As the presidential race enters its final month, there are growing doubts among Democratic and independent observers about the candidate's ad strategy. While the criticism varies, virtually all agree the ad campaign hasn't properly established an identity for Sen. Kerry or taken effective advantage of issues like unhappiness over the economy or the Iraq war. Still, the candidate could see a boost from what observers scored a strong showing in the first presidential debate last week.
"Typically the best campaigns establish comfortable personalities. They do that work up front. Then they go on the attack," said Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, and a Democrat who had a hand in Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign for the U.S. Senate. "A high percentage of voters decide based on whether they feel you can invite the candidate home for dinner and feel comfortable. They have to feel good about the guy. That work should have been done and behind us."
Mr. Verdi's advice to Mr. Kerry: "I would make clear to everyone that Bush's position on the war is not resolute. It's stubborn. His only choice now is to go down the path and be aggressive."
Jeff Goodby, co-chairman, Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, saying he was unable to comment on the Kerry ads specifically, noted that modern political ads often lack the emotional appeal that marked Ronald Reagan's "Morning Again in America." He said candidates are now "sold like a rug store's going-out-of-business sale."
Larry J. Sabato, a professor who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said he doesn't believe an image effort such as "Morning in America" would work this time. "This is not the kind of year for it," he said. "This is a harsh, tough political year about macro issues, like war and peace, the economy and divisive social and cultural matters."
Still, he said, Mr. Kerry has erred. The Kerry camp, he said, had "an unpopular war and the economy [to work with] and they have been unable to capitalize on either."
Mr. Kerry's advertising has been directed by Shrum Devine & Donilon, Washington, whose principal, Bob Shrum, was also involved with Vice President Al Gore's campaign four years ago. The campaign has also enlisted Squier Knapp Dunn, another Washington firm, as well as additional help for African-American and Hispanic efforts. Mr. Shrum's partner, Tad Devine, is the chief strategist for the campaign. Mr. Shrum and officials of the campaign did not return calls for comment last week.
The two Madison Avenue execs closest to the Kerry campaign are Jack Connors, CEO of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, and Roy Spence, CEO of GSD&M, Austin, Texas. Mr. Connors handled Mr. Kerry's first unsuccessful campaign for Congress and has remained a friend of the senator. Mr. Spence, who worked with Bill Clinton in his first run for president, helped Sen. John Edwards craft his Democratic convention speech. Both declined to comment on the Kerry ad strategy.
Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising, a Minneapolis firm that generally handles Democratic candidates (though he did Ralph Nader's Presidential campaign four years ago and Jesse Ventura's campaign for Minnesota governor), slammed the Kerry effort as "inept."
"They have done a piss-poor job of communicating," he said. He added that independent spending from groups such as MoveOn.org and the Media Fund did not help Mr. Kerry because they were "preaching to the choir" instead of undecided voters.
"To me, the Bush people are so much better than the people Kerry has surrounded himself with," he said. "They have not done a good job of explaining their message. The Democrats are all over. There has been no clear plan since day one and Kerry has given nobody a reason to vote for him."
far from over
Moreover, Mr. Hillsman said the campaign still hasn't figured out how to present Mr. Kerry. "The problem of the Kerry campaign is how to sell John Kerry. If they haven't figured it out by October" the chances are small they still can.
Bill Carrick, the Los Angeles ad executive who handled Rep. Dick Gephardt's primary campaign, agreed the Kerry campaign could have done more to present the candidate, but believes the race is far from over. "If the presidential debates make voters more comfortable with Mr. Kerry, the six-point margin in polls could quickly disappear." The key, he said, is getting people already disenchanted with President Bush to commit to Mr. Kerry.
He said that the Kerry campaign lacks "a transcending spot" and needs to present a stronger image, but he cautioned that Mr. Bush's continued use of attack advertising poses risks, too.
"At some point everyone will get sick of these attacks. ... I think there will be another twist and turn, maybe more than one. "