I wrote about Monica Wehby's terrific ad in the Oregon Senate race late last week. It occurred to me after writing the item that it was worth talking to the guy who made the ad, Jon Downs. Downs is a partner at FP1 Strategies, a Republican consulting firm. I reached out to Downs to talk to him about the Wehby ad and the general trends influencing the business of making persuasive political ads. Our conversation, edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: Let's start with the Wehby ad. Where did the idea come from? How long did it take to get together? Did you know you had something right away?
DOWNS: One of the best parts of my job is being able to talk with people across the country about truly amazing, and often heartbreaking, personal stories and experiences. Interviewing Lexi was the first time I have ever gotten choked up while the camera was rolling (although being the dad of three, including a five week old baby, might have impacted that). Yes, I knew the ad would be powerful.
Monica Wehby can beat [Democratic Sen.] Jeff Merkley, in part, because she has a unique background and a fresh perspective. Most importantly, she is running for the right reason: she knows she can help. With a candidate like that, my job is often to just get out of the way and let her story tell itself. Voters are looking for authenticity. Too many consultants try to force feed them talking points.
FIX: I tend to be skeptical that positive ads work and are worth doing. You disagree (I assume). Tell me when positive ads work.
DOWNS: If you believe focus groups or unsolicited advice from relatives, you’d think positive ads are the only thing that works and negative ads are a waste of money. If you have followed politics in recent years, you would know that more often than not the opposite is true: negative ads move numbers.
All that said, positive ads are more important today than ever. The volume of negative ads from outside groups allows smart campaigns to run more positive advertising than in years past. Unfortunately, too many positive ads are simply an impersonal regurgitation of top poll questions. Ads work when a connection is made with the voter, and you don’t have to be a life-saving pediatric neurosurgeon to get that done (although it certainly doesn’t hurt). With the built-in hatred of Washington, and general distrust of anybody who is running for office, making this personal connection can be incredibly difficult -- but when achieved, it can be incredibly impactful.
FIX: There does seem to be some movement to less hard negative spots – even from outside groups. Are voters sick of them?
DOWNS: I think the most effective ‘negative’ ads this year have followed the strategy you describe. The unprecedented volume of advertising certainly means voters are getting sick of those ads, but I think it goes a step further than that – voters are jaded. They have built up a tolerance for standard negative one-size-fits-all advertising, and those ads run the risk of just being expensive noise.
Tone matters. Authenticity matters. Credibility matters. Just like real people telling real stories can make for powerful and effective positive ads, they can have the same effect as a contrast or negative ad. It takes more time, money, and skill to do – but when executed properly, the result is almost always worth it. Studio ads with booming voice talents and heavy graphics still have a time and place, but utilizing them should be a strategic decision, not a default starting point.
FIX: How does someone who makes commercials for a living feel about commercials becoming a thing of the past due to DVR, on demand TV, etc?
DOWNS: Using moving pictures to tell stories will never be a thing of the past. Currently, television is the 800-pound gorilla not just because of its reach but because it allows for more emotion than a piece of mail, phone call, banner ad, or tweet. The mechanics of delivering commercials will change, and FP1 will change with them. But the need to educate, persuade, and motivate via video advertising will always remain constant – and king.
FIX: What's the best Democratic ad you've ever seen? Why?
DOWNS: This isn’t the best Democratic ad I’ve ever seen (sorry) but when I first saw the [Sen. Mary] Landrieu's “Will Not Rest” ad I was really intrigued. That was not a fast, easy or cheap ad to produce. We learned just how hard it was to do when the staged hearing was discovered. That ad showed me that Democrats understand the trouble candidates like Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich are in this year, and demonstrated how far out on a limb they are willing to go to re-create who their candidates are and what they have done. I’m happy I’m on the side of the woman who saves lives for a living.