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Caught Up in Voting, Ads Ask Consumers to Cast a Ballot

Each fall in even-numbered years, Madison Avenue loves to capitalize on the interest in Election Day by bedecking ads in red, white and blue and comparing the process of buying products to the political process.

Although this year is no exception, many advertisers and agencies are taking a different tack that acknowledges and reflects the increasingly partisan and divisive nature of American elections. The advertising campaigns are becoming more similar to political campaigns: urging consumers to take sides, going negative and adopting a tone that is less like the idealistic approach of a civics class and more like the sardonic mockery of a Jon Stewart.

For instance, in a commercial by BBDO New York, two candidates for City Council who meet in a FedEx Office store spend the 30 seconds insulting each other. The spot ends with one picking up his order for campaign signs urging drivers to “Honk if you’ve had an affair with” the other.

A magazine ad for the Snickers candy brand sold by Mars, which is also created by BBDO New York, sends up political rhetoric by declaring, “I’m voting for that guy who said that thing about America.”

An effort for JetBlue Airways called “Election Protection” nods to the threats by devoted supporters of President Obama or Mitt Romney to leave the country if the other presidential candidate wins. The campaign, by the Mullen agency, carries the theme “Live free or fly!” and offers visitors to a Web site a chance to win 1,006 tickets to international destinations the airline serves, to be given to participants whose candidate loses on Nov. 6.

And “Presidential Clippings,” an online video series that promotes the work of Stun Creative, an agency and production company, uses look-alikes and sound-alikes for Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney to depict the two candidates trading japes and gibes when they meet while getting haircuts in a barbershop.

“Marketers are struggling to find the balance between predictable and politically incorrect,” said Adam Hanft, chief executive at the Hanft Projects agency.

“You see more testing of the limits” of ad content “because it’s so difficult to break through” the clutter, Mr. Hanft said. “The guide rails are shifting all over the place.”

Evidence of that came last week, when the Pizza Hut unit of Yum Brands modified a “Pizza Party” promotion that promised a free pizza each week for life to any undecided voter at the Oct. 16 presidential debate who asked the candidates whether they preferred pepperoni or sausage as a pizza topping.

Amid widespread complaints that the promotion trivialized the election, Pizza Hut modified it, opening it to all consumers who visited a Web site. “The criticism is not why we changed and moved the campaign online,” said Doug Terfehr, a spokesman for Pizza Hut. “The majority of the way our consumer was reacting was very positive.”

The JetBlue campaign is the airline’s first to be centered on an election, said Marty St. George, senior vice president for marketing and commercial strategy at JetBlue. It is not meant to “cast aspersions on the process,” he said, but rather lighten the mood.

“Giving people a fun angle, a way to laugh about this, is a public service,” Mr. St. George said. “If a lot of people actually did leave the country when the other guy won, we wouldn’t do it.”

Besides, he added, JetBlue is giving away round-trip, not one-way, tickets.

Brad Roth, who with Mark Feldstein is principal and partner at Stun Creative, said his agency’s “sardonic” approach to the presidential race was “very much on purpose,” echoing the popular culture as evidenced by programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”

“We felt if the comedy is strong enough and spoke to certain truths, we can be the ‘fair and balanced’ place for political commentary,” Mr. Roth said.

Indeed, comic content can help differentiate ads with election themes from actual election ads, marketers say.

“We thought this would be a nice break from what we see out there,” said Dawn Terrazas, group managing director at AFG&, which is creating a “America’s Pet Debate” campaign for the Purina products sold by Nestlé Purina PetCare that asks consumers to choose online between cats and dogs.

“Whether you’re a dog lover or a cat lover, there’s a connection you can build on as animal lovers,” she added.

Wine devotees are being asked by the Cecchetti Wine Company to decide between Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio in a “Vote Pinot” campaign by the Benson Marketing Group.

“We’re trying to keep it fun, all tongue in cheek,” said Roy Cecchetti, president at the winery, compared with the more fractious tenor of the election campaign.

“There was a fight,” he added, referring to the matchup between Mr. Romney and President Obama, “and a debate showed up.”

John Longstreet, chief executive at Quaker Steak and Lube, a restaurant chain that sponsored a vote for a “Mayor of Lube Nation,” said he believed “something lighthearted and fun” — referring to chicken wings as “left wing” and “right wing,” for instance — could relieve the “consternation and tension” among a divided electorate. The campaign was created by Gatesman & Dave in Pittsburgh.

He might have more insight than most marketers. “As part of a previous life,” Mr. Longstreet said, he served two terms as the mayor of Plano, Tex.

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. October 18, 2012

Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.