Last September, when the race for the White House was still young and promising, I attended a seminar featuring Mark Penn, Democratic pollster and Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, and Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant and the top strategist for Mitt Romney's campaign.
Frankly, I was interested in seeing how these guys were adapting to a time of intense change.
I was expecting to hear how Web cams, YouTube, Facebook, blogs and the like have revolutionized the political game, changing the course of fundraising, corralling volunteers, putting power into the hands of voters, who are now equipped to show the world a candidate's "macaca"-like missteps, for example. Instead, these two powerful politicos basically dismissed this whole crazy Internet phenom. Penn said, "There's still a significant reliance on TV, and TV is still the big game in town."
Mobile? You must be kidding. Widgets? They probably imagined women midgets.
And then each of them showed a traditional TV commercial created for his candidate. It was "Morning in America" (circa 1984) redux, but without the lump-in-the-throat genius that the late Phil Dusenberry brought to that iconic Reagan spot. In this updated version, Hillary shook hands with lots of old people and repeated the word "invisible."
Romney walked in a field with a farmer, and repeated the word "change," as in "change begins with us.'' The spot had an autumnal look; even the leaves were changing.
Each of the spots drummed in the candidate's strategic message of the moment, and they were workmanlike, not terrible. At the same time, though, they were hardly memorable—more paint-by-numbers political wallpaper to tune out while channel surfing.
But it's hardly been politics as usual so far. There have been soap operatic twists and turns in what has become the most fascinating election in memory. Why hasn't any of this electricity been reflected in the advertising?
Indeed, the ads have been so boring and rote, they seem irrelevant. The strategists are doing their same old same old. The posters all seem to have the same shades of red, white and blue, the same typeface, the same stars. The slogans have started to resemble each other as well, especially in the heat department: Barack Obama had already released "Fired up! Ready to go!" when Clinton unveiled "Turn up the heat!"
Does anyone remember a campaign slogan anyway? Can you recall George Bush's, or Michael Dukakis' for that matter? What about the current Bush's? The only one I really recall was "Reelect the president" for Nixon, because at the time they thought that his name, like Voldemort's in Harry Potter, was too creepy and negative to even be uttered.
The point is that these days, standard operating procedure comes across as fake and dull, especially in the wake of the wildly contentious, and sometimes teary, behavior the candidates have exhibited in debates and on the stump.
The first YouTube debate got lots of attention for the hokey snowman question. But the user-generated component undoubtedly attracted a new and wider audience to the subsequent debates.
Talk about fired up: Both on the Republican and Democratic sides later debates became so up close and personal that they began to resemble wrestling matches; they've become the most important platform that the candidates have had so far.
Some of the political events have unintentionally resembled satirical TV commercials, and that's always amusing. For example, who could have predicted that, via evangelical Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, Chuck Norris would become the William Shatner of this election cycle? Huckabee actually made some funny online spots with the Chuckster, working off the tongue-in-cheek jokes of Norris' famed Web site "Facts." ("When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn't lifting himself up. He's pushing the Earth down.") Then the 67-year-old martial arts expert went off the rails, accusing Huckabee rival John McCain of being too old to be president. Whoops.
And for a while there, before and after South Carolina, while on the campaign trail on behalf of Hillary, possible first mate Bill Clinton started acting like the late great Robert Goulet in last year's Emerald Nuts ad: It seemed that unless he got the proper food and rest, at 3 p.m., he'd come around and start messing with your stuff.
Compared with real-time developments like this, paid messaging has become more like visual Ambien. Not surprisingly, it seems to have had limited effect on any candidate's success.
I was sad to hear the John Edwards announcement—and from the few I saw, his ads were well done. Take his spot in the recent Christmas-message arms race in Iowa. Nobody really wants to see candidates bicker throughout the holidays. (We get enough of that with our own families.) But the Iowa caucuses rest on so few votes that none of the candidates could have afforded to sit that period out. So most of them ran TV ads.
Edwards had by far the best commercial—direct, heartfelt and powerful. Avoiding Santa caps, gifts or crosses, he instead directly addressed the camera, and spoke movingly about his main cause: taking care of homeless veterans and the working poor and middle-class Americans without healthcare. "We see you, we hear you, and we will never forget you."
Meanwhile, Hillary's attempt at light-hearted comedy seemed forced. She was shown by herself, sitting on a sofa, next to a tree, amid brightly wrapped gifts, each of which has an "on message" title on the tag. "Where did I put universal pre-K?" she tried to joke.
I give her credit for gamely doing this stuff—but it's a bit painful to watch, like when Martha Stewart tries to show her soft side.
In a happenin' video series Clinton called "Let the Conversation Begin," she kicked off her campaign on her Web site, and she and her team have used the Web fiercely, and at times, perhaps even too fearlessly. A user-generated contest to pick a theme song drove about 1 million people to her Web site, according to The Washington Post, but the choice, Celine Dion's "You and I," was such a bomb that it seems to have disappeared into the ether. But it was to get attention for the announcement of the winning song that the campaign came up with the notorious Sopranos parody. In retrospect, that was perhaps too brave, and a little tone deaf, for Hillary and Bill to compare themselves to a fictional mafia sociopath and his complicit wife. (Maybe here's where the trouble with Bill started, when he was reduced to playing a no-win version of Carmela, toddling into the diner in a blue bowling shirt.)
In the end, Hillary is best when speaking to the camera, showing her passion and devotion to the issues.
There's little passion in Romney's oddly staccato three-word slogan, "Strong. New. Leadership.'' The former Massachusetts governor, now in a dog fight with McCain for the Republican nomination, has a much deeper war chest than the white haired war hero (some self-financed) and released a new TV spot just last week. Called "Winning Combination,'' it's a lazy affair, using black-and-white photography and quotes from various publications about his business savvy. Dull and humorless, it could have been made any time in the last 40 years.
"Tested. Ready. Now," was Rudy Giuliani's slogan, although perhaps Joe Biden's suggestion (noun, verb, 9/11) might have worked better. Pundits kidded that his personality was such that the more he campaigned, the worse his poll numbers became. That sort of parallel universe started to infect the rest of his campaign as well. The 9/11 claims did not resonate; and indeed, last week in Florida there was so little good news to report or promote that one of his Web ads was reduced to a counterintuitive listing of the newspapers that refused to endorse him: "Rudy Giuliani is not endorsed by the Tampa Tribune. Not endorsed by the Orlando Sentinel... In fact, he's not endorsed by any liberal newspapers..." Although none of those newspapers is as liberal as his hometown paper, The New York Times, which also failed to endorse him.
Last fall, his interview with wife Judith Nathan and social friend Barbara Walters should also have been a free media slam dunk. Instead, the Giulianis had to slink away after he mentioned having his wife sit in on cabinet meetings for healthcare—she worked for one year as a registered nurse. They also acted like they thought they were one of the adorable couples in an eHarmony spot, touching each other's faces while not explaining how they met. You didn't have to be a teenager to recoil.
Rudy used social media well enough. He has 17,000 Facebook friends. Although there was trouble in that area as well, when it was discovered that his daughter, Caroline, 17, used her Facebook page to support Barack Obama.
Caroline Kennedy and her clan have also endorsed Obama as the heir to JFK's philosophy. He looks like an old soul; the welcome page of his Web site features him with his family in a black-and-white photo that could have been taken in the 1960s. His old-fashioned speaking style, that golden, ringing oratory, is timeless as well, but has yet to be captured in his ads. In anticipation of Super Tuesday, Obama's made a national media buy for a 60-second spot called "Inspiring." But I think it's a bit less than its title. The point was to underscore his experience and tenure, which is necessary, but the spot itself is too long and busy. It quotes too many different people talking about his career arc, and in the end comes off as forced and schmaltzy, business as usual.
Of all the contenders' TV work so far, Republican front-runner John McCain's spots have been most effective. Going back to the Iowa Christmas media show of force, in which Huckabee mentioned Christ and sat in front of a bookshelf that appeared to be an illuminated cross, the McCain ad used historical footage of him suffering, Christlike, on a stretcher while a POW. In a voiceover, he told the story of how a kindly guard drew a cross in the sand to tell him that it was Christmas, while on screen we saw the twig and the sand.
These days, with his coffers in need of replenishment, McCain's new spots are appearing on his Web site only. One picks up where The Daily Show has left off during the writers' strike. In quick cuts, it repeatedly shows the Democratic candidates, TV strategists and pundits saying "McCain"—as in "Democrats' worst nightmare.'' It's quick, specific and amusing.
So I'll come up with three words to describe McCain's ad campaign: Simple, powerful and authentic.
In the end, authenticity trumps everything. It will be interesting to see how political operatives adapt to that change.