We Don't Do Political Advertising -- and for Good Reason

The Risks Outweigh the Rewards

By Published on .

A recent story by Ned Martel in The Washington Post asked whether the current political campaign ads could benefit from what he characterized as a "Mad Men Touch." It certainly touched on a sore spot for all of us who work at mainstream advertising agencies in the Washington area. Friends often ask, "Do you do political advertising?" And the answer is always a resounding and heartfelt "no." Sure, some mainstream ad folks will take a leave of absence to work on a campaign they're particularly passionate about. That was the case with my former boss, David Angelo of David&Goliath in Los Angeles, when he worked on the Clinton campaign. But generally speaking, political advertising is an entirely different animal from what we do every day.

As someone who spent many years working in Los Angeles fielding the question, "Do you do movie advertising?" my current situation is freakishly similar. Much like elections, movies have a finite window. An election day. An opening weekend. You either win or lose and it's over pretty quickly. No time to build a brand. No time for trial and error. Beyond that , much like elections, movies are ego-driven. A producer, a director, a star, has final say. You can do a million iterations of clever ads, but at the end of the day, you can bet that it's going to read something like, "Barbra Streisand is Yentl!" Candidates and powerful campaign managers are no different. As are billionaires with deep pockets and an axe to grind.

Nevertheless, there's all that money. Candidate and issue campaigns spend billions and billions of dollars in a brief timeframe. What agency wouldn't want a piece of that pie? How can you leave that on the table without at least giving it a try? It really comes down to whether you want to rip your agency apart, change all of the procedures you've put into place, forget the customary checks and balances and just go all out for several months in hopes that the collateral damage to the agency and your existing clients will be worth it in the long run.

And then there's the matter of ideology. It's one thing to ask your employees to write a commercial for a beer they don't drink or a soap they don't use. It's something else to ask people to sell principles they find personally abhorrent. Most political agencies have a particular philosophical bent and they stick to it. They attract like-minded people. By contrast, I've found a broad spectrum of views at the agencies I've worked at. So, for management, the question is , "Do I force people to work on something they don't believe in? Or even work at a place that 's hellbent on electing someone my employees find abhorrent?"

Political ads defy what we in advertising hear every day, in every focus group we attend. "Don't tell me what's wrong with the other product. Tell me what's good about yours." Of course, that doesn't stop us from doing comparison advertising. And a lot of it is effective. But no consumer product benefits from a constant strategy of attacking and belittling the competition. Eventually, you have to stand for something. Unless, of course, it's an election year.

Finally, there's the work itself. Most advertising creatives want work they can be proud of ; work that wins awards and goes into their portfolios as examples of what they can do. By and large, political advertising is hectoring, polemic dreck. Sure, there are exceptions. Love or hate the candidate, you had to admire the work Hal Riney did for the Reagan campaign. "Morning in America" remains iconic and uplifting. It was beautifully written, beautifully shot and voiced with the folksy, comforting tones of Mr. Riney himself. That voice could sell just about anything -- including a second term for a second-rate actor who turned out, in retrospect, to be a pretty decent president.

So when people hear that I work for an advertising agency in the D.C. area, I'm just going to have to brace for the inevitable. No, I don't do political ads. And the more I see, the happier I am to be able to say that .

Claudia Caplan is CMO of Bethesda, Md.-based RP3 Agency.
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