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In california, where all trends begin, the post-Election Day headlines for the recent primaries were practically out of "The X-Files": "Big money loses. Negative political advertising backfires."

The truth is out there. Al Checchi, the billionaire businessguy, dropped a record $40 million-plus of his own money to wind up with a whopping 13% of the vote in the gubernatorial primary.

Jane Harman, a congresswoman whose sugarhubby is also worth millions, dropped more than $20 million to get 12%. Grey Davis spent a relative pittance to win handily. There is one lesson here, but not the one the national media are preaching. The headline should have been: "Political consultants doing crummy, tired, pedestrian, formula ads take down naive billionaire candidate while making enough to retire to Tahiti."

Mr. Checchi, who as president of Northwest Airlines Corp. presumably would have deep-sixed his agency for running formula ads that aped his competitors', had no problem spending his own money on political ads that were mostly reruns of tired political formats we've all seen millions of times. And after solemnly promising not to go negative, he almost immediately did so-using a sledgehammer and a buzz saw when, if anything, a scalpel was called for.


It's true that we, the electorate, are fat, dumb and happy thanks to the economy. So, for once, incumbents are not the pariahs they normally are. This year "Professional Politician" is a wearable badge-even a term of pride. So the appeal of the successful businessman-an outsider to fix the system-is hardly a resonating message.

Yet even allowing for Mr. Checchi's unfortunate timing, how could so much have yielded so little? How could those consultants get away with it?

A little history: Madison Avenue (known as Maiden Lane here in San Francisco) used to be responsible for lots of political ads, especially the major races. Such venerable names as Doyle Dane, Jack Tinker, McCann and others used to gladly get involved as agencies in political campaigns.

And if the agencies themselves shied away from candidates, then various individuals would take leaves and go to work on the campaign. (This reached its pinnacle in 1984 with Hal Riney's "Morning in America" re-election campaign for Ronald Reagan.)


Despite that level of work, political consultants have convinced almost all candidates that political advertising is some kind of separate specialty with its own rules and incantations, and that only these specialists are capable of this arcane form of persuasion. They shut us out (with the exception of presidential elections, and lately we're pretty much out of those, too).

What happened? First, we couldn't or didn't meet production cost realities-$50,000 is expensive for a political spot. For many, that amount would barely cover the craft service cost of a big-time shoot. Second, while most commercials take weeks to produce, political spots usually have to be turned around in a day or two, maybe a week. We said it couldn't be done. So political consultants stepped in and did it.

Third, there is a widespread distaste for politics in our hallowed, elitist circles, and a reluctance to get our hands dirty with attack or negative ads-which, like it or not, have elected many a candidate. There is also an attitude that political ads taint the industry and bring us down in the eyes of the public. (Anyone watching a night of local retail ads on cable would find this argument puzz-ling.)


The reason politicians should seek our counsel is the same reason other clients do: great creative. And this is where most political consultants fail their clients. Look at a reel of political spots and you'll find a shameless similarity.

All "bio" spots seem to have been written by the same person. The settings and the visuals are almost identical; only the candidates and their families and the beach they're walking on vary.

Almost all attack ads use flying newspaper headlines superimposed over the worst photo ever taken of the opponent. And, just in case you missed the message, it's reinforced with type at the bottom of the screen and forbidding voice-over. Consultants still operate on the 1960s Procter & Gamble Co. theory that if you run enough tonnage, the quality doesn't matter.

But poor Al Checchi could have bought a lot of creativity, and maybe the election, for his $40 million.


A confession: I'm a political nut. I love the game, the challenges, the tension, the stakes and the adrenaline. I've been part of it, having served on the national ad teams of Jerry Ford, George Bush and, very briefly, Bob Dole (very briefly). The consultants I've worked with, the cream of the Republicans, people such as Doug Bailey, Don Sipple, Mike Murphy and Alex Castellanos, understand the role of creativity and often bring in people like me in large, tight races. They bring us in because we know how to build brands and persuade people through humor, emotion and other skills. And they know that we respect their political savvy, insight and experience.


Maybe this record expenditure in California, with its dismal results, will cause candidates and consultants to stop spending good money on bad advertising. Elected officials and the people they appoint (as Bill Gates is finding out) exert enormous influence in our lives whether we like it or not. They are the most important product we can sell. Why shouldn't they be given the same quality of creative as good wine, milk or a great car? Jimmy Carter once said, "Why not the best?" Too bad this message never got to Al Checchi.

Mr. Gardner is president and executive creative director, Gardner, Geary, Coll & Young, San Francisco.

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