Voters Don't Hate Attack Ads; They Hate Bad Ads

Confessions of a Political Ad Man

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I am an advertising man.

A political advertising man.

A Republican political advertising man.

When I left my regular ad job to do politics full-time, my executive creative director said, "I always knew you liked politics, but I had no idea you were a Republican." The emphasis on "Republican" was interchangeable with the emphasis you would put on the words "puppy eater."

"I hope you do well," he said, "and that all your clients lose."

I was the first person to type the immortal words "I'm so and so and I approve this message."

That was mine.

We were the team that knocked off Tom Daschle.

I'm the guy who brought you the infamous "Harold, Call Me" ad, which Bob Garfield called one of the worst ads of 2006.

I love my job.

When I tell people what I do, it takes them roughly 0.005 seconds to bring up the fact that they hate negative advertising. Guess what. I hate negative advertising, too. Even more than you do.

It's easy to see why anyone with taste would hate it. The traditional negative political ad starts off with a grainy picture of the opposing candidate in an unflattering pose while a baritone-voiced announcer speaks over gloomy music saying things like "What kind of man is Bob Smith?"

I hate those commercials, too. They're bad. And that's my point. People are fine with negative advertising; it's bad advertising they hate.

Focus group after focus group, for political and traditional clients alike, shows that people hate attack advertising. At least, what they perceive as attack advertising. They have no trouble with you pointing out differences, but don't attack the other side. People hate that.

Or do they?

There's an ad campaign running right now that has all the hallmarks of traditional attack advertising. One side portrays the other in an unflattering light and spends 30 seconds hammering away at the other side's flaws. It starts, "Hi, I'm a Mac. And I'm a PC."

Simple, brilliant, effective. A negative ad done with taste.

And guess what? A little good taste works in political advertising, too.

In a race where we were on the receiving end of some nasty negative ads, we decided to retaliate. But instead of doing a nasty ad right back, we used vintage football footage and a 1930s-style sports announcer to make the point that our opponent was blocking progress in the Senate using his patented move "The Filibuster." It was funny, it was unexpected, and it made the point.

As soon as it ran, people started calling the TV stations. Not to complain, but to ask when it was going to run again. For a creative guy, that's a dream come true.

After asking about negative advertising, everybody wants to know about lying in advertising. Usually asked in the form of "Why don't you guys ever tell the truth?"

Fact is, we're obsessed with facts. If you tell a lie in a shampoo ad, your competitors file a protest and your ad might be pulled. Absolute worst-case scenario: Your client gets fined by the FTC. Maybe.

Tell a lie in a political commercial, and you could go to jail. Talk to somebody at another agency who is working for a third party supporting your candidate -- even if you talk about golf and the weather -- and you could go to jail. And we're talking a real, live federal prison with stainless-steel toilets and a roommate named Spike.

We are highly motivated to tell the truth.

And then there's the whole "I'm so and so, and I approved this message." That doesn't really happen, does it? It happens, or else. (See above regarding stainless-steel toilets.) Nothing goes on TV until the candidate personally signs off on it. That goes for positive spots as well as negative ones.

Why do I do it? Because most political advertising sucks. Many practitioners have no business writing and producing TV commercials. No offense to them, they're just filling a need because traditional ad people aren't willing to do it. (Sure, a lot of top creatives have been involved in spots for high-profile presidential campaigns, but that doesn't really count.) To my mind, it's one of the last great untamed creative opportunities. And it doesn't hurt that you can work for a client you really believe in.

Next time you see a political commercial, please know that some of us are trying to make them better. And if it's one of those negative spots with the grainy photo of the opponent, send me the client's name. We're always looking for new business.

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Vinny Minchillo is chief creative officer of Scott Howell & Company, Dallas.
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