant at Smith & Harroff in Alexandria, Va., who has worked on Republican campaigns.

Blakely thinks the ad experts have it right when they say a candidate’s image and personality trump the issues in the minds of voters. “If they don’t like you, they won’t buy the issues,” he says. “You have to get past personality. The rap on Bush was he was light on substance, but he was a more likeable person. Gore could dot the I’s and cross the T’s, but he was a colder person.”

As for the uneasy relationship between Madison Avenue and political consultants, Blakely blames it on the nature of the ad business in general. Agencies don’t want to offend large corporate clients by aligning themselves with political campaigns. So, the majority of ad gurus typically form separate outfits when working for political candidates.

Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984 was the one presidential race in recent memory in which Blakely thinks the relationship between creatives and politicians clicked. Reagan’s “Tuesday Team,” made up of Madison Avenue stalwarts like Kenneth Roman and Hal Riney of Ogilvy & Mather, Edward Ney of Young & Rubicam, Phil Dusenberry of BBDO, and Jim Weller and Ron Travisano of Della Femina, Travisano & Partners prepared some of the most memorable spots in presidential campaign history.

The Tuesday Team worked, in Blakely’s view, because of the powerful presence of Roger Ailes, former producer of The Mike Douglas Show and a veteran of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, who served as a consultant. Ailes brokered deals and effectively blunted each side’s sharper edges.

Madison Avenue thinks political consultants are prisoners of the polls. Political consultants say the numbers are necessary because they reflect what’s really on a voter’s mind. History shows that presidential campaigns can produce memorable work like the “Bear” spot when the two sides agree to respect what the other does best.

“Did we want to do more things that would cut through? Yes. But they [media director Mark McKinnon and others] were sitting there looking at the numbers saying no, it won’t work,” says Ferguson. “Is it frustrating? Yes. The Tuesday Team was in control. The Park Avenue Posse was not.”

Blakely says he’s willing to work hard to forge a more harmonious relationship with agency pros. Two governors’ races are coming up in New Jersey and Virginia. He’s accepting calls.