Selling a Candidate Like a Sneaker: Maybe Not Such a Bad Idea

As someone who's written about advertising for a long time, I've never understood why we allow things in political ads that we'd never stand for in product advertising.
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The Foley scandal may be just the opening salvo in what is likely to be the nastiest election season in history.

Even before this story broke, an article in the New York Times last week predicted that roughly 90% of the political advertising that will bombard us in coming weeks will take the form of an attack ad.

"Okay, bring it on," you may be thinking. "If it comes down to a mud fight, we can hit the Republicans with a shovel full of Abramoff sleaze, plus a big messy batch of Iraq quicksand, and some leftover Katrina sewage. And we'll start things off by spattering 'em with another fistful of Foley. This time, we've got more crap to throw than they do."

Don't bet on it. The GOP has been quietly digging dirt for the past two years on the various candidates--knowing all along that fiercely-negative personal attacks may be the only way to overcome Iraq and other huge problems facing the party. As former Republican National Committee chief of staff Tom Cole told the LA Times last week, when the big national issues "are not breaking our way, what you want to do is focus on your opponent." The Foley situation will probably make the Republicans that much more desperate, and eager to tar Democratic candidates with anything they've got--rumors, innuendo, unpaid parking tickets, whatever.

Of course, it almost doesn't matter which side is armed with more dirt, because in the end, everyone will get slimed. Legitimate criticism gets jumbled up with illegitimate smears, and it will seem like every candidate on both sides is a sleazebucket in one way or another. And thus, negative political advertising will continue to do what it's been doing for years: Fuel voter cynicism, disgust, and apathy; discourage good people from running for office in the first place; help the wrong people to get elected; and, once they're elected, encourage them to do the wrong things for the wrong reasons (as in, "Gee, if I vote against torture, how might that be used against me in the coming 30-second attack ad?").

So there you have the well-known cons of negative political ads. Are there any pros? As a matter of fact, there are about 600 of them--and they can be found scurrying around Washington, digging up dirt, converting it into soundbites and shadowy imagery, and making lots of money producing this toxic junk. According to the Center for Public Integrity, nearly half of the $4 billion spent on the last round of Presidential and Congressional election campaigns went into the pockets of the roughly-600 "consultants" who worked on the political ads. (That's an average of $3 million per ad guy, or, by my calculations, $127,458 paid out each time one of these geniuses writes the line, "He will raise your taxes through the roof!")

While most product advertising is created by ad agency pros who are trained to build up brands, the consultants who create political ads are a separate breed. They don't adhere to basic principles of advertising, nor are they even bound by the rules that most ads follow. As someone who's written about advertising for a long time, I've never understood why we allow things in political ads that we'd never stand for in product advertising. If Crest were ever foolish enough to go on the airwaves and claim that a competing toothpaste is "made by criminals, tastes awful, and will make your teeth fall out," they'd run afoul of the FTC, the Better Business Bureau, and they'd probably be looking at a major lawsuit. But what you can't do to a tube of paste, you can do to a human being running for elected office. (Does this mean we're more concerned about choosing the right toothpaste than choosing the right leaders?)

With product advertisers discouraged from spending all their airtime dissing the competition, the advertiser is more apt to talk about his own product. (What a concept!) A good advertiser will endeavor to give you some reason to buy that product; or, failing that, will at least try to provide a laugh, or make you feel warm and fuzzy about the brand. All of which seems better than mud-slinging.

The most successful advertisers manage to convey a clear brand identity and a philosophy (Apple's "Think Different"). They may even try to inspire us to improve ourselves in some way (Nike's "Just do it"). By telling us to get off our collective lazy asses and get busy, Nike has been more gutsy in its communications with the public than any politician since JFK.

Yes, I know, there's a lot of BS mixed in with all of those stirring advertising appeals, and sometimes the connection between the upbeat messages and the actual product can be a tenuous one. Still, most product advertising is, on some level, trying to tell you what a particular brand stands for, whose interests it is seeking to represent, and what it may (in an ideal world) be able to do for you to make your life a tiny bit more enjoyable. In other words, sneaker ads tend to say all the things politicians should be saying in ads. (How I wish John Kerry had been able to figure out, and then artfully convey, the essential character of his own brand.)

So why can't political ads be more like clever, inspiring Nike or Apple ads? Well, for one thing, the people who make good ads generally steer clear of the political ad-making game. (There have been exceptions: Ronald Reagan's upbeat "Morning in America" campaign was made by Madison Avenue guys. And yes, it was schmaltzy and fuzzy, but as such, it pretty well reflected Reagan's way of thinking). When ad agency pros do try to get involved in political campaigns, they're usually marginalized by consultants and pollsters. "Those guys are very good at guarding their turf," one agency creative director told me.

The consultants also seem to be pretty good at milking the client. By promoting the attack/counterattack model, they end up making extra money off negativity; the constant back and forth, the need to always rebut the latest charge, means more commercials are needed. With the consultant taking a percentage fee on every ad.

Unfortunately, there's no denying that negatives ads often do work. They tend to hit harder than positive messages, and seem to get more immediate results. And given the intense pressures of an election campaign, it becomes very difficult for political advertisers to resist going negative, especially if the opponent is already doing so.

Is there any solution? The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 tried to discourage negative ads by requiring candidates to say, "I approved this message" at the end of commercials--the assumption being that candidates would not want to associate themselves with sleazy attacks. But the reform didn't go far enough: Instead of just having that brief cameo appearance at the end, regulations should require that every word uttered in an attack ad come straight from a candidate's mouth.

I'm sure I'll be told all kinds of reasons why this is not practical, or why it's unconstitutional, or why it would jeopardize the livelihoods of Karl Rove-wannabees. But it makes sense to me: In political commercials broadcast over the public airwaves, no one other than a politician in the race is allowed to talk about another politician in that race. No voiceovers, no 527 groups, no surrogates of any kind. Only candidate X is allowed to badmouth candidate Y, and he/she must do so facing the camera. This wouldn't stifle legitimate criticism of an opponent. But it would cut down on reckless smears. The swift boat commercials probably never would have happened if Bush had had to deliver the lines himself.

With attack options limited, candidates just might start to fill the advertising void with more about themselves. If they were smart, they would bypass the sleaze-merchants and seek out people who know how to create more positive images and more engaging messages. They might want to knock on the doors of the folks who've forged strong identities for the likes of Apple and Nike, and say to them, "Hello, I'm a politician. Can you please help me figure out what the hell I stand for?"

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