Welcome to the 1980 Storck Awards for Noteworthy Achievement in the Political Advertising Arts. The awards honor the sainted memory of Shelby Storck, a hot political adman back in the days when a campaign film maker was just hired help. Storck brought honor, prestige and big bucks to his chosen profession with his 1968 campaign biography for Mike Gravel, called "Man From Alaska."
In the best traditions of the field, even the title of the 30-minute ad was misleading; Gravel was born and raised in Springfield, Mass. But we quibble. What's important is that Storck managed to transform Gravel, a state legislator running a hopelessly uphill campaign against the eminent Ernest Gruening, into a dynamic figure whose rags-to-riches story would have put Horatio-Alger to shame.
Storck's artistry worked miracles. The weekend that "Man From Alaska" saturated the airwaves in a state where air time was dirt-cheap, Gravel went from 30 points behind in the polls to 10 points ahead. He won going away and went on to serve two undistinguished terms in the U.S. Senate.
Thus were born the go-go years of political advertising. These days, statewide candidates spend at least half their ever-larger campaign budgets on television and radio ads.
Hence, the first Storck Awards for the best and worst of political advertising.
Washington is perhaps the worst vantage point in the country from which to appreciate the miracles wrought by political advertising. Our evaluations of prominent senators like Frank Church and George McGovern are based on how well they approximate world statesmanship on the Hill. When they break out the checked shirts and get back their drawls for the voters back home, we don't see it.
This may help explain Washington's shock at the Republican sweep. Of the commercials shown on Washington television, only the ads for Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Jay Rockefeller were serious contenders for the coveted Storck. Television addicts in Pueblo, Colo., and Binghamton, N.Y. have a better appreciaiton of the art of the modern Senate campaign than the best-connected WTOP-watching Capitol Hill lobbyist.
One of the paracoxes of political television advertising is that because everyone is so completely convinced of it's effectiveness, no one is exactly sure when it works. So this year there were a few well-documented cases where a specific ad made a measurable difference. The best example is David Sawyer's spot showing Carroll O'Conner endorsing Edward Kennedy for president. It first appeared on the weekend before the New York primary, and must have given Kennedy the Archie Bunker vote; he confounded the polls and won an upset victory.
But if the Storcks were given for discernible political achievement, Sawyer might have been the only entrant. Thus, we have awarded them mostly on aesthetic grounds, with a little industry word-of-mouth thown in.
If your exposure to politics this year was solely through campaign ads, you'd better assume that there were just two parties in America -- the Responsible Moderates and the Mad-As-Hell Conservatives. Practically nobody ran as a liberal. Everybody -- regardless of his views or record -- was for a strong defense. No one liked high taxes, inflation or OPEC. Everyone supported a strong economy and more jobs. Most incumbents downplayed great issues and instead bragged about their ability to shake loose federal money for the folks back home. Sometimes you got the sense that famous senators were so busy tracking down lost Social Security checks that they barely had time to think about the Salt II agreement or the Panama Canal treaties.
Challengers tried to imply that everything wrong with America was the fault of the incumbent. They carped about everything from the price of gasoline to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
In fact, anyone trying to prove that American politics is based on strong ideological disagreements would be hard pressed to use this year's crop of ads as evidence. Practically everybody agreed on practically everything except how good a job the incumbent was doing.
To watch the ads is to see a legion of men and women who had humble, hardworking childhoods; who lead simple, virtuous lives reflecting family values; who harbor a deep and immutable love of their state and nation; who love to meet and talk to ordinary voters, their neckties loosened and their hair mussed; who are itching to get to Washington and start delivering the goods for the folks back home.
To find pointed messages in the ads, you must ignore what is actually said. Do the candidate's polls show that even his mother has a hard time remembering his name? His ads will take their cue from Shelby Storck and be of the biographical let's-get-acquanted variety. Do the polls show that the candidate is the most hated man in the state? Film him playing with his kids. cIs he weak in the rural counties? Let him be seen talking with family farmers "who are the backbone of our great nation." These subliminal signals are supposed to strike a responsive chord with the voters. Maybe they do, but, like so much else in political advertising, it's a difficult contention to prove.
So, okay, if you were raised on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, watching these ads is a depressing experience. But they have survived and prospered in an era of campaign reforms and spending limits. About the only way to stop them is to pass legislation controlling what candidates can say on their own behalf. Like it or not, television advertising is going to remain the centerpiece of the modern political campaign. On with the Storcks. The worst Political Advertisement of 1980: Frank Church, for "Helping," by Arnie Grossman.
This was a photo-finish winner over the rest of Church's wooden and inept ad campaign, which included spots called "Elderly" and "Family." All the spots are politically bland attempts to show a powerful senator as a friendly, sincere guy who cares about nothing but helping out the folks back home. In other words, they duck the issues on which his conservative opponent, Steve Symms, won. But even as pure image-mongering they're so obviously staged as to be utterly unconvincing.
Our prize-winner opens with Church shaking hands with a constituent who looks like a refugee from a late-night public service ad. "Thanks, Frank," the man says as he edges awkwardly away. Church strolls over to the bookshelf and takes down a book. He puts it back. He strolls over to his desk and woodenly extends a hand. "I learned long ago that single-handedly I can't solve all the problems of the nation," says the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with an ingratiating smile. "But I can help the people here in Idaho."
This is one case where a better ad campaign could have made a difference; unlike his fellow felled liberals, Church lost by a whisker. The Best Political Advertisement of 1980: Jay Rockefeller, for "Care," by Phil Friedman and Hank Morris of David Garth Associates.
This is one of a series of spots built around brief testimonials from other Democratic governors that turns Rockefeller's national ambitions -- potentially a source of resentment -- into an asset. The key to it is the idea that West Virginia is a state with a long-standing inferiority complex; Rockefeller, the ads imply, is turning West Virginia from a state of losers into a state of winners.
Some of the spots show several governors as above. But our winner shows only two. First comes Arkansas' Bill Clinton, who hits the point exactly: "My state is a lot like West Virginia, and I know how you feel when you think people around the country never know anything good about you, or perhaps don't know anything at all. But I can tell you that Governor Jay Rockefeller is a good spokesmank for you. He's known and trusted and respected all over the country." Then comes North Carolina's Jim Hunt, who tells a vivid story of Rockefeller squeezing funds for coal miners' hospitals out of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Then there's the brief still of Rockefeller. The message comes through exactly right: pride and pork.
The ad, which is basically a combination of an uninspired map of the United States and a collection of talking heads, is a triumph of advocacy, not of cinema. Garth was one of the inventors of cinematic ads but then renounced them and adopted an argumentative style that worked well this year, except where John Anderson was concerned. When you're spending $12 a vote, you can afford the best. This is it. The Sheep in Wolfs Clothing Award for Best Performance by an Endangered Liberal in 1980: Gary Hart, for "Defense," by Robert Squier.
Hart, the man who managed George McGovern's presidential campaign, was in deep trouble this year: Colorado's other Democratic senator lost in 1978, the mood was even more conservative this year, and the Republican challenging him was quite popular -- and female.
Last year, Bob Squier came up with a winning formula for a male moderate Democrat running against a popular woman. In the 1979 Mississippi gubernatorial race, Squier put his candidate (William Winter) on a state National Guard base in order to create the unstated impression that the governorship was a job that a woman couldn't handle. This year Squier pulled off the same trick when he was brought in at the last minute to rescue Hart. In fact, he went one better: he filmed the senator actually climbing into a tank and driving away.
Hart came across as macho, and as far as political substance is concerned, he hardly seemed like a McGovernite. "Gary Hart has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee for five years and has fought for effective weapons systems," said the announcer. "Weapons that work." It was also an ad that worked. Hart won. Best Performance in a Leading Role in the 1980 Media Campaign: Ronald Reagan, for "All Documentary," by Peter Dailey.
This five-minute biographical spot was the keystone of Reagan's fall I-am-not-an-ideologue campaign. Its aim is to show that rather than being a right-wing bomb-thrower, he is in fact a super-competent professional administrator-cum-American hero, and it hammers away at his California governorship as a way of proving the point.
We begin with Reagan accepting the Republican nomination. Then back to his youth in, as the announcer puts it, "America's heartland, small-town Illinois." Then to Hollywood, where "he appealed to audiences because he was so clearly one of them." Then the obligatory military record. Then back to Hollywood as a "dedicated union man." Then taking over "a state in crisis" and getting things "back on track." Tax cuts. Praise from the AFL-CIO. Cut to 1980: Reagan asking us to look at Jimmy Carter's record. As the music swells, the announcer says, "Governor Reagan dealt with California's problems. He will do as much for the nation."
The ad works because it moves so well, because it touches so many bases, and because of its leading character's extraordinary ability to convince you that after just five minutes you've come to know him well and can trust him completely. The League of Women Voters Award for Responsible but Dull Political Advertising: Jimmy Carter, for "Controlfive," by Gerald Rafshoon.
In general, Gerald Rafshoon struggled manfully for his hapless client this fall. He produced man-in-the-street negative spots of the sort that Gerald Ford used so effectively against Carter in 1976; upbeat party-loyalty spots; and documentary-style average-voter spots.
But this one is a perfect example of the shortcomings of political advertising designed to appeal to the prejudices of good-government types who hate campaign razzle-dazzle. It shows Carter, in a red-white-and-blue tie, sitting in the Oval Office speaking with very little vocal inflection and lookiing straight at the camera. He's talking issues just like Adlai Stevenson did in the 1950s. That's what we all think candidates should do. It's deadly dull.
After watching the expressionless Carter say, "On the economy, we've taken prudent steps to control both inflation and unemployment. . . . Present trends indicate thay we've been on the right track," how much of the audience stayed riveted to its sets? You could criticize what Carter says here for its substance (various efforts to gild the lily), but the real reason the ad doesn't work is its style. It comes across as forcefully as a discussion of 19th-century opera on public television. Best Performance in a Supporting Role in the 1980 Media Campaign: The elderly, various candidates, various producers.
The senior citizens you see here are from a Liz Holtzman for Senate ad. But there isn't a major advertising campaign that doesn't make some specific visual and verbal reference to the elderly, and quite a few campaigns have spots wholly pitched to retirees. The position of every single political candidate in the United States on the elderly is precisely the same: understanding, helping, and caring. Why? For the same reason that changes in Social Security cannot be discussed in an election year -- the elderly have the highest voter turnout of any demographic group.
Our runner-up in this category was the hardhat. The tough-looking hombre pictured is from a Ronald Reagan ad, but everybody appeared with blue-collar men this year. The reason is that, because of high unemployment, pollsters identified traditionally Democratic hardhats as the key swing voters in this year's election. Farmers made a good showing in 1980 too, but blacks and other minorities, once a staple of political advertising, were almost nowhere to be found. The V.I. Lenin Prize for Class Consciousness in Political Advertising: Alfonse D'Amato, for "Rights of the Middle Class," by Roger Ailes.
Al D'Amoto won a New York Senate seat on the slogan, "A Fighter for the Forgotten Middle Class," and in general his ads sound like Marxist sloganeering, only with "middle" substituted for "working." They paint a vivid picture of a middle class reeling from crime, taxes, and overall neglect.
The Storck Award symbolizes the complete rehabilitation of Roger Ailes. In 1968, Ailes had the plum assignment of making political ads for Richard Nixon. Then came Joe McGinniss' best-selling book, The Selling of the President, which went behind the scenes of the 1968 Nixon media campaign and painted Ailes as one of the arch-villains. Until he teamed up with Al D'Amato and the forgotten middle class (as well as Senate winners Bob Packwood of Oregon and Charles Grassley of Iowa), Ailes' career was somewhat in eclipse.
In our prize-winner, D'Amato delineates the three "fundamental rights of the middle class": a strong economy, a strong America, and safety in our streets. "Finally we'll have a senator who will speak out for the overburdened, overtaxed middle-class New Yorker," the announcer concludes, and apparently the voters agreed.
In a less obvious way, Ailes mercilessly hammered away at Democrat Liz Holtzman for being single. Several of the D'Amato ads show pictures of the candidate in a variety of loving poses with his wife and kids, and end with a variant on the regular slogan: "He's a family man fighting for the forgotten middle class." The Best Negative Advertisement of the 1980 Media Campaign: Mack Mattingly, for "Absent," by Dino Seder.
Negative advertising is a separate category because it's a world of its own. Usually, in negative ads, there's no music, no action, no candidate -- only stagy props (an empty chair in the House, torn-up railroad tracks, or the ever-popular face-as-weathervane) meant to dramatize the hated opponent's shortcomings. The reason this ad is so good is that it actually shows the opponent talking. It works as drama as well as argument.
The ad opens with incumbent Sen. Herman Talmadge speaking to the camera. "This has been the most productive session of my career in the United States Senate," he says. The frame freezes, and an announcer says. "During the first eight months of this year. Herman Talmadge was absent and did not vote on half of all the votes cast in the United States Senate." Then, mercilessly, Talmadge is unfrozen to repeat exactly the same sentence again. "If Herman Talmadge is most productive when he's absent," says the announcer, "let's keep him out." The incumbent's attendence record is an age-old subject for a challenger. Here Mattingly updates it with devastating results.
To everyone's surprise, Mattingly, a political novice, won. The For God's Sake Don't Meet Your Shortcomings Head-on Award: Richard M. Daley, for "Butkus," by Robert Squier.
You probably think the man in the picture is Rich Daley, Hizzoner's son, who won the Cook County state's attorney's race in November despite the opposition of both the Republicans and Mayor Jane Byrne.
You're wrong. Rich Daley may be a good politician, but he's so short and pudgy that if he had lost the election he could have gotten a job as the Pillsbury Doughboy. This man is Dick Butkus, the former all-pro Chicago Bears middle linebacker, who is big and brawny and tough and therefore a much better television symbol for Daley's anti-drug platform than Daley himself. If you watch closely, you can see Daley's fleeting walk-on appearance in the spot, but the burly Butkus gets all the good lines. This is known as playing on your strengths, or maybe as playing the strengths of your celebrity supporters.
It also offers some hope in the future of other less than mediagenic candidates. Liz Holtzman's unsuccessful ad campaign, for example, attempted to dissipate her image as The Ice Queen. Would she have beaten Al D'Amato if her commercials had ended with a Liz Holtzman for U.S. Senate tag line superimposed on a freeze frame of Dolly Parton? The Loaves and Fishes Award for Most Messianic Performance by a Candidate: Paul Gann, for "Freedom is Not Free," by Robert Goodman.
Robert Goodman is the rogue prince of political advertising, regularly and roundly condemned by responsible political observers and always much in demand by candidates. He's partial to big budgets, music (which he writes himself), and sweeping Western themes. He's not partial to logic.
Paul Gann is the aging Californian who everybody forgets co-authored Proposition 13 with Howard Jarvis. Running against a prominent liberal Democrat, Sen. Alan Cranston, in a state aching to vote Republican, ideology wasn't his problem. His problem was that he was dull. Enter Goodman.
In this ad, Gann is seen standing in front of a tree on a windswept hilltop, a crowd gathered around him. "The day of August twenty-third was the day the word went out," a portentous-voiced announcer says. "Paul Gann for United States Senate."
Then it's Gann's turn, and if you can figure this out, God bless you. "Freedom is not free," he says. "Freedom has never been free. And what is freedom? Freedom is being individually, personally responsible."
Gann lost big. The Meet Your Shortcomings Head-On Award: David O'Neal, for "How Dumb," by Woodward, McDowell & Larson.
O'Neal, Illinois' beefy Republican Lieutenant governor, had one big problem at the outset of his Senate race.He had acquired the nickname of "Dumb Dave."
Hence our prize-winner. We see O'Neal, in a checked shirt, standing in front of a Lincolnesque log cabin. He gets right down to business. "You wanna know how dumb I am?" he starts. "I was 18 before I knew we were poor. And later, when they told me there's no way I could be elected sheriff, I knocked on over 14,000 doors." He runs through a long list of other accomplishments, and concludes, "I just wish we were smart enough to understand we couldn't do those things before we went out and did 'em."
That helped O'Neal get through his primary, but in November "Dumb Dave" ran more than 400,000 votes behind Ronald Reagan and lost the Senate race to Democrat Alan Dixon.