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The Evolution Of Political Campaign Advertising

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I wasn't aware that this is Advertising Week (I thought every week was Advertising Week!) until I received an invitation from Mark McKinnon to attend a panel discussion on "The Evolution of Presidential Campaign Advertising." As chief media advisor to George W. Bush, McKinnon directed the President's advertising effort for both the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, and he has committed to playing a similar role in 2008 for Senator John McCain. Nevertheless, McKinnon remains a key member of Bush's small circle of top strategists, one of what a leading trade journal described as "a handful of players behind every big decision, consensus or roadblock in Washington...putting a unique, sometimes hidden stamp on the outcome of today's debates."

McKinnon was joined at the USA Today-sponsored "Pulse of America" event, moderated by that paper's Washington bureau chief Susan Page, by his Democratic counterpart David Axelrod. A onetime political writer for the Chicago Tribune, Axelrod moved on to develop media and communication strategies for a host of clients including John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Like McKinnon, Axelrod is a seasoned professional considered by many to be at or near the top of the media strategist pile.

Both speakers agreed that we are now in 'a change-oriented environment" wherein a majority of the electorate is "unsettled and serious" and seeking simple and direct messages. "Voters today are sophisticated and cynical," said Axelrod. "They just don't believe political ads. Instead they are looking for stories told through the mouths of real people in their own words."

"We've lost a lot of control," McKinnon agreed. "So who's in control now? It's anyone with a camera. Just imagine someone in their pajamas in a dorm room making their own ads and putting them up on YouTube. Young, fast, smart, adroit people doing everything on a Mac -- this is what will have the greatest impact on the next election. The whole thing will be online from beginning to end. There's a 24-hour news cycle and anyone can participate. There are so many other players now."

Those new players include cash-laden independent groups, from Swift Boat Vets to, making and placing their own advertising. In some states such third party groups (known as 527s) actually spent more money advertising in the last election than the candidates themselves. Other innovations range from unusual cable media buys on outlets like the Golf Channel, where McKinnon ran Bush ads for months to great effect, to new technologies like Tivo and Blackberry, all the way to the Internet, where the feverish blogosphere, MySpace, YouTube, and the advent of compressed video have combined to do away with previous limitations on everything from the content to the delivery of political advertising.

"The merger of technology and media has made dramatic changes in the entire process,' said Axelrod. "There is now so much media choice that our biggest problem is determining how to drive people to the candidate's message."

"There is more noise and more clutter now, and it's harder to break through," McKinnon agreed. "Ultimately, the community will decide."

Of course, in considering advertising strategies for the next presidential campaign, it would be foolish not to revisit those employed in the previous one, and both McKinnon and Axelrod had a lot to say about 2004. Not surprisingly, they agreed that losing candidate John Kerry made a lot of mistakes. Initially focusing the Kerry campaign message on his biography and Vietnam service - and then not fighting back when Bush supporters attacked with their infamous "Swift Boat" ads - was but one of many. Kerry's failure to respond quickly and forcefully to such a direct assault on his character, McKinnon said, "showed a fundamental misunderstanding of new media forces.

"Ads are just a part of a much larger narrative." McKinnon added, sounding a lot like a Republican George Lakoff. "And the best political ads are 'values' ads. They have a narrative arc, tell a story and communicate emotion. For President Bush, the message we tried to communicate was strength and humanity.

"Of course, we were blessed by the weakness of our opponent," McKinnon concluded. "Kerry seemed to have a different strategy and different message every month. That inconsistency played into our portrayal of him as a flip-flopper, and people never got a good sense of who he was or what he stood for. Plus Kerry made the mistake of just running against George W. Bush. Until the Democrats stand for something instead of just against, we'll benefit."

Both media pros, however, coyly downplayed the impact of what they do. Axelrod compared the 'impact of media in American politics" to a Bell Curve, saying that political advertising had its biggest impact on the level of state campaigns, but was just "background music" in both local and presidential races. "Ads cannot elect a weaker candidate," McKinnon added. "Advertising has very little to do with electing the president" - to which Axelrod caustically chortled, "$170 million dollars later, he tells us!"

Here's another tip from the insiders - many ads are made not to influence individual voters, but instead to influence media coverage. When moderator Page asked what the media should do to avoid being played in the partisan fray, both Axelrod and McKinnon suggested that instead of mindlessly cooperating with their ploys, the media instead should ask more questions and perhaps simply ignore ads -- like the infamous Swift Boat attack on Kerry -- that play only once on a cheap, small market cable system and are clearly designed solely to attract 'free media' attention.

So bottom line, what can we expect in political advertising in the 2008 presidential campaign? More of the same, apparently. Despite the fact that ads can't elect a weak candidate, that voters are more sophisticated and cynical, that's there's more noise and clutter and it's harder than ever to break through with your message, and that top-flight media strategists say they are losing control to everyone from well-funded third party groups to the video-producing masses, both McKinnon and Axelrod agreed there will probably be more money spent on political advertising in the next presidential campaign than ever before, and that "75 to 80 percent" of all the advertising dollars will go to broadcast television, which Axelrod characterized as "the nuclear weapon of politics."

Let's drop the Big One and see what happens...
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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at
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