A top Republican ad maker sits in the living room of his house under the Hollywood sign, explaining how he uses a three-act structure to sell a candidate.
“My spots introduce the candidate in a broad, glorious, positive way,” says Fred Davis, founder of Strategic Perception, a firm that has produced GOP commercials since 1994. “In act two, we bring in conflict—maybe a jousting match between candidates over the issues,” he says, looking out past the movie studios. “In act three, my guy prevails, and we deliver an uplifting end.”
On the wall hang 22 large frames with color head shots of the politicians he’s helped, including John McCain and George W. Bush.
When Davis was running media earlier this year for John Kasich’s super PAC, New Day for America, his world was upended by Donald Trump’s insurgency. That hasn’t stopped him from daydreaming about how he’d advise Trump. “Maybe he’s not even in the ads,” says Davis. “It’s just people talking about their hopes and dreams and how Trump can help fulfill them.”
Democrats are torn on how to sell Hillary Clinton, even though she’s been in public life for almost 40 years.
By this time, presidential nominees and their admen are supposed to be running at full tilt, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on TV time. But in this irregular election, even the ad wars are surreal. Trump regards traditional political ads as outdated, as his billionaire friend Tom Barrack explained to CNN in June: “The raising of money is an antique. Super PACs are antiques. We’re testing a system just like every disruptive technology that’s in the market today, which is almost antipolitical and anti-rules.”
Thus a mysterious entity called Draper Sterling—created by an unknown Mad Men addict and linked to a house in Londonderry, New Hampshire—received $35,000 from Trump’s campaign for “web advertising” in late April, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. That’s not exactly Ogilvy.
Meanwhile, Democrats are torn on how to sell Hillary Clinton, even though she’s been in public life for almost 40 years. There’s the voice-of-God Morgan Freeman approach, pushing “Together—a stronger country” in black-and-white spots, or the ones attacking Trump, with a concerned voice announcing, “In a volatile world, the last thing we need is a volatile president.”
“The real Hillary, which people don’t really believe, is different from the public image of Hillary,” says Jimmy Siegel, former senior executive creative director at BBDO, whose clients included Visa and Pepsi. In 2008, Clinton’s campaign hired him to produce ads, which proved challenging. “She’s a warm, empathetic person,” he says. “And that has been hard to communicate in advertising in both of her campaigns. But I think it’s still important to try.”
That problem is also complicated because Clinton relies on the same old, same old. Rather than putting her image in the hands of creatives outside politics (as Bill did when he enlisted the creator of the Designing Women TV series to make his 1992 convention film), Clinton entrusts herself to Mandy Grunwald, a senior communications advisor who has been with the Clintons since 1992. Even if some candidates understand that the best ads in politics have sprung from the heads of non-politicos in ad agencies, chances are they won’t make the change.
“The agency people think the politicos are a bunch of hacks, and the political people think the agency people are a bunch of candy-asses interested more in lighting and camera angles than in message,” explains Martin Puris, who crafted BMW’s “The ultimate driving machine” slogan and later worked for President George H.W. Bush’s reelection.
Sometimes campaigns get it right. For his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon brought in an ad exec who’d made commercials for Ford and Pan Am. He won in an electoral landslide. When President Ronald Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, his campaign turned to a San Francisco adman known for romantic commercials for Gallo wines. The result was “It’s morning again in America,” the opening line to what’s acknowledged as one of the best campaign ads ever. And the most powerful advertising for then senator Barack Obama—the iconic 2008 HOPE poster—was created by street artist Shepard Fairey, who had no ties to the political establishment.
“The problem is that political ads tend to look and sound the same,” says Siegel. “It’s the cast of characters who change. So getting people from outside the political arena who are more trained to say, ‘How do we break through the clutter?’ can be very effective.”
Whit Hiler, a master of viral campaigns and one of the nation’s leading creatives, admits he’s “not really into politics” but offers what could be a masterstroke for a campaign: “Use the Top Gun anthem. That theme is amazing. I think it would make people stop what they’re doing and pay attention.”