The Post’s Phil Rucker has an interesting piece this morning about Mitt Romney's ad team, an eclectic and character-laden group of political and Madison Avenue types. (My favorite anecdote concerns one member of the team who has "To Do" tattooed on his ankle. This allows him to write his daily reminders on his skin when he crosses his legs.)
The group, led by two political veterans, Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, is yet another effort to leaven and strengthen the often-flat category of political advertising with a little of the magic that helps sells brands, making us laugh, cry and remember. Those kinds of emotional reactions to political ads are few and far between.
The results of this cultural marriage of advertising backgrounds have been mixed. For every success — Ronald Reagan's 1984 team that produced "It’s Morning in America Again" and "Bear in the Woods" — there have been failures: Michael Dukakis’s 1984 effort, for example, as Rucker notes. (The Dukakis team had some interesting and prescient ideas. It developed a series of ads that focused on the cynical "handlers" behind George H.W. Bush. In one of my favorites, the team simulated a meeting where the handlers are sitting around a conference table discussing Dan Quayle's schedule and making sure he was only sent to the smallest of media markets, where presumably he would do the least harm. This was, in fact, happening in the real campaign. In the ad version of this reality, one handler says something like "Good thing we pulled Quayle down. He was killing us." Another says, "Yeah." Someone then asks, "Where is he today — Buffalo?" Someone else says, "No Rochester, I think." Someone else looks up and says, "He's not there." It becomes clear that the handlers don't know where he is, and when it dawns on them that he might be be in a major media market, theyall reach for the phone in a simultaneous panic.)
The challenges of the grafting of the more traditional advertising onto the political are many. Traditional ad-makers aren't used to the speed and production restrictions on political ads, although Romney has wisely mitigated this by having his team members in one place with their own editing equipment. Traditional ad-makers don't usually like or understand "information-based" ads, which are often effective in delivering negative messages, in which "facts" and validation are helpful in overcoming viewer skepticism. There is a seriousness to the purchase decision in political marketing that doesn't exist on the product side. I once asked Jerry Della Femina, a famous "mad man," the difference between selling soap and selling candidates. He responded, "You can take the soap back if you don't like it." Since you are stuck with your president for at least four years, you will probably make that purchase a more considered one.
What Madison Avenue is good at it is something that Romney really needs: building an emotional connection to a brand. The problem is that, unlike a car or a soft drink, a candidate talks. Brands can be completely controlled — in theory — while candidates cannot. There are so many preexisting images, many of them negative, that viewers already have of Romney when he comes on their screen. How many well-known consumer products have the "likability" problems or negative ratings facing Romney? Exactly none, because if they did, they wouldn't be for sale.
So the Romney team has its work cut out for it. It isn’t selling the "ultimate driving machine" or the drink of a "new generation." It is selling a human being, perhaps the toughest challenge of the members’ careers.