Not so long ago, Joni Ernst was an obscure Iowa state legislator, struggling to get traction in a crowded GOP Senate primary. Her leading Republican rival had millions of his own money to spend. Another opponent was a former U.S attorney with high-profile conservative connections. A third challenger, a conservative talk-show host, was generating enthusiasm with the grassroots.
It all meant Ernst couldn't raise cash and was barely registering in early polling.
But with one viral television spot touting her experience castrating pigs, her fortunes changed. The ad, where Ernst argues her background will help her "cut pork in Washington," received attention far beyond inside-the-Beltway political circles. It was featured on The Tonight Show and The Colbert Report and it landed more than 531,000 YouTube hits. Now, several weeks later, Ernst holds critical momentum in the run-up to the June 3 primary, winning endorsements from Mitt Romney to Sarah Palin. Her once-paltry fundraising has boomed since the ad campaign, and she now leads in the latest primary polls.
It's a sign of how important television ads that can break through the clutter are in today's media-saturated environment, especially for Senate challengers who aren't established figures. Despite the newfound emphasis placed on microtargeting to rally the base, the reality in Senate races is that persuasion matters a lot. One catchy ad can make all the difference in launching a successful campaign. And the Iowa Senate race is one of the most important races in the country, a swing-state battleground that could determine whether Republicans win unified control of Congress.
"The opening line of that spot was a line that she used during a debate, and it brought the house down. We knew that there was some amount of risk, but we also knew that when she had said it before, that it worked," said Todd Harris, whose firm Something Else Strategies produced the 30-second ad. "When you're at 5 percent in the polls, and you're running against a guy who has set a record for personal spending on a campaign in Iowa, you're going to have to take some risks."
Despite the millions of ads that have aired in political campaigns since the advent of television, only a small fraction of them are truly memorable — and even fewer are decisive in changing the trajectory of a race. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio probably wouldn't be in Gracie Mansion if it wasn't for his son's appearance in a memorable primary spot that put the city's public advocate on the map. The ad featured 15-year-old Dante, with his oversized Afro, speaking warmly about de Blasio before revealing he was the candidate's son.
In 1990, then-Carleton College professor Paul Wellstone ran a series of quirky, humorous TV ads of himself racing across the state (literally) to introduce himself to Minnesota voters. Another showed him searching in vain for his opponent, then GOP Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, hoping to challenge him to debates. The ads, produced by media strategist Bill Hillsman, resonated; he was the only challenger to oust a sitting senator that year. Nearly a decade later, another Hillsman ad transformed professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura into Jesse "The Mind" Ventura in the final stretch of his independent gubernatorial campaign — likely making the difference in a close, three-way race. Shot in black and white, the ad featured a shirtless Ventura posing as Rodin's "The Thinker" as a narrator recites his campaign platform.
"It's harder to do these days. Incumbents will never do that once they're in the clutches of Washington," said Hillsman, the head of North Woods Advertising. "But if you have four people who aren't well-known, it makes sense for you to throw long — it drives attention to that particular person. And if you're the underdog, you have to take risks."
Hillsman, whose firm is based in Minnesota, argued that Washington's conservative, risk-averse culture makes it hard to get creative spots approved. Even Wellstone, he said, had to be tricked into recording the commercial, thinking the concept was a "joke" when he was informed of the advertising strategy. When he began filming, all Wellstone was told was that he should say his lines really fast. Only later did they show him the storyboards, and he reluctantly signed off.
Hillsman also recalled Ventura's wife and mother-in-law almost vetoed the Jesse "The Mind" advertisement from airing because they thought it looked like "he was on the toilet."
In truth, there's not a huge difference between producing a quirky dud and a catchy hit — and the risks of trying are enormous. Fred Davis, a Republican media strategist known for pushing the envelope with his campaign spots, was pilloried after he created a 2010 Web video for Senate candidate Carly Fiorina in California that cast her opponents as "demon sheep." A subsequent ad for Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, in which the embattled tea-party favorite proclaimed she is "not a witch," drew outsized attention for all the wrong reasons. But that same year, Davis produced Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's ad campaign defining the venture capitalist as "One Tough Nerd," successfully contrasting his profile against more politically experienced opponents.
"Sometimes what people think is creativity is just weirdness. There's a difference between weirdness with a strategic purpose behind it and weirdness for just being weird," said Hillsman. "Some people just have that ability to crash through the camera"“and really feel like they're connecting with them."
Ernst fits that description, with her farming background and military service. Her campaign followed up the debut with a new spot portraying a leather jacket-clad Ernst firing a gun at the shooting range while describing her opposition to Obamacare. "She's not your typical candidate. Conservative Joni Ernst. Mom. Farm girl. And a lieutenant colonel who carries more than just lipstick in her purse," the narrator says.
"Even though most of the political world wasn't all that focused on Iowa, everyone around Joni always knew that she had the potential to catch fire once voters started getting to know her. She really did grow up on a farm, she really did grow up castrating hogs, she really is a lieutenant colonel, she really does ride a Harley," Harris said. "It was an embarrassment of riches."