Dusenberry, Spence: There’s Room for Feel-Good Political Ads

NEW YORK With grudging admiration for the efficacy of attack ads, the panelists at today’s Advertising Week’s “Madison Avenue Goes to Washington” were hopeful that the notion of hope itself, as epitomized in efforts by candidates from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, would return more forcefully to political campaigns.

“There’s a powerful sense of optimism in this country,” said Roy Spence, co-founder and president of GSD&M in Austin, Texas, who worked on Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns. “Clinton was able to tap into that. Hope is not a strategy, but it is part of building a positioning. A lot of political consultants think it’s weak. I think it’s strong.”

Spence was joined on the panel by two members of Reagan’s famed Tuesday Team of consumer advertising pros, Phil Dusenberry and Mike McManus Jr., as well as Bill Hillsman, a veteran of campaigns for Paul Wellstone, Jesse Ventura and Ralph Nader. The discussion was moderated by Bill Schneider, CNN’s chief political correspondent.

Much of the discussion centered on how to develop winning campaign advertising–and how and when attack ads can play a role. The panelists acknowledged the public disdain for negative ads but admitted they can turn a race inside out.

“There have a been a couple of occasions where it’s been completely devastating to the opposing party,” said Dusenberry, the former chairman of BBDO, citing the first President Bush’s 1988 “Willie Horton” ad attacking Michael Dukakis and Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” spot attacking Barry Goldwater. “But to do a completely negative campaign, I think you’re on thin ice. The danger is seeming like you don’t have anything to say about yourself. I think you need to maintain a high road of positive imagery and be selective in your attacks.”

McManus, who now works in the private sector as president and CEO of Misonix, a medical firm, pointed to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s anti-John Kerry ads as an example of how even relatively poorly funded attacks can gain traction with help from the mainstream media. But he said the Tuesday Team’s work shows how a message of hope, properly executed, can also be powerful. “Incumbents tend to have the comfort level to go out and find a more positive way,” he said. “The Tuesday Team might have been a special occasion, the economy was good, and so on, but there are opportunities to be positive.”

The panelists agreed that President Bush has won the advertising battle so far in this election, primarily because his team developed a strong positioning and stuck to it. “You need a bullet-proof, unassailable message and send it out like a rifle shot,” said Dusenberry. “If you have that positioning, you can run positive and negative ads under it.”

“The Bush team went out and positioned the race: ‘We’re strong. He’s wishy-washy,'” said Spence. Asked how he would have advised Kerry differently, Spence said, “I would have said, ‘This is a president who has misled America and squandered our prosperity.’ That’s where I would have started. If someone else has a weak positioning, you go after it with a strong one.”

Still, Spence was forceful in expressing a desire to see an element of hope return to political campaigning. “This is the business of freedom, and it has a huge impact on our lives,” he said. “If every campaign becomes about voting against somebody, I think that’s a big problem long-term for our country. There has to be room for new programs, new hope, new ways to market. The Democrats today have an opportunity to say, ‘Hope is on the way.’ People want to believe that again.”

Not all the talk was about the dire state of political ads. Dusenberry related a humorous anecdote about the Tuesday Team’s first visit to the White House ahead of Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984. Said Dusenberry: “Reagan came out and said, ‘I hear you guys are selling soap. I thought you might like to meet the bar.'”

And humor is one area where political campaigns could learn a little something from consumer advertising, said Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis and author of Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System One Campaign at a Time. “Most political campaigns take a Chinese-water-torture approach: ‘If we drop this on your head enough times, you’ll remember it,'” he said. “Politicians forget the first rule of advertising: Get attention. It doesn’t have to be so terrible.”