Newton Steers looks nothing like a box of Tide, nor does his rival, Congressman Michael Barnes. But these two men share something in common with even the gaudiest carton of laundry soap. They are popping up on 30-second snippets of prime time as two brands of a product competing for the top share of the market.
The market in this case is the informed and skeptical electorate of Montgomery County, and when it all comes out in the wash in November, the "product" who prevails will take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as the man whose views, ideals and images most please, or perhaps least upset, his fellow suburbanites.
Although this commercial courtship of the electorate includes radio and newspaper advertising, television is its most important and expensive facet, with candidates considering sums as high as $125,000 for air time. Selling the pol to registered voters, though, is not quite the same as linking brands of beer to perfect weekends.
In fact the man engineering "media" for Newton Steers says the conventional notions of salesmanship have nothing to do with what he does.
"Selling is not a valid concept," drawls Norman (Buddy) Bishop, a demonstrative 45-year-old Georgian with strawberry blond hair and an antipaty for liberal Democrats. "Campaign ads are pieces of controlled communication."
"That's a piece of fascist jargon," rejoins his counterpart in the Barnes' campaign, a rumpled 42-year-old Midwesterner named Hal Wolff who as thatchy black eyebrows and the disheveled look of an over-budget Hollywood director. "In any advertising you try to do one thing --convince the viewer or the reader that your view is a valid one. If that doesn't happen in the market place you have a loser."
Unlike the more detached professionals in the world of commercial advertising, political merchandisers runneth over with shameless partisanship. In Washington where there are about a half-dozen national firms that only work with the Republicans, and a smaller number that only work with Democrats, there are very few of what the trade calls "mixed marriages."
"Emotionally I just couldn't work for a Democrat," sighs Susan Bryant, who leaves the creative work to partner Buddy Bishop and concentrates on fund-raising and management.
In a general way, this all started in 1952 when cartoons of housewives and miners and other social archetypes danced across the bluish screens of American TV sets, bobbing placards that said, "I like Ike." Since then the craft has advanced but its practitioners says it has not reached the sophisticated level of commercial advertising where the pitch is so finely tuned that, as Bryant says, "They know if Bing Crosby drinks the Minute Maid people won't buy it. Political research is not nearly as sophisticated. mYou can't fool the people. The flukes are far fewer than most people give us credit for."
Still, 15 years ago media wizards were not being summoned to brew up an ad campaign in relatively provincial contests such as the House rematch in Maryland's 8th District between Steers, a 63-year-old ex-congressman and financier, and his successor, Barnes, the 37-year-old tax lawyer who won the seat in 1978.
In his bid to avenge his chagrining loss, almost the first thing Steers did was retain $1,000-a-month consultants Bishop and Bryant and Associates, a company that advertises that it turns down many potential candidates because "a top jockey doesn't have to take every nag that comes along."
Steers looks like enough of a thoroughbred that his race is one of two in Maryland targeted by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. In April his consultants produced three 30-second TV spots for a three-way primary. The "man on the street" ads (one of which consisted mostly of interviews with elderly women) took "positive" approaches, offering such campaign perennials as "service means getting things done for people" and "Newton Steers knows the job and understands what it takes to get it done." While the spots didn't go out on a limb, neithere were they the sort that would do damage to Steers' party rivals or the unity Republicans need in Montgomery if they are even to entertain hope of overcoming a 2-to 1 disadvantage in party registration.
Now aiming his TV spots toward success in the general election, Steers has taken the same aggressive tack that helped Barnes defeat him two years ago.
Within 48 hours of Barnes' ill-starred foray into the bid for an open Democratic convention, Buddy Bishop had put together a spot castigating Barnes for "ethical inconsistency." Barnes' bid, opined a stern and invisible male announcer, was "politics for politics sake," and the narrator went on in a marvelously contemptuous whine to chide Barnes for "crying for a new presidentail candidate; turning his back on a friend; changing the rules before the game is over."
Steers' latest ads offer a free booklet of "101 things Mike Barnes would like to forget," and after promising an issue-oriented campaign, attack the incumbent for his office expenditures.
"It's symbolic, so to speak, of his spending habits with respect to the natonal budget," Steers says about the ad. "We will be folowing it up later with specific things."
One of Steers' new ads opens with the challenger talking not to the camera but to an unseen audience. It closes with a shot of his head and upper shoulders in a cameo lighting of the sort favored by auteurs of lugubrious art films: a serous setting meant to underscore the gravity of the candidate's charge that while he has passed 80 bills in his legislative career his feckless whippersnapper of an opponent has passed but three.
"He exudes strength and stability," says campaign manager Jeanne Miller. "He's not brutally handsome but the planes of his face do well with the planes of his face do well with the shadows."
"The key part of the spot is that when he begins he's talking off camera," says Bishop. "One of the things I want to get across is his real personality. You come away having a feeling you know something about him, more than statistics but a sense of the man, an ambiance. The only negative we had to overcome with Newton Steers is the image he can't win because he lost. The primary took care of that. He doesn't have any negatives. It's not the creation of an image but the emphasis of an image that's the key to most political campaigns."
What's more, says the man who still relishes his hand in helping Congressman Bill Green defeat former New York representative Bella Abzug, Barnes is a "flake."
"People would rather have a stable, dependable candidate than a flake and Mike Barnes is clearly a flake," says Bishop in no uncertain terms. "It has nothing do do with his honesty. It's a question of his ethical consistency. If I had the Barnes campaign, I'd concede. I certainly wouldn't let him get out front on something like the convention issue."
Barnes, for his part, doesn't think much of Bishop's ad, but will admit that "I'm probably biased."
Although the young Kensington lawyer claims his part in the open convention has helped him to become a household name, no mention of it was made in a list of Barnes' laurels, all detailed in what was his first TV spot of the campaign airing Sunday night after the Reagan-Anderson debate.
Barnes' media advisers had not planned to put him on the air until mid-October but they got wind that Steers had bought a $1,650 slot of prime time during the debates in order to reach a presumably politically minded audience. As Bishop said, "Anybody who'd listen to that crap has to be interested in politics." So Hal Wolff hastily scripted, shot and spliced together a spot, the first of six planned ads.
In it Barnes takes a high congressional road. Shots show that candidate conferring with ACLU members on the steps of the Capitol, and settling into a committee meeting with a comprehending look on his face while two narrators, a man and a woman, recite favorable legislative ratings from groups such as the League of Women Voters.
The choice of a woman to read part of the script wad deliberate. "I believe in women's voices," says Wolff, who has known Barnes for 10 years and put together his radio and TV ads in 1978. "Fundamentally women have more honesty than men. They're the only decent people left. Sure you're selling the candidate but you're selling with facts. Our ads aren't tied to research, they're tied to intuition. I can look at an ad and I know when they're bull s---. When the guy is sleazy you can see he's sleazy. You better not call him 'Honest John.' Call him agressive, creative, independent. It's been done before: he's a crook but he's our crook."
While Steers plans to alternate attacks on Barnes with "other ads devoted to my sterling qualities," Barnes, having the incumbent's traditional advantage, will cleave to paens in praise of his vitues, as long as his media adviser thinks the strategy is a winner's.
"All this," sighed Barnes after seeing his newest commercial for himself, "has a very unreal quality."