We The People … Have A Lot To Say

The hunt is on to identify the creator of “Vote Different,” which appears to be the first user-generated video tied to the 2008 presidential election to become a hit. The 1 minute, 14 second-long spot is a mash- up of Apple’s famous “1984” Super Bowl spot, with Sen. Hillary Clinton appearing in the role of Big Brother talking about her “conversation” with America just before the runner smashes the Orwellian screen. The tagline reads, “On January 14th, The Democratic primary will begin. And you’ll see why 2008 won’t be like 1984.” The unofficial video ends when “BarackObama.com” appears on the screen.

Then there’s the “Hillary Clinton Is a Man” song from Rusty Shackleford, a self-proclaimed outlaw country singer, who brings us such lyrics as, “I can see through your makeup and dress. Right down to your hairy chest.” And a video poster named Salvatore D’Intern puffs his cheeks out in the “John ‘Walnuts’ McCain 2008 Presidential Ad,” where we hear, “Remember, I was tortured and you gotta love me for it. That’s where I got my walnut cheeks.”

It’s all right there on YouTube, the video-sharing site that has already muscled in on pop culture and now is poised to impact the presidential race like never before. An increasing number of Average Joes are conceiving, creating and producing political “ads”—and with such ad-hoc fervor that some political pundits are already calling Election 2008 a “freak show.”

Even before the digital “revolution,” Madison Avenue’s role in the electoral process had diminished as political consultants gained influence in the advertising and branding of candidates. With the new phenomenon of what some call the “democratization” of creativity, all people can now wield significant influence, and not just in the voting booth.

“Now it is not just the media consultants in the campaigns,” says Mark McKinnon, a media advisor to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign and the political consultant who handled the advertising and media for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns. “It is thousands of people in their bedroom, in pajamas, creating ads and blasting them into the Web.”

If the 2004 and 2006 mid-term elections are any indication, the role of content players will only grow stronger for 2008, political experts say—especially those creating attack ads.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, points to the influence of the online content producer JibJab and its parody, “This Land,” which poked fun at both John Kerry and George Bush during the 2004 presidential election, as an example of these videos’ extensive reach. She notes as well to the “Macaca” video of 2006, which showed Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) using the racial slur during a rally, noting that it had a devastating effect on his reelection campaign.

“Macaca” was shot by a student working for Allen’s opponent, Democrat James Webb. “Would you say that student was creating an ad?” Jamieson says. “No, but a lot of attack ads look like that. We are starting to change the nature of attack in political campaigns.”

And in 2004, MoveOn.org Voter Fund, a political advocacy group, sponsored the “Bush in 30 Seconds” contest, which asked users to create political ads. “It created the first ever user-generated [political] 30-second spot that was a major TV buy,” says Nicco Mele, president of EccoDitto.com, a digital strategy firm, who was director of Internet operations for Howard Dean’s presidential bid.

On its Web site, MoveOn had explained: “Year after year, a few dozen Washington consultants make the great majority of political ads. They look the same, they sound the same—even the actors seem familiar. Perhaps as a result, voters tune out, even when there are critically important messages to convey.”

“Ads produced by ordinary folks [are] the future of the Internet,” says Jamieson. “The handheld camera and producing it at no cost mean that people not tied to political structures can create content. The moment they get exposure … they have formed a political communication venue that can be very effective.”

Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO of The Kaplan Thaler Group and a member of Bill Clinton’s 1992 ad team, agrees: “The power of anyone’s voice now has much more resonance than ever before. One person could get on YouTube with a message that could be so powerful that it usurps what the political strategists and Madison Avenue consultants have to say.”

This turns campaigns into a free-for-all. “The Internet will open up a new communications arena for content produced by others,” says Jamieson. “And that’s not good news for Madison Avenue or the political consultants. They can’t control it and there is no profit in it.”

Indeed, such videos don’t just live online. They get picked up on Sunday morning shows like Meet the Press, mainstream morning programs like Today, and in print publications. Suddenly, the message has been spread far beyond sites like YouTube and their fans.

What It Means for Madison Ave.

Madison Avenue’s role in political campaigns has been waning for some time. Political consultants question whether advertising creatives have the talent needed for the political arena, and in general the question of who is better equipped to make political ads surfaces in each election cycle.

“The number of Madison Avenue types in the political realm are declining,” says Morgan Felchner, editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine, which tracks the political consultancy world in elections. “The people who are coming into politics now come in with a political science degree or with certificates that teach them how to do political marketing. So the knowledge they have is starting to be valued more than the knowledge from Madison Avenue.”

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, points to the growing amount of money in political campaigns as fueling the rise of consultants. “The growth of money in campaigns … can sustain a core of purely political specialists,” Sabato says. “There is no need for people who have advertising credentials who do product as well as political campaign advertising.”

Martin Puris, who served as media advisor to George H. Bush’s 1992 presidential campaign, sums up how political consultants view agency creatives: “Candy asses who want to shoot pleasant little films. Political pros are hard asses who believe creatives can’t do tough attack ads.

“It’s a myth, of course,” he recently told Adweek. “I had a powerful voice, but so many things conspired against a successful conclusion that at the end, I was quoted as asking who I had to sleep with to get out of the campaign.” (For starters, Bush’s approval ratings plummeted just before Puris came on board, and James Baker, then secretary of state, later left the administration.)

Puris, who was part of an ad team, “the November Group,” consisting of about 12 agency creatives at different times in the campaign, represents one of the last times an agency executive had such a powerful influence on the advertising for a presidential candidate who made it past the primaries.

Political campaigns spent $1.5 billion on advertising in the last presidential year, 2004, per TNS Media Intelligence. Of that, $600 million went to presidential races. Political spending for the 2006 midterm election reached more than $2.1 billion, an increase of 1 billion over the last midterm election in 2002. And the 2008 cycle is expected to at least match the 2006 elections if both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates forgo public financing completely as experts predict they will do. This will allow candidates to raise unlimited amounts to spend on advertising.

Jamieson thinks candidates should use both agency creatives (for branding and image building)and the consultants, especially in a chaotic media environment. (Hillary Clinton has tapped GSD&M’s Roy Spence, former BBDO creative Jimmy Siegel and Andy Berlin, CEO of WPP’s Voluntary United Group, to advise her, with political consultant Mandy Grunwald in charge of the advertising and media.)

Puris agrees, but believes the political pros should be in charge: “The category has its own special rhythm, and Madison Avenue people are fish out of water in political campaigns.”

Agency creatives and political consultants alike describe that rhythm as fast-paced and furious because it’s tied to the daily news cycle. So agency creatives end up playing a stronger role at the beginning of a campaign, when voters are more likely to see biographical spots introducing the contender, they say.

“The Madison Avenue guys are very good at big framing and branding, and they’re great when they have months of time to work,” says McKinnon. “But once we’re in the day-to-day combat, that’s where we need the political guys. We don’t have weeks or months to make ads. We have hours.”

Some creatives find their role limited to one of production rather than scriptwriting, which is a long way from the days when Lyndon Johnson used Tony Schwartz and Doyle Dane Bernbach to conceive and produce the infamous “Daisy Spot.” Or when Ronald Reagan tapped the “Tuesday Team,” featuring heavyweights like BBDO’s Phil Dusenberry and Euro RSCG’s Tom Messner, who created memorable work such as the Reagan biography video, which ran at the Republican convention, and the spot “Morning in America,” still considered by many to be the last successful election commercial done by Madison Avenue.

In the past, how something was said was as important as what was said, but that has also changed, argues Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, whose political work includes Hillary Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate race and Fernando Ferrer’s 2005 bid for New York City mayor, among others. “As long as the focus is on what you say [usually decided by pollsters] and not on how you say it, creatives will play a reduced role,” he says. “Our role [has become] do you light a candidate a certain way, do you put a pantsuit on her, do you film her in the living room? But I define creativity as ideas.”

Because voters increasingly tune out political ads, consultants say their spots are aimed at print media and the Sunday talk shows. But that also creates an environment where user-generated content will likely stand out.

“Viral information has its own sort of credibility, so controlling the message becomes more important than ever,” McKinnon says. “The candidate who does the best job of controlling the message will win.”