It's morning again for the Tuesday Team, Ronald Reagan's campaign advertising magicians. They were up until 2 a.m. the night before, and now, the same people who brought you the lush "It's morning again in America" television spots are straggling into a New York editing room for another marathon session. Five of them gulp their coffee, pick at doughnuts, then watch raw videotape that was shot two days before. It looks bad.
On screen in the darkened editing room is a bearded, heavy-set accountant sitting on a living room couch and telling the camera in flat, somber tones that "it's Mr. Ronald Reagan's policies that made the difference in our lives."
"God, it's deadly," says Mark Zimmerman, a Tuesday Team member and a 26-year-old account executive on leave from J. Walter Thompson. He puts his head in his hands.
But then, into the room trundles a large, crinkly-haired man with cowboy boots, an impressive stomach, and a red bomber jacket with an American flag on the sleeve. It's Ron Travisano, the creator of the singing cat on the Meow Mix commercials. "Sorry I'm late," he says, eyeing the tape.
"Can you save it?" Zimmerman asks.
For the next two hours, that's what he does. Calling out orders to technicians at computer keyboards, Travisano softens the rough edges, eliminating a jarring "flip" -- a too-rapid scene change.
"Nice," says Travisano. "Much better than that flip. That's the kind of thing Mondale would do -- the Mondale flip."
"That's why you get the big bucks, Travisano," says Doug Watts, the Reagan campaign's media director.
Travisano then adds the music, normally anathema to political spots. It's an original sound track created for the Reagan campaign, and it gives the commercial an emotional sweetness it didn't have before. "We got a decision here," he says, turning to Watts. "I'm really loving the music, but there's a chance people are going to say, 'El Slicko.' "
But Watts loves it, too.
"There's not too much we've done so far that's been normal," Travisano says, pleased. "No reason we should stop now."
Meet the Dr. Feelgood gang, the Madison Avenue team that wants to bring a lump to your throat and goose bumps to your skin as you watch the Reagan campaign commercials, most of them controversial breakthroughs in political advertising. "Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four short years ago?" an announcer asks in soothing tones. The sun shines on San Francisco Bay, bustling people hurry to work, a bride and groom -- played by an actor and actress -- kiss softly at their wedding. A small town even turns out for a flag-waving parade, staged by a production company that hired the high school band in Petaluma, Calif., and then found a local girl to play the homecoming queen. The photography has a golden quality, as if it were all shot on warm September afternoons. A lilting, joyful sound track plays in the background, the theme song for the president who may be using television more skillfully -- his critics say more shamelessly -- than any other in history.
"It's been gangbusters," says Michael Deaver, the White House deputy chief of staff and a key force behind the Tuesday Team.
Last winter, the White House at first tried to hire Jerry Della Femina, the flamboyant chairman of Della Femina, Travisano and Partners, but he turned them down when he saw how much time it would take. (His associates say the no-deal with the White House had nothing to do with a 1981 interview he gave to Oui magazine, in which he described a "sex contest" at his agency where employes voted for the colleague of the opposite sex they would most like to go to bed with.)
Instead, the Tuesday Team Inc., an independent advertising agency named for Election Day, was created. Now some 40 top advertising executives, the same people who brought you Campbell Soup, Gallo wine, Rolls-Royce and Prego Spaghetti Sauce, work out of a temporary, shabby set of offices above Radio City Music Hall in New York, spending close to $25 million, or more than half of Reagan's general election campaign budget, on the 31 commercials that have aired so far. Some are on leave from their jobs until Nov. 6, while their salaries -- as high as $500,000 a year -- are paid by their agencies. The agencies then bill the Tuesday Team for their time.
The idea caused initial debate within the Reagan campaign itself. Some worried that the high production quality the team demanded wouldn't be worth the time and the cost, particularly since political advertising has traditionally been a rough art of hard-sell persuasion. From the day in 1948 that Harry Truman became the first presidential candidate to buy television time to broadcast a speech, few media advisers worth their billings would make a break from the kind of issue-and-debate spots that mark most campaigns -- not unlike those produced by Peter Dailey for Reagan in the 1980 campaign. Never mind that the production quality wasn't up to the standards of Miller Beer; people watching political spots would be turned off by that kind of "slickness."
But the Tuesday Team regards standard political advertising as "awful." Instead, they have created a soft-sell campaign based on their view of the facts, a lot of market research and even more poignancy. It was designed to live up to the high-gloss standards of the Reagan White House, and also to please the president and Nancy Reagan. Neither liked the 1980 ads. Now, like the old Yamaha commercials (created in the mid-'70s by Tuesday Team member Hal Riney) that told you almost nothing about the motorcycle but had you humming the "Yamaha, Fly Me Away" theme song for days afterward , the president's spots are designed to make you happy. Although the Tuesday Team also produced some of the more traditional spots on the air now, including a "talking head" of Reagan looking straight into the camera, the landmark spots of smiling people are what the president's campaign is all about: emotions, simplicity, repetition.
"When people get in the voting booth, a lot of times they vote on their feelings," says Phil Dusenberry, vice chairman and executive creative director for BBD & O, the producer of the 18-minute tear-jerking Reagan documentary shown at the Republican convention in Dallas, and also the man who did the Michael Jackson Pepsi commercials. "So a good film is designed to make you feel something, to get under your skin a little bit."
"I just want people to agree, 'Yes, that's the way things are in the country,' " says Riney, executive vice president of Ogilvy & Mather in San Francisco and the author of the "morning again in America" line. "If you cry, so much the better. I don't know if the ads are meant to persuade. But they are meant to positively remind people of the facts. They're pretty low-key; we have an expression in the business that yelling is not selling. Everything else is so noisy and chaotic in advertising that sometimes just being quiet works better."
The Democrats, meanwhile, are appalled at commercials they say have created a fraudulent picture of America, a country without poor and minorities, a Republican myth. "Things are not as great as the administration is wanting us to believe in their television commercials," Geraldine Ferraro said during the vice presidential debate. " 'It's morning in America,' " the New Republic mimicked. "Maybe. But there will be a morning after."
"You want us to put poor people in these ads?" a top White House official asks incredulously.
"There's nothing idealistic about a guy who's welding," says Jim Weller, a Della Femina, Travisano creative director who has included hard hats at work in some of the Reagan spots he has written. "That is America." James Travis, the president of the Tuesday Team on leave from Della Femina, Travisano, complains that "people have accused us of making Pepsi commercials. But when we talk about bringing inflation down, that's a comparative and a competitive statement. Pepsi would never make a comparative statement about the country."
So far, Walter Mondale's commercials have been the more usual political fare, hitting Reagan hard on the issues. In one that attacks the deficit, a roller coaster goes up and down as an announcer's voice asks at the end, "If you think of voting for Reagan in 1984, think of what will happen in 1985." Some 20 other spots have aired as well. Reagan campaign officials maintain that Mondale may be outspending them in advertising, but Mondale campaign officials won't give out any figures. What they will do is question the effectiveness of the Reagan spots, saying that voters aren't fooled by pretty pictures.
"There's another America out there," says Scott Miller, who made some of Mondale's commercials this year, produced all of John Glenn's spots last year, and who, as a then-creative director at McCann-Erickson, helped create "Have a Coke and a Smile." "We always walked a fine line in the Coca-Cola advertising of trying to depict the better side of life, but also reality," he says. "The Reagan spots are powerful stuff," Miller says, "but I think maybe they went a little too far."
"They're excellent," says Gerald Rafshoon, Jimmy Carter's media adviser who handled his advertising in 1976 and 1980. "But keep in mind, up until the presidential debate, they didn't need aggressive ads that cut across any issues. What they were doing seemed right. We've yet to see what they do when they have to get down in the trenches." Man-on-the-Street Spots
Now it's afternoon in America, and the Tuesday Team has just finished the first commercial and ordered out from the editing room for cheeseburgers. They move on to the next, a "man-in-the-street" spot which begins with the words: "Why Democrats and Independents are voting for Ronald Reagan."
"I'm 22," says a young restaurant hostess filmed by a campaign camera crew in Ohio. "My friends and I like Ronald Reagan because he's helped unemployment."
"Twenty-two," says Travisano, eyeing her sweater dress.
He edits her in, then adds a young black man ("I like Ronald Reagan because I believe he's turned the nation around"), a construction worker ("he's brought the interest rates down") and, finally, a man on the street in Pennsylvania who says he thinks the president's a great leader. He is pale, with slicked-down hair and a vaguely angry manner. Watts loves it, but Travisano stops.
"Even though he's saying good things," he says, "he's not bringing a good feeling to this commercial. There's something about this guy. He's a little weasely looking."
"I agree with you," offers the technician.
"He looks like he whips white mice," Travisano concludes.
"Why don't we try the young Texan guy?" suggests Mark Zimmerman. He flips through some videotape, stopping at a guy in a plaid shirt and an especially furry beard.
"He looks like he shoots possums," Travisano says.
"How about the black construction guy?" Zimmerman asks.
"We got two black people in the ad already," Travisano says.
They move on to a pretty student at Rutgers University. "I'm going to vote for Ronald Reagan," she says shyly.
"Say it again," comes a voice off-camera from the tape.
"I'm going to vote for Ronald Reagan."
"I'm going to vote for Ronald Reagan!" she says, smiling.
"Isn't she great?" Zimmerman beams. The Ad Men
The Tuesday Team is made up of some of the largest and most fragile egos in all of advertising, but probably the most tortured perfectionists among them are the leading writers: Hal Riney, Jim Weller and Tom Messner, who's with Ally & Gargano in New York, and also created the MCI commercials and some Pan Am spots. All three wrote a part of the landmark series of spots that aired in May.
Messner, 40, describes himself as "obsessed" about the reelection of Ronald Reagan. But then, reflecting on his profession, he thinks out loud: "How cynical could an advertising person be? Could a person who supports Reagan do Mondale's advertising? The answer is yes. But having done the Reagan commercials, do I care deeply that he wins? The answer is yes."
Weller, 44, who with Travisano created this summer's King Kong spots for Transamerica Insurance Co., is described by Travis as "a manic depressive who never had a manic day in his life." "I'm considered to be very difficult," Weller says. "The real agony, for me, is producing. You have this vibrant image in your mind of what the commercial will be, and then you have to go out and make it look like that. But the actor never reads the way you want him to. The lighting can be wrong. The quality of the film can be wrong. You might envision a wonderful tree that sits just the right way, but then you can't find a tree that looks like that."
Riney, 52, is an advertising legend on the West Coast, but is hardly known anywhere else. He narrates many of his own spots, including the ones he did for the Reagan campaign. He once said that his business is "hypocritical, profit-oriented and a whole bunch of other things." He joined the Tuesday Team when Travis and Weller decided over dinner at Orso's restaurant in New York that they should call one of the best in the business, the guy they hate to compete with when they're trying to land an account. He says he wrote the "morning again" spot in 20 minutes at Reno's, his favorite San Francisco bar. "I can't work in the office," Riney says. "Nobody lets me. They all want to have meetings."
His spots for Yamaha, Gallo, the Oakland A's and Blitz-Weinhard beer are marked by what his fans have come to see as classic Riney touches: luscious photography, wryness, understatement, an appeal to the senses rather than the intellect.
"The beauty and the whimsy, the cleverness and the suggestion seem to be gone from everything," he told Advertising Age two years ago. "And it's been replaced by two people holding up a product they would never hold up; and talking about it in a way no one ever talked; and being astonished, pleased, delighted or surprised about characteristics of a product which in real life would actually rate no more than a grunt, at best."
Riney's attention to detail once extended to putting a bumper sticker on a kennel pickup truck used in a beer commercial. "If Dogs are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Dogs," the sticker said. It never showed up in the finished spot. "Is all this necessary?" Riney asked in the interview with Advertising Age, in reference to that spot. "Of course not. But where do you stop?"
The Reagan commercials taxed his sense of perfection. "There are scenes where the lighting isn't nearly as ideal as we'd like," he says. It usually takes six weeks to produce a 60-second spot, but one that he produced for the Reagan campaign took a week and a half. "We have never made a commercial so fast in our lives," he says.
He also shot some of the film for the spot that included the staged parade in Petaluma, using the local high school band, although not before getting permission for a morning street closure from the City Council. There was one vote against: Mayor Fred Mattei, a Democrat, who said it wasn't politics but he was worried about his clothing store. "When you close things up, you lose business," he said. Other footage was shot in nearby Santa Rosa.
"The towns tend to look just about like any town in the Midwest," Riney says. In fact, they're both used for a number of national commercials because they have old gabled houses, big, wide porches, lots of flagpoles, and inhabitants who have just the right look.
"Once you get outside the major metropolitan areas," Riney says, "you get people who've actually lived in their homes for a year -- rather than just since July. They have mothers and grandmothers. People who've grown up that way just look different than other people. Don't ask me why."
A "staunch Republican" and a "casual voter," Riney made one spot that hasn't aired. It's about toughness in foreign policy, and shows a big bear roaming through the Oregon woods as a man with a rifle slung over his shoulder looks on. "Some people say the bear is tame," the announcer says. "Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear?" The Right Line
It's close to 5 p.m. in the editing room, and the Tuesday Team has moved on to a videotape of an older woman who holds a wiggling, sausage-like dog near her neck. Everybody watching breaks into hysterics. "He's one of the best presidents we've had in many years," she says.
"I know that woman," says Travisano. "Is she from New Jersey?"
"Yeah," says Watts.
"Yep, I know her," says Travisano. He thinks for a minute. "I'm not crazy about that line, 'He's one of the best presidents we've had in many years. Many years?' What, since Carter? Can we make her say, 'He's one of the best presidents we've had'?"
"Nah," says Watts. "Credibility."
Travisano sighs and moves on. By 5:40 p.m., they've finished the spot. "That's it," says Travisano. "Lay the music on. We're knocking them out like jellybeans." Disaster Checks
The next day, a Saturday, Watts took the completed spots to Washington for a 10:30 a.m. meeting in White House chief of staff James Baker's office. Baker, Deaver and Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), the campaign chairman, reviewed them. At the same time, the spots were seen in several cities around the country by focus groups -- small, preselected gatherings of viewers who discussed their reactions to the spots with Tuesday Team members or campaign officials. The Tuesday Team considers these "disaster checks" as last-minute insurance that an explosive claim or embarrassing segment isn't about to go on the air.
More in-depth research generally occurs a day to several days after a spot has aired. In overnight recall tests, for example, a caller will phone a television viewer at home and ask if he or she remembers seeing a political commercial the night before and, if so, what it was. Then, after a spot has aired for three or four days and presumably has had a chance to sink in, a caller will phone with more detailed questions, asking if the spot has changed a viewer's attitudes, or if it has made a favorable or unfavorable impression in terms of the candidate's compassion, leadership or strength.
Some, but not all, of the Tuesday Team spots were tested in this way; all were seen by focus groups. Campaign officials won't give out specifics, but Travis maintains that "all the commercials you've seen on the air have tested well." Television Wins
Meanwhile, back in the editing room, the day has turned to night. It's 8:35 p.m., and now the group has moved on to another "man-in-the-street" commercial, or in this case, a well-dressed woman on Park Avenue. She's telling the camera how much she likes the president.
"Give me that again," comes a voice off-camera, "with President Reagan's name in the answer."
The woman gives the cameraman a slightly exasperated, knowing smile, apparently well aware that she's caught between the clever machinations of the Reagan campaign and her own desires to be on television. Television wins. She repeats her accolade, this time saying "President Reagan" with a big smile.
Then the phone rings. It's for Mark Zimmerman. A nervous colleague wants to know how the spots are going.
"They're gonna test great," Zimmerman says cheerfully. "They're killers."