Hillsman Gives Mixed Review to Republican Efforts

But Adman Says Obama Won't Convince Independents That McCain Is Just Like Bush

By Published on .

MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- As Republicans offer their message in the Twin Cities during the Republican National Convention, a local ad executive most experienced in crafting political messages is giving them mixed marks.

Bill Hillsman, who as chief creative officer of North Woods Advertising handled campaigns for Democrats and for independents such as Jesse Ventura and Ralph Nader, said the GOP convention started "flat" compared to the Democratic National Convention he attended in Denver. He also doubts the effectiveness of Sen. Joe Lieberman's appeal to independents, calling the speech "shameless." (Mr. Hillsman may not be exactly an impartial observer. He handled the campaign of Ned Lamont, Lieberman's primary opponent two years ago.)

But Mr. Hillsman gives Republicans and the campaign of John McCain more credit for effectively targeting independents than he does Democrats and the campaign of Barack Obama.

"The McCain people are doing a better job with their advertising, and I think it's because they understand the audience," he said. "All these people in Washington are decrying the Paris Hilton ad. I looked at that and said, 'This is a great ad if you want to talk to independents or even if you want to lay the track for ... an attack in the fall.' It's totally out of the Rove playbook: Take your opponent's strength and turn it into a weakness. I thought it was a really shrewd ad, strategically."

He said one Obama campaign problem is its repeated suggestion that McCain would be a third term for George Bush, a charge he said independents don't believe.

"This notion about McCain as being an extension of a third Bush term is strategically wrong, because independents already know that [McCain] is not George W. Bush. He's run against George W. Bush. So that sort of nonsense doesn't have any pick-up with them. The job that has to be done for Obama to win ... is to convince independents that this John McCain is a hell of a lot different from the John McCain in 2000."

Mr. Hillsman is known for his tongue-in-cheek style of advertising, and his ads helped elect the late Paul Wellstone as U.S. senator here. One of his ads for Mr. Ventura's gubernatorial race posed the former professional wrestler as Rodin's "The Thinker."

Besides questioning the third-term focus in ad messages, Mr. Hillsman feels the Obama campaign is putting too little emphasis on luring independent voters. At an event in Denver last week, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe made it clear that independents and swing voters were the primary target of their ground organizations. But that's part of the problem, said Mr. Hillsman.

"The big problem for the Obama campaign is they are putting too much emphasis on field operations, the internet and on reaching young voters and new voters," he said. "I don't think you can reach the swing voters they need to reach via the internet or via the field. I think that is the big Achilles' heel in their operations. And they have not demonstrated they know how to use mass media effectively in terms of talking to swing voters."

He said successfully reaching independent voters means adopting a nonpolitical approach to achieve a political message.

"If you can talk to these people in the same language that could make them feel good about a product or make a brand decision, that's the way to talk to them about politics. They are not partisans and they are not going to trust the media, so you have to do something that will get their attention and deliver a message in a way they are used to getting messages and it is not a traditional political ad."

Yet Mr. Hillsman said Democrats and the Obama campaign did a wonderful job at the Democratic convention.

"I thought they ran a marvelous convention. There was a ton of energy out there. Everybody was fired up. I thought [Obama] delivered a great speech. I thought he hit a bunch of things he really had to. He really had to reach out to working-family Democrats. He had to reach out to independents. He had to reach out to Latino voters. He had to reach out to young voters to keep them excited. I think he did a very good job of that."

Mr. Hillsman said the GOP convention had none of the same energy early on, and he said the delay for Hurricane Gustav ended up looking odd.

"It was pretty obvious what they were trying to do, and it looked stupid when it fizzled out. It would have been a brilliant political move if it was the second coming of Katrina," he said. "But I think they got back on track [Tuesday]."
Most Popular