A classic New Yorker cartoon features a professor scrawling an incomprehensible equation across a chalkboard. “Then a miracle happens,” reads the caption. That’s how I feel about a great political spot. You’ve got precisely thirty seconds to tell a story, to persuade a voter that your guy deserves support, that the other guy doesn’t, or, as in far too many ads (which usually fail), both.
It’s been said that every novelist is a frustrated short story writer, and every short story writer a frustrated poet. I’d add that a lot of poets are probably frustrated political consultants. Thirty seconds translates to seventy-two words, give or take. (A word to the wise: Don’t be like every candidate’s brother-in-law, who insists he has penned a brilliant eighty-five-word script that can be comfortably the considerable dollars you’re putting behind your televised message is to speak so quickly that none of it penetrates.) As a matter of fact, you don’t even get seventy-two words. Thanks to our good friends Senator John McCain and former Senator Russ Feingold, the obligatory disclaimer—“I’m Joe Blow and I approve this message.”—eats up exactly one-ninth of your airtime. Think of it as an 11 percent tax.
So, economy of language is the single most important factor in creating a powerful television advertisement. The most effective ads are those that have one thing to say and focus all thirty seconds on saying it powerfully. The least effective ads are those that try to cram five unrelated messages into the thirty-second window. The latter, called “kitchen sink” ads, are unmemorable and untrustworthy. Saying, “My opponent raised taxes, hiked his own pay, skipped lots of votes, doesn’t live in the district and beats his wife,” is like firing five poorly aimed BBs.
If your polling has revealed that voters are most inclined to believe and be moved by the “raise taxes” hits, then what you need is a rifle with a telescopic sight: “My opponent raised taxes.” Since that’s not going to fill thirty seconds, rather than pad it by throwing in the kitchen sink, you’re better off citing specific examples of taxes raised. One memorable ad by my firm during the 2006 election attacked New Jersey Congressman Mike Ferguson’s opponent Linda Stender. Rather than hitting her on several different fronts, a devastating spot simply listed the different taxes Stender had voted to raise throughout her career in the New Jersey Assembly. Marry that tactic to the fortunate circumstance of her last name, and a new villain was born: Stender the Spender.
After Ferguson retired in 2008, Stender prepared to run for the newly open seat against Leonard Lance, the Republican nominee, who had survived a bruising primary. The verbatims in the polling revealed that, despite her years in the Assembly, what voters remembered most about Linda Stender was “Stender the Spender.” Now that’s effective advertising. So much about political advertising—about any advertising, really—is obvious. It’s got to be eye-catching, novel, powerful and, at least in the case of political advertising, where lowest unit rate and reputations are at stake, accurate. But that doesn’t mean that only the pros have good ideas.
In the 2010 cycle, one of my clients had a very clear vision of how he wanted to portray himself in a dead-heat state Senate race that could help determine which party held a majority. I insisted on attacking our opponent and I got my way—50 percent of our ads were negative, and they were face melting. He insisted on supplementing this campaign with a series of scripts he wrote that were so unconventional that I nearly refused to film them. However, his performances were so strong and his sense of the local voters’ mood so accurate that the spots turned out to be some of the most effective I made all cycle. He went on to win by 5 points.
Virtually every member of a campaign, from the phone banker to the campaign manager—and certainly including candidate friends and spouses—can be counted on to be in possession of an idea for a “great” television spot. The temptation of political professionals to dismiss these sources of inspiration is not only arrogant but wrong. Mike DuHaime, who was Rudy Giuliani’s campaign manager and Chris Christie’s lead consultant, tells a Cinderella story in which a phone banker during the Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign suggested an idea for how to use the unexpected endorsement of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, for a spot aimed at Florida voters. The campaign actually filmed the ad, giving hope to every backyard tosser who ever dreamed of pitching in the Majors.
By the same token, the notion that good scripts emanate only from the tops of campaigns is suspect. I worked for Rudy Giuliani for eight years before becoming a media consultant, and during election time one of my roles was to edit the scripts that campaigns would send in hopes of getting the mayor to endorse their candidates on camera. Some of these scripts were so ludicrous that they not only would offend Rudy and the audience, but they were unpersuasive and horribly written. (“Just as the terrorists brought down the twin towers, don’t let yourself be terrorized into raising taxes.”) Writing and rewriting hundreds of television, radio and robocall scripts in a manner that combined a voice authentic to Rudy with a message that worked for the campaign at hand served as great training.
The reason I’ve spent so much time talking about the script is that it’s the most important element of a political spot. Other elements such as effective direction, compelling images, eye-catching graphics and story-sensitive editing are all critical, of course, and many great scripts are undone by careless or lackluster production. However, it is equally dangerous to try to muscle a mediocre script into greatness with the magic of After Effects, Final Cut Pro and a really awesome RED camera set up. After all, message is king.
Ken Kurson is a partner at Jamestown Associates, a national political media firm, and the co-author of Rudy Giuliani’s bestseller Leadership.