Category Archives: political advertising

We have only ourselves to blame.

When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.

–Hunter S. Thompson


Ad people are a pretty left-leaning bunch (the great Hal Riney and a few others being notable exceptions) and that certainly describes me. So like my fellow progressives, I’ve been in a self-pitying sulk since last Tuesday night. Staying off Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo for a week freed up some think time, and since this is a dead siteblog focusing on advertising, these thoughts are addressed to my colleagues:

Stop blaming Comey.

Stop blaming Bernie.

Stop blaming Millenials.

Stop blaming the media.

And most of all, stop blaming people with different values and different cultural reference points than yours.

You’ve all sat in enough focus groups and “ethnography” studies to know America isn’t Billyburg or even Hoboken.

You know–because you’ve told your clients this in defense of your craft–that emotions guide decision-making, not reason.

You were taught—or should have been if you weren’t—that before a customer can care about what you know, he needs to know whether or not you care.

The Democratic campaign leadership failed on all these counts. They wrote off an enormous swath of the voting public as Flyover Zone yahoos: too dumb, too ill-informed, too bigoted and too Jesus-loving to bother with.

And only after the damage was done, did they consider the possibility that some of those yahoos might have voted for Hilary if they were accorded just a smidgen of respect and attention.

Progressives—and I’m assuming at my peril that means most of my advertising cohort–were appalled at the alternate universe of Trump supporters: an echo chamber of true believers reinforcing and validating each others’ views.

The irony, of course, is that the exact same could be said of our own liberal bubble. Confident in our enlightened perspective and superior grasp of the facts, we commiserate with each other online and express our wonderment over this turn of events. We need to spend less time on HuffPo and more time with real people unlike ourselves if we’re ever to get our heads out of our collective asses and turn this thing around.

Remember the Maslow hierarchy from Psych 101? Let me jog your memory:maslowshierarchyofneeds-svg

Basic, primitive needs come first. That’s how we’re wired. When the crappy, highly processed cereal filled with government-subsidized corn and sugar is $2 a box and the locally produced, GMO-free granola is $8 and I’m making $10.25 an hour, I don’t want to be lectured about healthy eating. I may or may not be willing to support gay marriage, or welcome immigrants, or keep crazy people away from guns. I may be open to understanding and accepting the validity of other people’s religious beliefs.

But right now, I got other shit to think about, OK?

That’s what we lefties always get wrong. We’re always assuming the issues we’re passionate about—equality, inclusion, personal growth, the environment—should be everybody’s top priority. But all those issues fit into the tiny blue triangle of self-actualization at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. The rest, a giant submerged iceberg of hurt and need, is what the Democratic campaign ran into and then sank.

Here are two books that I highly recommend to fellow coastal and urban progressives and to advertising people in particular. In them you’ll find a more nuanced and more empathetic portrayal of people who live in a very different world than ours, but who are nonetheless recognizably human.







I want Nate Silver testing my ads.

Where have I been for the last 6 months?

Refreshing Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight blog ten times a day, like a rat hitting the treadle for morphine. Silver’s last electoral map projections are still up on his site: 50 for 50. He’s left it up like a war trophy—a scalp. And the scalped head in question is most likely Gallup’s. Silver has been beating Gallup like a rented mule all election season, and with good reason: it blew the last two election cycles badly and was a major Romney-leaning outlier all the way to the end this time.

“It was one of the best-known polling firms, however, that had among the worst results. In late October, Gallup consistently showed Mr. Romney ahead by about six percentage points among likely voters, far different from the average of other surveys. Gallup’s final poll of the election, which had Mr. Romney up by one point, was slightly better, but still identified the wrong winner in the election. Gallup has now had three poor elections in a row. In 2008, their polls overestimated Mr. Obama’s performance, while in 2010, they overestimated how well Republicans would do in the race for the United States House.”

Why has Gallup been getting it wrong? Like Mr. Romney and his party, it’s a bit stuck in the 50s, depending on land-line phones for its polling.  “Research by polling firms and academic groups suggests that polls that fail to call cellphones may underestimate the performance of Democratic candidates.

The roughly one-third of Americans who rely exclusively on cellphones tend to be younger, more urban, worse off financially and more likely to be black or Hispanic than the broader group of voters, all characteristics that correlate with Democratic voting.”

Well, duh.

But there are laws restricting access to cell numbers and the ability to make unsolicited calls. So what is a polling outfit to do? The big winners  this year were the research firms

who depended partly or entirely on online polling, which is where most Americans do their fact-finding and opining.

The stunning obviousness of this methodological flaw is

matched only by the glacial slowness with which traditional research firms are changing to adapt.

All of which got me to thinking about advertising research, which in 2012 is still rounding up the usual underemployed or retired suspects, sticking them in conference rooms with 2-way mirrors and showing them animatics or “adlobs.” It is as stuck in the 50s as Gallup, which itself had its roots in advertising research, and the reliability of the results is just as suspect.

If the triumph of Nate Silver teaches us anything, it’s that good data isn’t about the answers people give. It’s about who is giving the answers, and who’s asking the questions.


No one here but us old white people.

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a tale of two spokespeople

The use of celebrity spokespeople in ad campaigns in lieu of a real idea seems to be on the wane, which is a good thing. Chalk it up to the growing sophistication of the audience, which would rather know what their friends and peers think of a product than a bought and paid for shill.

Still, you see them, and if you watch Mad Men, you see them a lot. Especially John Slattery (Roger Sterling) for Lincoln. On paper (or PowerPoint) this looks like a good choice: guy who used to be dusty, now of the moment; solid Establishment type with a rebellious streak; a guy who you could plausibly see behind the wheel of this car (unlike, say, the crazy-ass choice of Tiger Woods for Buick a few years back).

But what a waste. Basically, they use Slattery as the world’s most expensive extra and hand-model. He has almost no lines. We see him in the distance, in shadow, from behind–like he was in a Witness Protection program, not starring in a TV commercial. Here’s a few examples:

Who is that guy? What is he hiding?

That very tiny man on the left would be Roger.

Underexposure is not Sam Waterston‘s problem in the TD Ameritrade campaign. He is the campaign–him and a big honking logo. No, his problem is that the company’s owner, Joe Ricketts, was revealed to be a batshit-crazy, hate-mongering wingnut. Eager to join such great Americans as the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, Ricketts was ready to open up his checkbook to run a rancid screed linking President Obama to Rev. Wright–a spot so noxious and inflammatory that even Mitt Romney felt compelled to condemn it (after the storyboard was leaked to the New York Times).

In a delicious reversal from the usual order of things, client bad behavior was dinging the spokesperson’s brand rather than the other way around. A brief read of Waterston’s bio suggests that he himself is sane, educated and moderately progressive in his views. And his other advertising activities include work for the Nation. Waterston, obviously recruited to TD Ameritrade as the rock-ribbed symbol of virtue and probity, must have had his lawyers looking closely to see if there was an escape clause in his contract last week. Even in these morally ambivalent times, this cannot be what he signed up for .

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If politicians were pills.

The recent uproar over Mitt Romney’s TV spot in which he shows a clip of Barack Obama saying “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose” without mentioning that Obama was actually quoting John McCain got me fulminatingthinking.

I mean, in the real advertising world, you can’t do an ad that says the sun will rise in the East without an affidavit from an astronomer and even then you have to stick in the word “probably.” And if you’re doing an ad for a prescription drug, you then have to spend 30 seconds warning people about the perils of sunshine.

That, my friends, is the difference between “commercial speech” and “political speech.” The former has to be more or less true, the latter has to be no more than 30 seconds long. Section 315 of the Communications Act specifically requires broadcasters to carry all political advertisements regardless of their truthfulness:

… If any licensee shall permit any person who is a legally qualified candidate for any public office to use a broadcasting station, he shall afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office in the use of such broadcasting station: Provided, That such licensee shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast under the provisions of this section.

Why did Congress make political advertising a truth-free zone? Something to do with not wanting government to be deciding what is and isn’t true in a candidate’s statements. The government can decide if you’re telling the truth about a nail fungus treatment, but can’t prevent you from lying about issues affecting the wellbeing and future of our country.

But we can dream, can’t we? Let’s imagine candidates were subject to the same advertising rules as prescription drugs. Why not? They all promise relief from life’s miseries. Rick Perry could be Viagra. Mitt Romney? Lipitor. Obama: Xanax.

So many political ads are churned out in the course of a campaign, it would be tough to run them all through the same heavy fact-check and legal gantlet real pharma ads go through. Let’s just focus on the fair-balance copy every spot would have to include:

(Name of candidate) is not for everyone.

Side effects include nausea, itchiness, regret and outrage.

Some people experience homicidal impulses, hysterical laughter or a strong desire to shower when exposed to (name of candidate) for long periods.

If you experience any of these symptoms, ask yourself whether (name of candidate) is right for you.

Compared to what?

Watching McCain last night demanding regime change from the status quo when the status quo was standing right in front of him, got me thinking about comparisons.

Advertisers love comparisons, and with good reason: they work. Comparing your product to something else puts its worth in context. It’s what consumers do anyway–you’re just helping them along.

Less sophisticated marketers do literal and heavy-handed comparisons to branded competitors, accompanied by lawyered-up copy and disclaimers, and consumers hate them for it. Even the incredibly deft Mac/PC ads get their share of blowback from people who consider them mean-spirited. (BTW–it’s amazing to me no one’s done the Obama/McCain version of these would seem like a YouTube no-brainer…)

But the most sophisticated marketers, like P&G and some (largely Republican) political strategists, have grasped the deeper, more insidious truth:

It doesn’t matter who or what you compare yourself to, as long as the comparison is in your favor.

Years ago, I worked on P&G’s Puffs Tissues business. The client was absolutely insistent on a side-by-side demo in the advertising for their “new and improved” product, even though Puffs had no visible, demonstrable difference vs. Kleenex. We didn’t even have a good comparison to the older, “unimproved” version of Puffs. Finally, the R&D folks at Procter pointed out that Puffs were, in fact, puffed up with air as their final step in manufacturing, so why not compare them to the unpuffed (that is to say, the unfinished) version? The result: a visual of a stack of Puffs towering over a sad short stack of unpuffed Puffs. And of course, it worked like a charm.

John McCain’s handlers hope the same will hold true with their candidate. Comparisons with Barack Obama are not necessarily advantageous, so why not use the departing administration, which very nicely fits the “big-spending, me-first, do-nothing” requirements, as the foil? Who cares if they’re Republican? They’re un-Puffed!

Thanks to AD Kim “Crazy Fingers” Magher for the Photoshop work.