Tell Me, Don’t Sell Me

Just recovering from the shallowness of the primary season’s political advertising? You ain’t seen nothing yet

Tell Me, Don’t Sell Me

Just recovering from the shallowness of the primary season’s political advertising? You ain’t seen nothing yet

About a week before April’s primary election, I sat across from a candidate for Congress who had his head in his hands. We were having drinks, and Rev. Bill Golderer, running for the Democratic nomination in the 7th Congressional District, pulled out of his pocket the script for a radio ad written for him by a high-priced D.C. consultant. Golderer was to record the ad in the morning, but now he was having doubts.

“Okay, so it begins with zoo animal noises and then an announcer says, ‘It’s like a zoo in Congress, nothing gets done,’” he said, pausing to look at me.

“Animal noises?” I asked.

“Animal noises,” he said. “And then my voice comes in, saying ‘I’m Bill Golderer, and I know we need to fix this broken system.’”

He paused, looking at the paper. Then he continued. “Back to voiceover. ‘Bill Golderer was raised in Wayne by a hard-working father, and a mother committed to community service,’” he read, before stopping and looking at me. “Uh, kinda, but not really.”

What Golderer was reacting to was the ad’s lack of nuance. “It’s all true,” he said, just not real. Hah. Dude, I said, that’s your ad. He looked perplexed. “Read the script and comment on it, like you just did,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, getting excited. “I could say, ‘This is what the D.C. political professionals want me to say. But it sounds like every bad political ad I’ve ever seen!’”

As a lark, we imagined a revamped ad, that would have Golderer go on to say, “Here’s the truth: I’m a pastor and a social entrepreneur who has spent the last two decades trying to solve problems in real people’s lives. I founded Broad Street Ministry and Rooster Soup, a restaurant that gives all its profits to charity…If you’re ready for something completely different, come take back the Capitol with me. I’m Bill Golderer and this really is my message.”

The drinks kept coming as we kicked around an idea for a political ad that wasn’t cookie-cutter or otherwise lame; something that was real. A few days later, however, the zoo tamer version ran. A few days after that, Golderer lost to Mary Ellen Balchunis. It wasn’t even close. Last week, I caught up with him for dinner and drinks.

What happened?

“Ultimately, you come up against the tension between what you’re told is effective, versus what you think is important,” Golderer said. “As a first-time candidate, you don’t know what you don’t know. I looked to experienced political people to help me figure out how to introduce myself and say who I am in the 10 seconds you have to grab someone’s attention. I ran because I wanted to talk about things that were important, which I had a plan to do in the general election. But it turned out the conventional wisdom was wrong and I never got the chance.” (That said, I was struck by how cheerful Golderer seemed after the experience. “I met some awesome people,” he exclaimed.)

Golderer found himself starring in his own Matt Santos moment. Santos was the fictional Congressman in The West Wing played by Jimmy Smits who, running for president for all the right reasons, realizes that political campaigns have little to do with those reasons. “You get into this, thinking to yourself that you’re going to play by your own rules and then, bit by bit, you chip away at them until you can’t even name the game,” he says, before daring to go live and speak from the heart directly to the voter:

It’s a terrible indictment of our system, isn’t it? Golderer, who ran saying he sought to restore a sense of spirit and soul to our political life, came face to face with a hard reality: Our campaigns are really about nothing. Inspiration? Aspiration? Political ads that strive for those lofty heights would seem to have become as extinct as bipartisanship and centrism. After each election season, it feels like we need to recover from the onslaught of insipid messages we’re bombarded with. No wonder so many stay home on election day—between the name-calling and the cheesiness of how our campaigns play out on TV, a “pox on both their houses” mindset has taken hold.

Much has been written about the ill effects negative political advertising has on our civic life, but I suspect that what’s just as damaging to the body politic is stupid advertising. Congressional campaigns that take smart, well-intentioned candidates and have them calling Congress a zoo—complete with barnyard animal noises—do nothing but contribute to the dumbing down of our public life. But, as the consultant class has risen—in the last few decades, the ad men and women behind our candidates, from James Carville and Mary Matalin to Karl Rove and David Axelrod, have become stars—candidates have found themselves less and less in control of their own message. They’re the actor, not the director, of their own play. (It could also legitimately be argued that the quality of today’s candidate is lesser than it once was, making his or her message more malleable).

“It’s all a blur to the consultants,” says longtime, legendary ad man Elliott Curson, who did Ronald Reagan’s advertising in 1980 and who, legend has it, came up with one of Philadelphia’s great tag lines in promoting Arlen Specter for District Attorney and Tom Gola for Controller in 1969—They’re younger, they’re tougher, and nobody owns them—and who coined the edgy line Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is on a Schuylkill Expressway billboard in the ‘70s. “The way it generally works, you get some stock footage, get the candidate at a senior citizens center, show him or her with their family. Stitch something together with a line or two. Or you darken a photo of the opponent and have the word ‘Corrupt’ stamped onto the screen in big red letters. The spots don’t have to be good—you just have to have a lot of them. What’s missing is respect for the audience.”

There are exceptions, of course. Locally, in 2007, Neil Oxman—one of the most successful practitioners of the art of political advertising—produced Michael Nutter’s Olivia ad, narrated by the candidate’s daughter:

In the early ‘90s, an obscure professor in Minnesota, eschewing inside the Beltway political ad-makers for North Woods Advertising, a local agency, aired entertaining and creative commercials en route to a stunning political upset and a seat in the United States Senate:

What do all of these examples of transformative political advertising have in common? They’re all creative, entertaining, inspirational and aspirational. They are the opposite of the cookie-cutter approach Curson alludes to, the one with which we’re all too familiar. They tell a story. George Lois, the legendary Mad Man era ad man, didn’t do a lot of political advertising but said that there is little difference between selling a product like MTV, which he did with his “I want my MTV” campaign, and selling a politician. Both need an animating idea. “You can name hundreds of products that spend millions a year on advertising, but what’s the thought?” He once said. “You gotta come up with an idea.”

In this most recent election, there was an ad—I saw it locally on cable—that got across an aspirational idea. It was an ad that was different, that made you take notice. Check it out:

Notice the silent stretches—there’s no voiceover yelling cliches at you—and the uplifting music, the looking-forward tag line. Clearly, this is an ad that opted for inspiration over crass manipulation. Turns out, this commercial for State Representative Mike O’Brien was an Elliott Curson joint. “Over lunch, Mike mentioned in passing that he’d gotten funding for the Rail Park,” Curson says. “I said, ‘That’s amazing.’ I love the High Line in New York and I thought this could represent the opening up of a whole new neighborhood for the city. I was so excited, I storyboarded it and sent it to Mike.”

On election day, Curson says he went to polling places in Society Hill, Queen Village, Kensington and Mayfair and talked to voters about the ad. “I had people tell me, ‘You weren’t selling me something, you were telling me something,” he says.

In the making of the ad, Curson was resolved to keeping it simple. He focused on making it about one thing: What could be. Just think about how elevated our political life—and the city itself—could become if that approach became the norm?

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