This year, once again, a huge number of Americans will experience their most tangible encounter with politics not at a campaign rally, debate, or meetup, or even on the evening news, but by being subjected to a televised political advertisement. And then, very likely, another and another and another ...
Election seasons flood the airwaves with ads. By a wide margin, campaigns are now spending more on advertising than on anything else, and with each cycle the amount they spend grows dramatically. The Campaign Media Analysis Group, a private firm that tracks televised political ads, counted a total of 1,497,386 spots aired in the nation's top 100 markets in 2002. And that year, even without a presidential election, the cost for the first time exceeded $1 billion. In the Boston market one station alone, WMUR, broadcast 17,328 ads. This year those numbers will easily be eclipsed.
Being on the receiving end of all this can feel more like punishment than politics: not only do these ads arrive at an unrelenting pace, but they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Every year, like clockwork, the same shopworn phrases are intoned against a flow of stock footage in identical, shoddily produced attacks ("My opponent says he's against terrorism—so why did he cut funding for our troops?") and counterattacks ("We need progress, not divisive attacks"), all narrated with the same portent-of-doom voice-over implying that a miscast vote for first selectman could imperil the republic. Most people would agree that televised political ads, almost without exception, are remorselessly bad.
This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that commercials for consumer products actually tend to be quite good, and the TV-viewing public is exceptionally savvy about advertising. Consumer ads regularly warrant their own prime-time TV specials, and have become such a staple of our popular culture that Super Bowl hype now derives as much from the debuts of high-profile ad campaigns as from the game itself. So it's strange that the commercials that seek to influence the most important "brand choice" any of us can make—for the leader of the free world—so consistently lag in quality and imagination behind those intended to influence our choice of light beer.
From his Pittsburgh office in the stylishly renovated headquarters of what was once the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, the Republican media consultant John Brabender struggles against this sort of mediocrity. Brabender, forty-seven, is a floppy-haired man distinguishable from his fellow Pittsburghers only by his adman's black suit. He is as kinetic and subversively funny as his product. Just inside the door of BrabenderCox visitors are greeted by what appears to be an authentic electric chair, complete with restraining straps—a prop from a recent spot. It sits below a faux movie poster with a mock critic's endorsement for the firm: "You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll get elected!"
When I paid him a visit in April, Brabender ushered me into his studio and joined his creative director, Ron Dylewski, in a tutorial on what makes a successful political ad. It required little in the way of explanation. On a giant-screen television Brabender first played "Waste," which he created for Rick Santorum's successful 1994 challenge to Senator Harris Wofford, of Pennsylvania. It opens with a hand daintily snipping a sliver of paper with red kiddie scissors. "This is how serious Harris Wofford is about cutting government waste," begins a gentle voice, over the lilt of chamber music. Cut to another pair of hands as a chain saw tears through an enormous stack of paper. The voice becomes a bellow fit for a monster-truck-show announcer: "And this is how serious Rick Santorum is! In the last term of Congress he introduced more original bills cutting government waste than anyone else! Join the fight!"—a boxing glove smashes through the screen—"Santorum for Senate!" Memorable and funny, the whole ad lasts just fifteen seconds.
Brabender then played "Ski Patrol," which was created with the Bush campaign in mind but never had a chance to air. It begins with a shot of blue sky and pristine alps. "Howard Dean was granted a deferment from the military after showing up at a recruitment office with an x-ray indicating he had a bad back," the voice-of-God narrator says. Suddenly a skier shoots off a snowy precipice and slaloms expertly down the mountain. "That very same year, Dean went on to ski eighty times—eighty—helping him to become an expert skier and the perfect commander in chief ... if we ever go to war against Switzerland." Brabender played more ads, none of which looked anything like the ones most people are accustomed to seeing. "Garden State Strikes Back," from the 2002 New Jersey Senate race, was a faithful and clever knockoff of the Star Wars sequel, in which the "USS Forrester" attacks and destroys the Death Star-like "Torricelli." The ad is entirely computer-animated, and on a par with any popular video game.
"There's a stifling sameness to what we do," Brabender laments. Unlike consumer-ad makers, political campaigns are inherently cautious. Brabender faults the consultant culture that has infected modern campaigning, wherein pollsters, campaign managers, and very often the candidates themselves demand to have creative input. "Everybody wants to play Siskel and Ebert," he told me. "Candidates ride around all day coming up with ads in their heads." He cited the tale of the former New York senator Alfonse D'Amato's last stand: "D'Amato once said to me, 'Where's my line-item-veto ad?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Don't you understand? People all over this country are sitting at their dinner tables at night wondering why we don't have a line-item veto.'" Even now Brabender looked incredulous.
Design by committee, Brabender says, stifles creativity and produces lousy ads. Less is often more in a visual medium like television, but many pollsters and campaign managers seem blind to that: they try to cram as many issues into an ad as they can. If someone throws five tennis balls at you, he points out, it's tough to catch any of them. But with a single ball it's easy. The effectiveness of ads like "Ski Patrol" lies in their simplicity.
Such quality is the exception. More often, Brabender says, the creative process goes something like this: "Say a candidate is vulnerable on Social Security and needs an ad to turn things around. The pollster will say, 'You must say these four things: We're not going to change the rules, we're not going to raise taxes,' and so on. So every candidate is basically saying the same four poll-tested things." No wonder viewers can pretty much recite them in advance.
Ad makers have developed a kind of visual shorthand to communicate with viewers at a level of minimal consciousness. "When you want to signify that your candidate is good on jobs," Brabender says, "you shoot him in a hard hat, pointing at a steel beam. That's the universal code for 'jobs.' When you want to reach seniors, you shoot him in a nursing home, smiling gently at older folks." To link him with education, multiracial kindergartners are the norm (teenagers might look surly); for Middle American wholesomeness rolling fields of wheat are reliable; and especially since 9/11, the universal signifier for strength and patriotism has been "flags, flags, flags." In 2002 one political-consulting firm, Politically-e, dispensed with any illusion of originality and offered pre-taped political commercials that campaigns could buy and tailor to the candidate, like off-the-rack suits. "It's a lot like fast food," Brabender says. "It's cooked up and served the same way every time, and it leaves you unsatisfied and probably with a bit of indigestion."