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Advertisers Join the ’04 Campaign

Madison Avenue is following its own version of the dodgy Election Day advice, usually attributed to Chicago politicians, to "vote early and often."

Rather than waiting until fall, as they usually do, to introduce advertising with election themes, agencies are already infusing commercials, Web sites, promotions and print ads with images of voting booths, campaign buttons, flags, debates and conventions. These trappings of democracy are being augmented with copious references to compassionate conservatism, hanging chads and states colored red and blue.

Advertising that tries to ride the coattails of interest in politics is always popular in election years, particularly when the presidency is at stake. This time, the goal is to capitalize on the intense interest that Americans have shown in the Bush-Kerry race. In a Gallup Poll in June, 60 percent of respondents described themselves as more enthusiastic than usual about voting this year, compared with 17 percent in June 1996 and 40 percent in June 2000.

"We try to be in tune with what's going on," said Hernando Ruiz-Jimenez, national brand director for Captain Morgan rum at Diageo North America in Stamford, Conn., "and the presidential election is a very, very hot topic." The Diageo division has nominated the captain character for his own mock run for office, under the banner of a fictitious grassroots organization called Americans for a Better Party. The effort, which began in May, includes ads, public relations, events and a Web site (americans4abetterparty.org).

Marketers involved in mimicking political events for advertising campaigns say they are aware of the potential pitfalls, from being perceived as trivializing an important election to endorsing one candidate over another.

"We do run that risk," said Steve Luttmann, senior vice president for marketing at Schieffelin & Company in New York, which in a campaign for Grand Marnier liqueur is asking election-related questions like "What if we all voted like independents?" and "Are we witnessing the making or marketing of a president?"

To address those concerns, Mr. Luttmann said, Schieffelin, owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is "using an online consumer panel of loyal customers" to gauge the appropriateness of each ad in the campaign, which began last month. The campaign is being created by Tracy Locke of Wilton, Conn., owned by the Omnicom Group.

Like Captain Morgan and Grand Marnier, many other brands that are seeking to capitalize on what Advertising Age described as an election already "heating up like it's Nov. 1" have also brought out ads before the traditional starting times of September or October. Some, like the Miller Brewing Company division of SABMiller and the Supercuts chain of hair salons, were such early birds that they have wrapped up their election-related ads and moved on to other themes.

"We wanted it to be close enough to the election to be topical, but not close enough that people would be burned out," said Victor Rutstein, director for brand development at Miller in Milwaukee. His reference was to humorous commercials by Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Ore., which ran from April to mid-August, centered on the designation of Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft as the "president of beers."

The Supercuts chain ran an ad in April styled as an "open letter" to President Bush and Senator John Kerry, offering them "free haircuts and shampoos for the duration of your race to the White House."

As for the shift, "our client expressed a desire to be more timely," said Canice Neary, a creative director at the Supercuts agency in Chicago, Element 79 Partners, owned by Omnicom.

The idea behind a brand ad inspired by an important election "is to try and seem bigger than you are," Mr. Neary said, as well as to suggest that if a brand is paying attention to current events, it is also paying attention to consumer needs.

Among the myriad brands clambering aboard the political bandwagon are the Barbie line of dolls from Mattel; Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey, sold by the Brown-Forman Corporation; Fuse, the music video cable television network owned by the Cablevision Systems Corporation; Maker's Mark bourbon whiskey, sold by Allied Domecq; Net-Zero, the Internet access service owned by United Online; Nextel Communications; USA Today, published by the Gannett Company; and Virgin Mobile, a joint venture of the Sprint Corporation and the Virgin Group.

"There's no doubt there's a lot more interest in this election than usual," said John Hayes, brand director for Jack Daniel's at Brown-Forman in Louisville, Ky. So he was particularly receptive, he said, when the brand's agency, the St. Louis office of Arnold Worldwide, part of the Arnold Worldwide Partners division of Havas, proposed a political-themed ad: a photograph of the brand's creator next to the words "I'm Jack Daniel and I approved this ad." It offers a humorous wink at the phrasing required in commercials paid for by candidates' campaigns.

Indeed, the initial response to the ad has been so enthusiastic, Mr. Hayes said, that it is also being produced in interactive and promotional versions by other Jack Daniel's agencies like Draft in Chicago, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies, and Slingshot in Dallas.

"We have created materials for bar promotions and store displays," he added, "particularly in battleground states."

Some election-themed ads can raise eyebrows, just as some election ads do. For instance, an ad for USA Today appearing this week in Advertising Age presents maps of the United States with states colored red or blue for Republican or Democrat; for buying or renting; and for fondness for the Atkins diet or Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

The map depicting which party is favored by each state seems to show the results of the 2000 presidential election. But four states carried by Al Gore - Delaware, Iowa, Maryland and Minnesota - are colored red, along with those that actually went for Mr. Bush.

"It's all made up," said Susan Irwin, a spokeswoman for the USA Today agency, McCann Erickson Worldwide in New York, part of the McCann Worldgroup division of Interpublic. The three maps are intended as good-natured spoofs of the "cute graphics" featured in USA Today, she added.


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. September 1, 2004.

Copyright © 2004 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.