"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."
In 1975 a cut-rate electronics chain in New York launched what would become a legendary ad campaign. The low-budget spots featured a frenetic pitchman dressed in outrageous costumes who always signed off by waving his arms and shrieking, "Crazy Eddie's prices are insa-a-a-ane!" The ads aired mainly in the dead of night, but Crazy Eddie took off nevertheless. Today it is hard to find any decent-sized American city that does not have at least one local retailer whose commercials feature a zany pitchman hawking mattresses, used cars, or furniture.