George Lois Finds a Kindred Spirit in Dennis Kucinich

An unlikely, random assignment to create a mock campaign poster for Dennis Kucinich is what brought George Lois back to political advertising.

When preparing the poster, which was commissioned by The New York Times, the veteran adman read a Kucinich speech in which the Democratic presidential contender offered up a prayer that America would stop the war in Iraq. When he read those words, Lois got in touch with the Kucinich camp. He wanted to create real ads for the U.S. representative from Ohio.

“He is the only guy who voted against this idiotic goddamn war,” Lois said last week. “Dennis calls me his franchise ballplayer. I’ll use TV to break through all the bull.”

Kucinich’s first four ads, done by Lois, break today in Iowa and New Hampshire. They seek to position the long-shot candidate, who advocates nonviolence as an “organizing principle of society” and proposes to establish a U.S. Department of Peace, as even more passionately anti-war than some of his rivals in the Democratic primary.

The 30-second spots feature voiceovers donated by actor Danny Glover and still photographs of the candidate. In “Privacy/Secrecy,” Glover says, “How can we tolerate an administration which takes away your right to privacy while insisting on their right to total secrecy?” Another ad, titled “Reawaken,” claims the war has hurt the U.S. economy. “This pre-emptive war has jeopardized our jobs, schools, farms, our future,” Glover says. “It’s time to reawaken the American dream.”

In “Inspire the World,” Glover says, “Instead of pre-emptive war, let us create an America that will inspire the world once more.” A fourth spot targets young Americans with a warning that they could be drafted into the military should hostilities continue in Iraq [Adweek, Dec. 23].

Lois randomly drew Kucinich, a 57-year-old former Cleveland mayor, for the Times assignment. But Deborah Jackson, national marketing and advertising co-director for the Kucinich campaign in Cleveland, said she knew early on that he might be more than temporarily interested in the candidate.

Lois fought in the Korean War as a teenager, even though he was against it. Now 72 and primarily working with his son Luke at Good Karma Creative in New York, Lois has hardly moderated his views or toned down his language. “He’d called looking for a photograph, but it was obvious we spoke the same language and were on the same page,” Jackson said. “We both had a sense that we would continue communicating.”

Lois, who worked at Doyle Dane Bernbach before running several of his own agencies, is perhaps best known the Esquire covers he designed while an art director at the magazine and the “I want my MTV” line. But he is no stranger to political advertising, having created winning ad campaigns for U.S. senators Jacob Javits, Robert F. Kennedy, Warren Magnuson and Hugh Scott.

“Most of the admen were Republicans back then [in the 1960s],” Lois said. “And the genre of political advertising was almost always some stiff at a desk talking as if he’s already in office.”

Lois, an ardent liberal, recalls telling Javits, a Republican, at their first meeting, “You’re a Republican like I’m a girl.” To humanize Javits, “who seemed very uppity at the time,” he said, Lois pictured him in the streets among the people, being friendly.

In 1964, Lois took on Robert Kennedy, who was “getting ripped as a carpetbagger” when he ran for the U.S. Senate from New York, Lois said. “He’d worked on the House Un-American Activities Committee with Roy Cohn, and he’d supported the Vietnam War, which were big strikes against him. We had screaming matches.”

In 1968, Warren Magnuson, a U.S. Senator from Washington state, was seen as “dead duck” in his campaign for re-election, Lois said, because of his reputation as a hard-drinking gambler who had dated nightclub singers and B-movie starlets and once, with slurred speech, offered his opinion on the ongoing “Viennese war.”

Lois came up with a idea that would be radical for any era. “I showed him looking at the camera, slumping in his seat, looking like a fat, lazy, beaten man,” said Lois. “The voiceover asks, ‘What in the world do you have left to give the voters of Washington?’ and Maggie raises his hand and points to his head three times”—implying that his smarts were worth the occasional lapses in judgment.

Lois said he knew the campaign had taken off when Boeing factory workers mimicked the gesture at Magnuson rallies and speeches. Magnuson won re-election easily.

When it came time to work with Kucinich, Lois knew it was a good fit. “Kucinich is morally right, clear-headed and Lincolnesque,” Lois said. “He didn’t get conned by Bush. That’s how I came up with the poster, ‘The eyes that see through the lies.’ “