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Sharpton Dances And Madison Ave. Raids Campaigns

The business of politics has never been better for the people who make campaign advertisements.

New campaign-finance regulations have opened new loopholes. A new breed of billionaire politician spends freely. And the Internet has opened a new avenue for politicians to gather the money that they continue to spend, for the most part, on television advertising.

Political campaigns a rare bright spot in an industry—advertising—haunted by the rise of Google and the fading power of the 30-second spot. Now a Madison Avenue firm is making the case that the creativity and sophistication of commercial advertising can challenge the small, elite circle of admakers who dominate Democratic politics.

“It’s the same five hacks making the same five ads over and over,” said Ellis Verdi, a partner in the New York boutique DeVito/Verdi. The firm made widely praised ads for Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign and a 2004 Colorado Senate race, as well as controversial spots in the waning days of Freddy Ferrer’s bid for Mayor last year.

Mr. Verdi isn’t the only one on Madison Avenue deploring the quality of political advertising. “They’re argumentative, they’re shrill, I don’t think they’re particularly honest, and they’re not straightforward,” said Shelly Lazarus, the chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies. “The biggest offenders in truth-in-advertising are in political advertising.”

But while the commercial agencies have long rolled their eyes at the crudeness of their political counterparts (just as political shops deride the big budgets and long timelines of the agencies), most of the big firms have stayed away from a potentially “divisive” field, as Ms. Lazarus put it. Mr. Verdi aims to change that, plunging his firm into political advertising as a new market. “There is a tremendous opportunity to put more effort into the advertising [and] get far better results,” he said.

Mr. Verdi’s salvos haven’t been well received by the political professionals, who typically steer a campaign’s strategy as well as produce the television ads.

“I would think Ellis would want to win an election somewhere for City Council, Congress or something before he starts to claim the mantle of savior of the political-advertising business,” said the Chicago-based David Axelrod, speaking of Mr. Verdi’s aspirations. Mr. Axelrod made ads for Presidential candidate John Edwards and for Mr. Ferrer’s 2001 Mayoral bid. Most campaigns, he said, rely on their media consultant for far more than clever television spots and Madison Avenue process. “That consultant better know how to participate in a political campaign and not sit around in a circle-jerk,” he said.

Certainly, the stakes are high. Political campaigns spent $1.7 billion on advertising in the Presidential year of 2004, and $515 million in the off year of 2005. Both were record numbers, while the rest of the television advertising industry slumped, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, a company that tracks political-advertising spending.

Advertising firms play central roles in political campaigns in other countries—Saatchi & Saatchi made its name on Margaret Thatcher’s campaigns—and commercial agencies here have dabbled in politics since Lyndon Johnson used a Madison Avenue agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, to produce his famous “Daisy” attack on Barry Goldwater. Richard Nixon’s associates at J. Walter Thompson went after Hubert Humphrey. Donnie Deutsch played a role in Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, and George W. Bush brought Madison Avenue figures into his advertising team in 2004.

Leading ad agencies, however, have never taken up politics as a business or reached beyond the occasional Presidential campaign. Political firms, by contrast, have increasingly developed lucrative sidelines in running political-campaign-style operations for corporations with political agendas. More common than collaboration is mutual mistrust and scorn between Madison Avenue and the political-consulting shops staffed by former political staffers.

“I’ve heard that for years; the truth of the matter is that it’s been in the same place,” said David Garth, the Central Park West guru who has played a key role in New York Mayoral politics since John Lindsay, of competition from Madison Avenue. “There’s a specialty in political advertising. If you’re selling a candidate like a bar of soap, at the end of the trail you’re going to get into real trouble.”

DeVito/Verdi, a 100-person firm occupying a sprawling Flatiron district office in which dozens of shiny industry awards are piled ostentatiously into shopping carts, is one of the few commercial ad agencies to have worked in politics. The firm is best known for its commercial work, including bus posters declaring that New York magazine was “Possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for.” The firm has done advertising campaigns for alcoholic beverages and the Daffy’s discount-clothing chain.

The firm has also done high-profile advocacy work, including a series for the American Civil Liberties Union that juxtaposed photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. and Charles Manson, under the text: “The man on the left is 75 times more likely to be stopped by police while driving than the man on the right.”

DeVito/Verdi’s introduction to electoral politics came in Mrs. Clinton’s 2000 campaign, when the firm produced a biographical spot reminding viewers that the candidate had been a “first”—a pioneer—in many areas and “not just a first lady.”

The firm also did an ad ridiculing her opponent, Rick Lazio, for a commercial that spliced footage of the Republican Congressman with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose seat both candidates sought. In the ad, an announcer noted that the Lazio commercial’s technique could “make anyone look like they’re backing him …. Here’s Lazio with Henry VIII. With a kangaroo. Look! This bowl of fruit really likes him, too.”

The firm played second fiddle in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign to her political admaker, Mandy Grunwald, who steered much of the campaign’s strategy. So DeVito/Verdi’s most successful political spot came in the 2004 Senate campaigns, when, working with Jonathan Prince, a former aide to Mr. Edwards, on behalf of an independent account, the agency produced an award-winning attack on Pete Coors, a Colorado Republican who sought a U.S. Senate seat. The spot showed still images of wrecked cars and reminded viewers that Mr. Coors—the beer-company heir—wanted to lower the drinking age to 18.

The Dancing Sharpton

Mr. Verdi’s partner, Sal DeVito, is the firm’s creative director, and two-person teams of copywriter and art specialist produce most of the firm’s actual work, but the 6-foot-4, mustachioed Mr. Verdi is the company’s impresario and salesman. He was also given the task of explaining the ads that his firm produced for Mr. Ferrer, which evoked puzzlement in political circles, with one spot featuring the Reverend Al Sharpton dancing to salsa music and, in another, an animated George W. Bush sharing a horse with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The Sharpton spot was panned in political circles as message-free and, to some, verging dangerously close to minstrelsy.

“Serious strategies don’t need to be [devoid] of charm,” responded Mr. Verdi, who said that the ad was meant to be part of a series that included everyone from Bill Clinton to Woody Allen (never approached, much less recruited). “We needed to present broad acceptance and support, play out the idea that Ferrer is for all of New York, and openly present who Freddy was in a way that showed all of New York accepting him to the point of dancing to his tune.”

The Bloomberg spot—which hit the tabloids when a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg suggested it was sexual—was a “guerrilla” product of the extreme circumstances, Mr. Verdi said.

“When you see that voters were disregarding the existence of a challenger, more extreme measures were necessary,” he said in an e-mail.

Whatever it was, it was not business as usual in political advertising, and the later Ferrer spots got a better reaction on Madison Avenue than in political circles.

“I was just blown away by it, because it was so atypical for political advertising,” Ogilvy’s Ms. Lazarus said. “There is so much of the experience that we’ve all had in just persuading people about different products and services.”

But the world that DeVito/Verdi wishes to break into has fended off similar assaults before, in part because the culture of politics is so different from that of advertising. Political ads flow from strategy sessions, and admakers double as strategists who—with pollsters—set an agenda that often determines what goes on television.

Politics also requires a speed and frugality foreign to agencies that deal in large corporate accounts.

“The criticisms of [political] ads are legit criticisms, but one of the problems is that when you are in this environment—when you are responding to what your opponent has done the night before,—you have eight hours to produce this ad,” said Erik Potholm, a Republican consultant whose firm produced the visually crude, politically effective Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on John Kerry. “Sure, it’s not going to be the same quality if you had two months to map out an ad.”

Mr. Axelrod, who has also produced campaign ads for State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said he conceded some of Mr. Verdi’s points about the “formulaic” quality of much political advertising. But he argued that campaign television is essentially different from commercial advertising.

“People have a suspicion of political media because they understand that it’s propaganda, so there’s a very high burden of proof,” he said. “Creatives in advertising like to entertain themselves, and they have the luxury to do it, but political media is different …. In a political context, people are resistant to concept spots—which advertising people are in love with—because there’s a certain unreality to them. The less artifice in an ad, the more people are willing to accept it as real.”

That’s the heart of the question: Is there something essentially different between selling a product and selling a politician (leaving aside the question if that’s what American politics needs)? It’s a question that Mr. Verdi answers with a qualified no.

“Selling this is different than selling soap,” Mr. Verdi said, picking his Treo mobile device off his desk. “It’s as different as selling politics. You’d be crazy to assume that any two things are alike. I have to sell Grey Goose vodka—that’s so different from selling a retail store in Middle America.”

 

Ben Smith, The New York Observer. January 9, 2006

Copyright © 2005 The New York Observer, L.P.. All rights reserved.

 

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