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WH Campaigns Need Shot of Hollywood

If there's one thing Hollywood heavy-hitters excel at, it's shamelessly manipulating audiences. Why don't politicians take advantage of their talents?
 
 
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With all that's gone down between Washington and Hollywood, it's a shame that politicians still don't trust their showbiz supporters. For the most part, D.C. treats L.A. as a gigantic ATM machine and the movie business as a means to pick up campaign cool points -- while trying to keep potentially radioactive celebrities at arm's length. But as candidates exploit moguls and movie stars for cash and cachet, they often reject creative assistance from the artists and executives at Hollywood's dream factories.

Political experts cite a number of different reasons why candidates have ignored moviemakers' offers to help. For one thing, campaign professionals insist they alone understand which scripts and images work best to move independent or undecided voters, even though their ads generally have all the originality of a breathless airport novel.

Perhaps more important, media consultants receive a cut of their candidate's television buys, often totaling millions of dollars, so they don't want anyone else -- especially an Oscar-winning talent -- encroaching on their turf.

Take Steven Spielberg. Aside from contributing the maximum amounts early on to the primary campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, Spielberg has also qualified as a " HillRaiser" by bundling $100,000 or more for Clinton's presidential run.

Nevermind that his DreamWorks partners, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, have both strongly endorsed Obama. Spielberg, like many others of his generation, has remained loyal to the Clintons. Yet sources close to the director feel he was rebuffed several months ago after offering creative help to her struggling campaign.

To be fair, some minimal creative crossover has occurred this election season. Actor-director Rob Reiner helped facilitate Jack Nicholson's endorsement of Clinton in an amusing viral video earlier this year. And talk about meta -- last October, Reiner appeared in a humorous Clinton campaign video mocking his zealous attempts to help volunteer recruitment efforts.

But what could Spielberg -- or, for that matter, any top Hollywood director -- really do for a political candidate? For starters, he might provide invaluable advice on communications, ranging from dialogue coaching for speeches to lighting and staging suggestions for rallies.

Whether you love or hate his films, it's hard to deny that the guy knows how to manipulate audiences, from the giddy whip-crack action of the Indiana Jones series to the soul-stirring heart tugs of dramas such as Schindler's List. Other directors backing Clinton include The Day After Tomorrow helmer Roland Emmerich and Brett Ratner of X-Men 3 . The mind reels just imagining what these guys could do with her image.

Then there's the advertising -- top directors routinely have to sell big $150 million movies with 15- and 30-second spots, targeting broad audiences as well as specific demographic quadrants. It's not only the tent-pole guys who excel at these things, either. Look at what director Jesse Dylan did with $30,000 over a couple of days -- he and some pals shot Yes We Can a four-minute viral video that got 17 million hits and added greatly to Obama's mystique.

Politico asked a top marketing vice president at one of the leading motion picture studios to explain just how he might help the three current candidates in each of their respective quests for the White House. As an executive responsible for commercials, trailers, print ads and posters aimed at enticing you to see his big movie opening this weekend, he requested anonymity due to studio politics and other factors.

For Obama, the executive suggests he begin showcasing his strongest surrogates and placing himself in spots with more experienced, elder statesmen. Since the candidate already locked up the youth vote, he could go after McCain's and Clinton's senior citizen supporters by matching himself up with older, familiar faces.

"If I'm out testing 'Obama: The Movie' and data comes back saying older audiences don't see experience, I'd adjust my spots to ensure they give people confidence," says the marketer. "I'd surround him with people who have experience and make it part of his message to that targeted demographic. When people say, 'He doesn't seem like he has experience,' he has to respond by saying, 'I have experience with me.'

"Old people worry about their retirement," the executive continued, "so I'd show him talking with folks like Warren Buffett. Obama already has 'change' and 'hope' and 'promise,' now he needs to reach others with 'trust.'"

Because Obama is so flush with cash, he can afford to flood the airwaves with TV spots in an attempt to reach out to large numbers of potential voters. But since Clinton is low on funds, she has to concentrate on turning out her base to vote, the marketer said.

"In movieland, if there's an audience we're never going to get, it's foolish to spend against them," he says. "Since she has limited resources comparatively, I'd pick one demographic battle, maybe college-educated voters. Doing The Daily Show on March 4 was perfect, and I'd make sure she hits [Jimmy] Kimmel and Conan [O'Brien] too -- they're free media, and she can show that she's funny. Prime-time shows are going back on the air now, so I'd put her on 30 Rock ASAP. She needs to get away from being the country's 'mom' and become something more than that."

And how does McCain stop being identified as a sequel to President Bush?

"I wouldn't even address the last eight years," suggests the marketing expert. McCain's message "needs to be focused on a 'lifetime of service,' the solid Americana and any forward-thinking things he's done. I'd avoid the B-word at all costs." (Of course, McCain also made a cameo appearance in 2002's The Wedding Crashers. Maybe he could call in a favor from Owen Wilson or Vince Vaughn to help lighten up his grumpy image.)

McCain, as well as the two Democratic candidates, might do well to avoid cliché, both in their ads and in their iconography. "The logos all look the same -- the candidate's name with the American flag," the marketer said. "They're also not writing real provocative slogans. They need to take a hint from the movie business and have taglines that stop people in their tracks and make them go 'hmm.' I mean, Solutions for Change? Give me a break. It's all political-speak and doesn't hit you on a gut level. It doesn't hit an emotional chord."

The lack of communication between campaigns and studios, especially on the Democratic side, seems odd, he says. "It would seem the smartest thing a candidate might do is meet with the presidents of marketing at all six studios," he says. "They could certainly get a lunch or an hour with them, pick their brain and let them be brutally honest."

These studio execs, the expert continued, are well-paid to make events happen.

"Steve Jobs does it when he wants to launch a new product -- he knows the ad agencies all think the same, and he wants to do something different. We open different $150 million movies every week, and we plan our campaigns with great precision -- we have to take all these little pieces and make sure they come together positively on the same day," the marketer said.

"It's called 'event marketing,' and we drive a campaign until opening day. For politicians, that opening day takes place the first week of November."

Reprinted with permission from Politico.

Jeffrey Ressner is based in Los Angeles, California, where he reports on the nexus between Hollywood and Washington for Politico. A longtime follower of the film industry as well as national politics, he joins Politico following a 14 year stretch as a West Coast correspondent for Time Magazine, where he covered entertainment as well as social issues, cultural trends, business news, health, immigration, science, education, and the environment.

 
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