Mad Ave. misses the boat on Bradley

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Bill Bradley's Crystal Team was supposed to be Madison Avenue's triumphant return to presidential advertising. Instead, the failure of his presidential bid may raise new questions about Madison Avenue's future political role.

Political consultants and independent campaign observers say Sen. Bradley's problems went beyond advertising, but his ads didn't help.

"Looking at some of the ads, it's difficult to lay the blame solely at the feet of those who did advertising," said Jim Margolis, a partner in Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns & Associates, a Washington agency that handled President Clinton's first presidential run.

Sen. Bradley "wanted to run a different kind of campaign that wasn't going to include attack ads," Mr. Margolis said. "The lesson here is that when you are in a tough fight and someone is drawing contrasts with you, a failure to respond effectively can have disastrous results."

OVERALL PROBLEM

David Axelrod, a Chicago ad consultant whose Axelrod & Associates handles a number of Democratic candidates, said the ads reflected the Bradley campaign's overall problem of message and style.

"He failed to effectively differentiate himself from Al Gore in a way that he could sustain," Mr. Axelrod said. "The peculiar lack of energy and dynamism was evident in his campaign style and advertising, and summarized by `It can happen,' which may be the most passive tagline in the history of American politics. What people are looking for are candidates who can make it happen."

The Bradley campaign assembled a team of ad veterans, including former Y&R Chairman Alex Kroll, former Ad Council President Ruth Wooden and Linda Kaplan Thaler, President-CEO of the Kaplan Thaler Group (see accompanying story).

The group as originally announced included 11 Madison Avenue veterans. But most of the ads turned out to be put together by a core group that included Will Robinson, a partner at MacWilliams Cosgrove Robinson, Washington; Ms. Wooden; the Kaplan Thaler team; former Y&R Creative Director Marvin Waldman; former N.W. Ayer & Partners Creative Director Agi Clark; and Margaret Mark, president of Margaret Mark Strategic Insights. Sen. Bradley's communications chief, Anita Dunn, on leave as a principal at Squier Knapp Dunn, Washington, oversaw ad strategy.

NO SEPARATION

The team started with some introductory ads, later used spots produced out of Sen. Bradley's town hall meetings and ended the weekend before Super Tuesday with b&w ads.

Political consultants say the ads, like Sen. Bradley's campaign, didn't clearly separate the former senator from Vice President Gore.

"There was a meandering quality to the spots," Mr. Axelrod said. "There was a subtler attack on [Vice President Gore's] character that was not clear and not effective. When they finally tried to contrast, they rolled out the cannon, lit the fuse and a little flag came out and said `pop.' It reflected the [Bradley] campaign."

Yet other political observers said Sen. Bradley was victimized by his personality and the news media more than by his ads.

"There were two problems with Bradley. One was Bradley turned out to be a fellow with not much charisma," said Steve Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "In a season dedicated to buzz and personality, Bradley was just plain dull."

The second was that Democrats lost the battle for free media time after New Hampshire.

FREE MEDIA FOIBLES

"Democrats were totally blanked out in the free media. I've never seen anything like it. The media proved that they couldn't cover two campaigns, and it was just devastating to Bill Bradley."

Mr. Hess said Sen. Bradley did better in New Hampshire than Bill Clinton did eight years ago, but it was Republican John McCain who got the publicity and the media bounce.

"There were contests in two parties, and each party had an insurgent, serious candidate," Mr. Hess said. "But on the basis of McCain's personality, he got a bounce that was unheard of and Bradley was left in his wake. I don't know what advertising could have done to turn that around."

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