Creating the Candidate

by Allen Rabinowitz
Illustration by T.P. Design

In many ways, political elections have come to rival such attractions as the circus or professional wrestling as popular entertainment. Along with the serious business of electing the people who will make the laws and govern us on a number of levels, elections have also become showcases for some of the more outrageous forms of advertising ever devised.

This year promises to be an entertaining political year in Georgia. With no incumbent, the gubernatorial race looks wide open. Along with a U.S. Senate campaign, every congressional seat is up for election, as are both houses of the General Assembly. In addition, there are races for a variety of other offices. The growth of the two-party system in the Peach State guarantees a lively time through the fall.

Ads for candidates began airing in the late spring and will pick up steam after Labor Day. By the weekend before the election, it will seem that every spot on TV is persuading you to vote for one candidate, or another.

As well as trying to sell the electorate on a particular candidate, these political spots are also competing for viewer's attention with other ads. "What you have to remember in doing political advertising, is that it's not good enough for your ad to be better, or as good as other political opponents," says Atlanta-based media consultant Allan Crow, of Allan Crow & Associates. "Your ad is competing with Coca-Cola, Little Caesar's, and a lot of high production numbers that are very creative and very entertaining. If your ad doesn't grab people's attention, they're not going to watch, and your message won't get through."

Crow says the political ads of yesteryear couldn't cut it in today's environment. Having worked in Democratic campaigns in Louisiana, Georgia, and other states, Crow says today's viewers will click on their remote if a "tried and true" kind of spot came on.

"There used to be a formula where the candidate kissed babies and shook the hands of senior citizens," Crow explains. "That won't get it any more. You have to be creative and cutting edge to get people to pay attention, like use footage of trains crashing. We'll use humor and try different things visually to make [commercials] as cutting edge as we can."

There are, however, some limits to the kind of things you can do in sprucing up a political spot. Says Suzan Satterfield of Facemire/Satterfield Film & Tape, an Atlanta production company, which has shot a number of political ads, "If the candidate is kind of ordinary looking, you don't call in a makeup expert to make them look like Robert Redford, or Julia Roberts. You want them to look like the average person. You don't want them in Armani suits, because people will automatically think their taxes are going up."

According to Ralph Chandler of Chandler Media in Atlanta, the most successful political spots are those that touch a nerve. "They touch upon people's deep, deep fears, or desires, or worries. The more you get inside people with a spot, the better your message will be perceived. Television is a very emotional medium. It's not so much you see it with your head, but with your heart and gut."

Although some presidential or other high-profile campaigns are run by traditional advertising firms, most notably the Reagan re-election effort in 1984, most candidate advertising is created by political consultants who specialize in devising messages designed to sway the electorate.

"The political folks who have been through the day-to-day campaign have a better understanding of what it takes to get through to the voters," says Howard Mead, of Howard N. Mead & Co., who worked for Governor Zell Miller, and consulted for a number of Democratic candidates in Georgia and elsewhere. "If you have a good cinematographer who can shoot in film, you can do a political ad. There's nothing special about this."

These consultants handle either Democrats or Republicans exclusively. "In this business, you've got to choose sides." says Ed Blakely, vice president of Smith & Harroff, an Alexandria, Virginia company that works with GOP candidates. "One side doesn't trust the other. If you were doing both sides of the aisle, you wouldn't bring in any clients. Philosophically, the people who work here are Republicans, and the people who work at Democratic firms are Democrats, as well."

No matter which party they support, consultants agree that television has become the primary medium for political advertising. "There's a mystique to television," says Chandler. "It's the number one way to improve name identification. It's an emotional medium, and you can reach people with a TV spot and get people talking about the candidate with one, more than you can with a direct mail piece, or a radio spot."

Steve Sandler, a partner in the Republican-oriented firm Sandler-Innocenzi, in Alexandria, Virginia, touts television for its ability to deliver more impressions per dollar spent. "Television is used so much because it's the most cost-efficient way of delivering the message," he says.

Television, however, is not for everyone. For certain offices lower on the ballot, TV can be too expensive. But, media consultants say that more and more candidates for such offices as judgeships and state senate seats are seeking to go on the air.

While television is the medium of choice, other media have their roles in a campaign. Chandler says direct mail can be effective in certain situations.

"In a primary," Chandler explains, "you know who your voters are, and direct mail can be effective, especially for something like a state senate seat, where you have a small geographic area and a well-known universe of voters. You can obtain a list of who they are, where they live, and how often they've voted. You can send them a piece of mail, put it right in their hands, and you know they'll see it."

Candidate television commercials generally fall within five areas: Introduction, Image, Issues, Attack, and Response. No matter what the party affiliation or office sought, the political consultant will devise spots that fall into these criteria.

The Introduction is used when the candidate is new to politics and not known in the district he, or she, is trying to represent. It's primarily biographical in nature and states what this person has done, where he or she has been, his or her accomplishments, and other relevant personal information.

Image spots, according to Blakely, are probably the most important commercials the candidate will air. "The likeability of a candidate is as important as where that candidate stands on the issues," says Blakely. With incumbents, these spots will sometimes include cases where the candidate's work made an individual or group's life better.

The third area deals with the issues of the day, and where the candidate stands on them. In these spots, the candidate attempts to show how he, or she, differs from the competition. Intense research will provide the issues that the electorate is most interested in hearing about.

In Attack ads, the candidate will go after the opponent, and try to paint that person's views as not representative of the people in the district or state. If the opposition is an incumbent, his/her voting record, or policies, will be presented in the worst possible light. In addition, the most unflattering black-and-white still photo of the opponent that can be found will be used to illustrate the commercial.

Response ads are unique to the political realm. In these spots, the candidate will respond to the opponent's Attack ads. Speed is of the essence in these spots. "If you're getting beat up by the other side," says Blakely, "you've got to come back and address the attack before it hurts you."

The ability to respond is a critical factor. Consultants point out that the inability of Michael Dukakis to quickly respond to an onslaught of Attack ads by the Bush campaign, in 1988, probably helped cost him the election. President Clinton, on the other hand, is acknowledged as a master of defusing a situation with a quick response to any attack.

Like their product-oriented counterparts, the political spots are a sales vehicle. In this case, the spots try to sell a candidate as an effective administrator or representative. If that message is apparent, the candidate had better forget any plans for a monument in front of the State Capitol.

Says Mead, "If there are 20 things you want to do in office, and there are three that test well with voters, you better concentrate on them, or you won't get the chance to do any of them."

Political ads differ from consumer ads in a number of ways. "A major difference," Sandler explains, "is that all of our product goes off the shelf in one day. We can't coupon, and what you see is what you get. You can't make the product cheaper, or make the package more visually appealing."

With a consumer campaign, Sandler points out that most people know about the advertiser. Even with a new product, or a line extension, consumers know about companies like McDonald's, or Coca-Cola, so that a campaign isn't beginning from Ground Zero.

"In a political campaign," says Sandler, "you're often beginning from dead zero. You have to answer a lot of questions in a short period of time. People don't rush to watch political commercials. You have to get a lot done in a relatively short time."

"The one creative limitation is that you don't have the luxury of not having your client in the ad most of the time," says John Rowley, of Fletcher & Rowley Consulting, in Nashville, a firm that works with Democrats, such as Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

"You're dealing with a narrower target group," says Crow. "You have a pretty good idea of who your target audience is, as opposed to retail advertising, where you're reaching a broader spectrum. It's also short term. With retail advertising, a lot of times what you're doing is part of a long-term strategy. With political advertising, you're trying to get to election day and get 50 percent plus one for your candidate. You're just trying to get what you need to win, as opposed to a company who is looking to advertise to build a client base for the long-term basis."

Another difference between consumer and political advertising is that the candidate is both the product and the client. Most consultants say they prefer candidates who want input into the advertising.

"I personally like candidates who are engaged in the idea-generation process," says Rowley, "even if we're not using their idea. It's better to have too many ideas than none. While we're confident we'll come up with creative things in the way of the advertising, it's good to have other people giving us feedback, because we end up with a better product."

There are some political ads that have taken on legendary status. In the 1964 presidential campaign, the team behind President Johnson's re-election effort came up with what might be the most famous spot of all times.

The Johnson team wanted to capitalize on opponent Barry Goldwater's alleged willingness to use Atomic weapons. The spot shows a little girl picking petals off of a daisy and counting backwards from 10. When she reaches "1," a mushroom cloud appears on the screen, a tactic which was designed to scare voters that a ballot cast for Goldwater would bring the world closer to Armageddon. Though the spot aired just once, more than three decades later it's still remembered.

On a local basis, there's a spot for Sen. Paul Coverdell's campaign in 1992 that is considered a classic. Coverdell's Democratic opponent was incumbent Sen. Wyche Fowler, and the challenger's road is always toughest. Fate, however, in the form of a phone call from an elderly woman in south Georgia, gave Coverdell a momentum that helped him pull out the election in a tight race.

Chandler says that one night a call came into the Coverdell campaign headquarters from Margie Lopp, of Cuthbert. "She said she had a jingle, and we asked her to sing it over the phone," Chandler remembers. "It was great, and we thought, 'This is the real Georgia. This is something new.' We had an idea that we'd get her to sing her jingle."

The campaign braintrust drove down to Cuthbert to see how Ms. Lopp looked on camera and cast her in the spot. "We put all of our money behind her," explains Chandler. "The spot only ran for a week, but it got so much media coverage that it extended our media dollars tenfold."

The simplicity of Ms. Lopp singing her jingle supporting Coverdell touched a nerve with Georgians seeking an alternative to the perceived ultra-liberal views of Fowler. "A lot of people thought it was annoying and called campaign headquarters with demands to fire the political consultant," says Chandler. "A lot of people were wondering what kind of political commercial it was."

In many ways, the spot was unique, which was one reason it garnered the coverage it did. "We didn't show the candidate," Chandler recalls. "It was a different way of getting Paul Coverdell's name out there. She could hammer Wyche Fowler with a velvet hammer and with humor. Who was going to sling mud on a grandma? Who was going to beat up on her?"

A generation ago, Georgia was a solid Democratic state. But, with the influx of outsiders and changes in the political spectrum, the Peach State now has a strong two-party system.

That development has probably had the biggest effect on political advertising in Georgia. "The partisan realignment has made for more advertising," says Mead. There are no 'gimme' seats any more."

"In the old days in Georgia," says Sandler, "if you were a Republican, you had to fight to make yourself a bona fide candidate and give yourself some qualifications. Now, you don't have to do that. It's not just a two-party state in registration, it's also a two-party state in how the electorate looks at candidates. We no longer have to hide the fact we're Republicans. If it used to be a four-stage election process in advertising, it's now a three-stage process."

In recent years, it seems the tenor of political advertising has become slightly less civil than an average episode of the Jerry Springer Show.

Rather than be discussions on the issues concerning the electorate, most ads either position their candidate as the greatest leader since George Washington, or paint the opponent as a cross between Pontius Pilate, Benedict Arnold, and Saddam Hussein.

While many think that this kind of negative advertising is a recent phenomenon, it in fact goes back to the earliest days of the republic. More than 200 years ago, the presidential race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson took on a vicious atmosphere, not unlike some recent campaigns.

The Adams camp accused Jefferson of being a dangerous radical whose ideas would undermine the foundation of the democracy; while Adams was portrayed as a monomaniacal tyrant who would bring back the monarchy with himself as king. It's not difficult to picture current day politicians using similar arguments in the closing days of a close race.

Sandler says negative advertising, "Seems to be what moves the [polling] numbers. People view political campaigns the way they view basketball, they want a lot of action, and they want to see the ball going up and down the floor."

That said, Sandler adds that he doesn't think "going negative" will work as well in 1998. "People are sick and tired of it, mostly because they're fat and happy, and people are not very uptight. I don't think we'll see as much [negative advertising] this year."

Rowley calls negative advertising "inelegant," and says it doesn't make for top creative. "It's very literal and doesn't challenge the creative people on a campaign to come up with different ideas," he says.

The best time to go negative, according to Rowley, is when a candidate is challenging an incumbent. In that situation, he says, "You've got to give a compelling reason to fire someone. A campaign like that always begins with a compelling, positive message. You've got to make a case that this candidate is a person you can connect with and is for things you support.

"So, later on," he continues, "when you're trying to tear down the incumbent, they just won't leave the incumbent and not vote, and some of the undecided will ultimately come to you. If you're in a close race, you want to make sure no stone is unturned, and that you've done everything to win. You want to draw a comparison toward the end if it's tight."

One thing that will be in more evidence this year is the "independent expenditure" commercial. These are spots that are commissioned outside of the candidate's campaign by groups, or organizations, which support a candidate's position. These expenditures do not count against the candidate, and the spots often take a harsher position to the opposition than the candidate's own commercials. It's believed that in 1998, the bulk of negative advertising will come from this kind of independent funding.

"There are always people and groups looking to finance politics, and they'll always find a way to do it," says Mead. He believes independent expenditure ads are here to stay.

"Unless they re-write the First Amendment," Mead says, "there's no way you can put a limit on them. You can't tell people what to say with their own money, and you can't censor it, because it's free speech."

In this election year, expect to see Democratic candidates advocating limits on HMO's, and tougher discipline in school; while Republicans will come out for limits on affirmative action, less government, and lower taxes. Also expect to see cutting-edge visuals, and production values as you'd see in a national retail ad.

Most of all, expect the best spots to air in the week before the election. In that time, the airwaves are cluttered with ads for almost every candidate, and each one is trying hard to convince you that it's star is the person you must have in office. Consultants agree that cutting through the clutter at the end of a campaign brings out their most imaginative work.

"That's when the creative becomes most important," says Chandler. "That's when I try to do an ad that Nike would like. We want something that's creative, that delivers the message in an effective way and breaks through. We want to air a spot that makes people remember it for the 24 to 72 hours until they vote."