Using the Right's Image Approach

Late last month, John Kerry's campaign released a new 30-second ad entitled "Pilot." To accompany the announcement last week of Sen. John Edwards as his running mate, Kerry issued "New Team," the first Democratic ticket ad featuring both Kerry and Edwards.

Along with a spate of earlier biographical spots, the intent of these ads is to introduce Kerry to and his new running mate to voters, using affirmative images to counterbalance the steady diet of mostly negative ads run thus far by the Bush-Cheney camp. The ads are typical – safe bets, all.

But there is more creative, albeit ironic way to introduce Kerry through positive ads, specifically by removing the Senator's image and voice from the spots altogether. And Kerry media adviser Bob Shrum ought to know: Two years ago, in Maryland's gubernatorial race, Republican Robert Ehrlich's campaign used this very technique in a series of testimonials that softened Ehrlich's image and helped propel him to victory over Shrum's client, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Steady as he goes

It's hard to argue with Kerry's conservative approach thus far this election cycle.

He waited patiently throughout late 2003 and early 2004, watching his self-imploding competitors for the Democratic nomination clear a path for him. He waited patiently during much of the post-primary period as the President and Vice President suffered through a series of damaging news cycles. And although he picked Edwards before the national convention, because Kerry in essence secured the nomination by the first week of March he had the luxury of four long months to carefully consider all his options.

It should be no surprise that Kerry's advertising campaign thus far mirrors the Senator's cautious electoral strategy. His positive spots are standard fare: treacly music, slow-motion visuals, quips from the family, and still photos from his younger days. The "Pilot" script reads like a drive-by resume: "He's a husband and father, a pilot, a hunter, a hockey player...tough prosecutor, advocate for kids." An earlier, one-minute ad, "Heart", includes admiring praise from his wife, Teresa, and daughter Vanessa. It's the best of the bunch.

Likewise, Kerry's negative spots adhere to tried-and-true approaches: Political criticisms accompanied by gloomy overtones and gotcha quotes. Because it deviates slightly from the norm, the negative ad called "Time's Up" is a notable exception. Overall, the package of both positive and negative ads offers nothing especially daring.

To validate his electoral reputation as that of a slow starter who closes strong, Kerry will need to try something innovative, even aggressive, with future ad buys. To that end, Shrum could steal a page from the advertising playbook of the consultants who helped Ehrlich beat Townsend in 2002.

Dare to be different

Ehrlich's 2002 media team of Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer dared to run a brilliant series of innovative ads that humanized a Republican client who needed to depict himself as an acceptable moderate in a liberal state.

The Ehrlich campaign's series of 30-second, one-person testimonials required minimal production value: Each spot featured a carefully edited stream of head-and-shoulders or waist-up shots against a white background of a lone person testifying as to why he or she supported Ehrlich. The subjects were a mixed bunch: male and female, white and black, and from varying occupations and backgrounds.

For those outside the Maryland viewing area who likely never saw them, they featured a white, suburban mother & teacher; a black civil rights lawyer; and what I swear was a third testimonial from a black female police officer.

With one notable exception – and more on that in a moment – there is not a single image of Ehrlich or his running mate, Michael Steele, in any of the ads. A large Ehrlich-Steele campaign logo and the small-font, obligatory disclaimer appear briefly at the very end. But other than that, and the name and occupation of the person testifying, the spots are unaccompanied by text or graphics that might distract the viewer or clutter the message.

The simple and direct ads were like something straight from Madison Avenue; indeed, they were similar to Apple's switch-to-Mac 2002 television campaign produced by "Fog of War" documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that same year. They stood out precisely because they differed from the steady stream of traditional attack and biography ads created by consultants and authorized by candidates.

Closing argument

Kerry's most crucial task during the next four months is to introduce himself to the country. Doing so will require him to take risks. A series of innovative testimonials without Kerry in them might help.

As it happens, Stevens & Schriefer are working for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, creating an interesting rematch with Shrum-Devine-Donilon. Shrum might consider preempting the Bush-Cheney campaign, beating them with their own weapons. It's hard to imagine a better way to avenge the 2002 Maryland race, no less the 2000 presidential race.

As a final note, I should mention that lone exception to the person-on-the-street testimonials: It featured Ehrlich's running mate, the now-Lt. Governor of Maryland, Michael Steele. As it happens, Kerry's new running mate is ideally suited to perform the same task. Shrum could put the energetic, personable John Edwards in front of a white backdrop, turn on the cameras, and ask the North Carolinian to look straight into the lens.

Done right, the testimonial he delivers could be the most important closing argument of his and Kerry's political lives.

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