Davis, Putnam tackle the nuances of political advertising

As Republican and Democratic strategists, respectively, Fred N. Davis III and Mark Putnam don’t agree on much politically. But when it comes to marketing political candidates, they’re on the same page.

At 10:45 a.m. Friday, the duo took the Amphitheater stage to conclude Week Five’s theme, “Art & Politics.”

Putnam spoke first followed by Davis, and both showed that, although the ideas and policies they promote are different, the methods they use to engage voters are often identical.

The biggest challenge facing modern political advertisers is that the electorate is more pessimistic and incredulous than ever, Putnam said.

“This is the most cynical and skeptical electorate I’ve seen in my 30 years in the business,” Putnam said.

Because of that, Americans approach political ads with great resistance, but that is where the artistry of their construction comes into play, he said. Putnam graduated with a degree in microbiology and played the cello throughout college, which he said taught him how to balance science and art.

According to Putnam, it is first and foremost important to conduct research — both on the candidate’s opponent and the candidate themselves, whoever he or she may be. Standard research practices include polling, advertisement testing and modeling, which refers to the overall strategy a campaign staff is going to adopt.

But Putnam said the focus cannot be solely on that.

“Frankly, the trouble with a lot of political advertising is that they ignore the art part,” he said. “Instead, they want to use a sledgehammer. The problem is that turns off voters. It doesn’t add to the process.”

The artistry comes in when a politician’s message in advertising reaches out, engages or otherwise gives voters motivation to take action.

Putnam said it can be as simple as making them smile, laugh or even cry.

“It’s about working both sides of the brain; the emotional side and the logical side,” he said. “To me, you’re not making an effective ad if you’re not engaging both hemispheres.”

To illustrate this, he showed an ad supporting Nashville mayor Karl Dean’s re-election in 2011. He had led the city through the Tennessee floods of 2010 and resisted the idea of politicizing the tragedy by making ads about it; instead, Putnam made an ad of children with paintings depicting the first-responders and closing on a thank you from Dean.

“I knew he would only agree if he was thanking other people,” he said.

Putnam had several key points about political advertising.

His first point was to get attention by doing the unexpected. He advised candidates to keep their ads simple and relevant to their target voters. In certain situations, humor and self-deprecation can be the greatest assets, he said.

He cited a series of ads he made for former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson while he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. He was polling badly, but the ads, which showed him doing mock interviews that highlighted his experience with an ignorant interviewer, catapulted him to number three in Iowa.

Another candidate aided by humor in his ads was Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. In the ads, he would enter the bathroom fully clothed in suits or regular clothes and repeatedly shower, ostensibly because negative attack ads made him feel unclean. He won the governorship and, in 2014, was re-elected.

One of the most important elements of a political ad is the music, Putnam added. Tone is critical — as is taking advantage of opponent’s mistakes.

He showed an ad from the 2012 presidential election focused on Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” quote. Because the video from where the quote came was of such poor quality, Putnam instead focused on superimposed quotes over images of the downtrodden children, workers and veterans who Romney said were not his job to worry about.

Above all, Putnam said his job is to tell a story.

Two ads he made for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock told simple stories. In the first, Hancock related the story of his life, including an absentee father, the deaths of two siblings, his work ethic, education and record of public service. The second ad focused on his plans for educational reform and was filmed during the daily trip he makes with his son to take him to school.

Later in the lecture, Davis showed an ad for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), which told the story of his weekly journey by 2:25 a.m. flights from his Iowa home to D.C. to serve his district.

When his time came, Davis stepped up with humor and said, as a Republican strategist and nephew of climate change denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), he understood the audience might not be predisposed to agreement with him or his clients.

He began with his uncle’s initial 1994 election to the Senate against David McCurdy. The ad was a negative one focused on a quote by McCurdy that said a six pack of beer and a bug zapper constituted Oklahoman entertainment. In a funny anecdote, he said the actors they had hired to portray the family were ultimately paid to go home because a more aesthetically appropriate family arrived looking for the acting opportunity.

The ad had the honor of receiving Rush Limbaugh’s praise on his then-airing TV show as “one of the best ads in the country” that year.

During his most recent 2008 re-election, Inhofe was recovering from a recent quadruple-bypass surgery, so the challenge became how to show him as strong and vibrant, Davis said. The campaign filmed him flying his personal plane in an ad they called the “ ‘Top Gun’ Ad.”

Davis traveled to Michigan to meet with gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder. Upon meeting him, he was caught off-guard by his high-pitched and nasally voice. Davis has a habit of taking notes during such meetings, but by the end of this one, he had only written one word: “Nerd.”

With Davis’ help, Snyder ran as “one tough nerd” in an ad that aired during the 2010 Super Bowl. He went from eighth place to second in the polls and eventually won the governorship. He won a second term in 2014.

Davis said another successful ad was one crafted for David Perdue, a former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, who had not previously held public office. They used his inexperience to their advantage by positioning him as an outsider. In the ad, Perdue detailed his expertise while hundreds of babies cried outside of the Capitol building. Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza said it was the ad that put him in the Senate.


Q: Back in the late 80s, early 90s, there was a major advertising executive chair of one of the huge agencies who was really speaking out against political advertising and his point was that when you do a really good job on toothpaste and the toothpaste isn’t good, you don’t buy the tube — you buy the different kind. His point about political advertising is that you guys can make us think that someone is different from who they are and then we’re stuck, and I wondered if you’d like to discuss that idea. I wonder if you agree, disagree, have heard that point before?

Fred Davis: I bet we’ve only heard it about 50,000 times. My thoughts on it are number one: Voters are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. They can see through things. Let’s take the Steve King ad — I didn’t make that up. That’s what Steve King is really like. He really had that dozer. He had failed at three or four or five businesses till he finally made it. He was dogged and determined. He cares about nothing in his life other than being a really great Congressman, and he ended up turning down the chance to run for Senate in Iowa because he felt he owed [his district] the time and the effort, and they voted for him in some tough elections, and they were going to keep him around. I don’t look at it that way, and I know Mark and I have had a great time to chat over the last day or two. We have both had potential clients that we didn’t like, and we both turned them down, and I’ve turned down a lot and I’m sure Mark has turned down a lot. For 20 years, I was in the normal ad business, and in the normal ad business, it’s “do you drive a Ford or a Chevy?” That’s not the most important thing in the world, but what happens on our taxes and our families is education and social issues. Those are really, really important, so I take it as a great responsibility, and I’m proud of what I do now, regardless of whether or not some of you don’t like some of the people I do it for. I think it’s really important that we get it right and we don’t fake and we don’t sell that toothpaste that’s full of sand or something.

Mark Putnam: I agree with that. What I would add to that is that I’ve also turned down folks and nearly every person I’ve worked for, I’ve had a great amount of respect for and have really gotten to know them well. It’s the only way I can do my job. I have a good conscious of who I’ve worked for, but also, I recognize that if somebody doesn’t like who they elect, they can turn around and vote them out of office. I’ve been on the receiving and delivering end of that kind of turnaround. It isn’t like you’re stuck around with somebody forever — two years for a member of Congress, six years for a Senator. It is something voters can reverse when given the chance, and I’ve worked for Sen. Bob Casey in Virginia, and people got a little fed up with Rick Santorum, and I was able to help push him out. In the end, it’s not like buying a bar of soap, but people are investing their hopes and dreams in people, and if they don’t deliver, then they do have an avenue of recourse.

Q: You didn’t really show us really negative ads. So, interested in your opinion — do you use them? And what are the liabilities or the advantages of using them? 

MP: The 47 percent ad is a really negative ad. It’s delivering a message that’s pointed, but not over-the-top. What turns people off are the ads with the harsh pictures and the doom-and-gloom voice and the pictures of spooky music, and that doesn’t work very well anymore. It used to when people had only four options of TV and cable was in its infancy, and you can do roadblocks where you’d buy the six o’clock news and the 10 or 11 o’clock news, and that’s all they’d see. It worked better back then. It doesn’t really work now. Now, I’ve done tougher ads than the 47 percent ad, but my philosophy is you win elections by getting people to agree with you, not by turning them off. It’s not to say that there aren’t placement for those types of ads, but I don’t find that they work as well as they used to.

FD: I agree with Mark. I think it’s tonal. You say we didn’t run any negative ads. “47 percent” — how about “bug zapper?” That’s not a positive ad. But the tone in both of them, I thought that Mark’s tone in putting those people’s pictures in there was brillant and the tone in making that backyard line witty. It got rid of the negative edge, but, in both cases, it let you get the message across. It’s tonal to me.

Q: Have any of your ads been backfired like being parodied on Jon Stewart? 

FD: If Mark says no to that, he’s not telling you the truth. I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times to be on Jon Stewart. I have, [but] I wouldn’t be on it if my life depended on it. I don’t know why anyone would say yes. When you watch Jon Stewart, you know what you’re watching for. I don’t think it’s really affected the electoral outcome. It’s entertainment to me.

MP: I agree with that. I’m going to stop there.

Q: Talk about the attack ads that aren’t true. Is there a liability for misrepresenting? Does it help or hurt the campaign? 

MP: When I got started in this business, I swear to God, people would make up headlines. They’d put Latin text underneath it to make it look like a news article, and they’d put it in an ad, and there was no consequence to that. You could make it say almost whatever you wanted to. David Broder, a political reporter for the Washington Post, came up with the idea of ad watches that he called on local journalists to police the ads. For a while, this worked quite well. It would reign you in from both sides that was demonstrably untrue. Then the ad watch would call it false and then you could run an ad saying, “The Birmingham News-Daily calls the ad false.” And then some choice ads out of the ad watch. I think that was a good thing because it held all of us accountable, and now you see those footnotes at the bottom of ads. Voters in focus groups actually ask, “Where are the footnotes?” if they don’t see them in an attack ad. They may not read them, but they just want to know that based upon some sort of fact. Like anything, this process has gotten manipulated over time and now you can bend over backward to back something up with facts and statistics and there are some reporters out there who just don’t like negative ads, and they will figure out someway to criticize the ad and then after a while in a campaign — we had this against Mitch McConnell — every ad was, “So-and-so said it was false,” and, “So-and-so said it was false,” and the voters at a certain point threw up their hands and it doesn’t really work for either side anymore.

FD: I have one great, horrible story on that that the voters tend to get it right. I won’t name the state, but this was a statewide race, a very important race and my candidate’s opponent admitted that he had a cocaine problem in the past and had been to rehab and had beaten it and the state was really behind him. They were very proud of him because of that. My client comes to me and says he has irrefutable proof that this guy has fallen off the wagon and that he has checked back into this famous rehab center under an assumed name and he has all the documentation on this and he wants to run an ad that tells this and that’s the kind of ad I just hate. So, first I wanted to see the documentation: ‘‘We’ll have it tomorrow. It’s going to be a letter from the doctor.’ What doctor is going to send that letter? So that sounded a little suspect. On and on and on he kept beating me for the ad and I wouldn’t do it. Toward the end, I knuckled under and this guy — I filmed him in a white robe with knee-high dark dress socks, one of them kind of pushed down around the ankles, pretty heavy-set guy. The guy playing the role walks down this institutional hallway and right at the end he falls over. This female voice says very nicely, “This gentleman had a problem. He admitted it, we all appreciated that. It’s so sad that it’s come back.” It was very, very subtle. But it wasn’t true. The letter from the doctor never showed up. Nothing ever showed up and that guy, my client, went to jail. There’s no advantage to Mark and I lying to you about anything.

Q: Are you concerned with the amount of money in politics? 

MP: … Listen, I think Citizens United is a disaster. I think there is far too much money that‘s unaccountable that it comes from places where you don’t know where it is and people can hide and run ads, so I think there’s too much of that money in politics. I think, though, that money finds a way in. I don’t really know what’ll work, to be honest with you, because they’ve tried a lot of different things and they never work. I just think you need to have as transparent a process as possible. I think every donor to every sort of PAC should be public. I don’t think you can infringe on people’s right to free speech, but on the other hand, it can’t be disguised speech. I think it should be out in the open.

FD: A wise man would know to never argue with Citizens United in front of this crowd, so I will not. But what the other thing Mark said is 100 percent correct: Money has always been there. It will always be there, but [Citizens United] changes the labels on where money comes from. I doubt, if you take in the growth of the economy, there’s not huge additional dollars. It’s just in different categories. Believe me, there’s money in politics, and there always has been and it gets into a union argument and we don’t want to have that argument.

Q: I’m going to ask the other one that everybody wants me to ask. It’s about Donald [Trump]. Some people want to know how you would advertise for a shrill candidate — that’s they way it’s described here. Others want to know how you would attack or beat Donald. 

FD: Let me talk about the shrill, and you can talk about the attack because I had the chance to represent the Donald. We chose not to do that. In the process of that, I wrote a very confidential memo, which you can all read if you go to the New York Times website, on how he would have to change public demeanor if he were to be considered a serious candidate for president. Is he leading the Republican polls now? Yes. Will he be the president of the United States? Mark my words: He will not be the president. My 88-year-old mom made me promise her that he would never be president of the United States. I told her she’s safe. The point of my memo was that you can be a carnival barker to get attention, but America’s not going to elect a carnival barker. They’re not going to elect a game-show host. Right now, people are mad at government, they’re mad at Congress, they’re mad at everything in Washington D.C. Therefore, he’s colorful, he’s interesting, he’s saying things that really resonate with people. I don’t think he does a poll and says, “This is the line I’m going to say today.” I think he’s just a guy who speaks out and is pretty colorful and interesting and right now, we’re in the entertainment phase of politics. There’s a debate coming up next Tuesday. I’m doing John Kasich’s race — a good guy. I think you would like him. I think John’s going to be in the debate, but we’re not sure. He got in really late, so he’s third in New Hampshire, but he’s got to be 10th in the country to get into the debate. Donald is number one, so he’s going to be in the debate. So someone Mark mentioned a minute ago, a very renowned political Washington brain told me the last thing you want to do is make that debate because it’s going to be a clown show based on Donald Trump. So, enjoy Donald Trump while he’s here, but don’t get hooked on him.

MP: I don’t think he’ll be in the race come the beginning of 2016. I could be proven wrong on that. I think the danger right now with Donald Trump is realizing why he’s connecting with voters. It’s not just name I.D. It’s not just because he has his game show, “The Apprentice.” His remarks about Mexicans coming over the border was reprehensible. His remarks about Sen. McCain were equally so. But if you listen to some of the other things he was saying, he is giving voice to the frustration I see all the time in focus groups that we actually hear from real voters. They are fed up, and when somebody talks plainly and what’s on their mind, they react to it, and a lot of what he’s saying is connecting. It’s not just a popularity contest right now based on name I.D. I’ll be honest with you — I don’t know how I would run ads against him if he’s still a factor in the race eight months from now. I always approach a campaign with a completely blank slate, and I use the research process for what it is: The way to figure out how to make the best attack against him. Honestly, I’m not sure I want to feature all of his soundbites because, frankly, that’s why he’s getting where he is right now. He’s connecting with people. Maybe there will be a catalog of all the outrageous things he’s said, and that would be one direction to test. Another direction to test would be all over the map on a lot of issues. He has flip-flopped. He’s been a Republican, then a Democrat, then an Independent, then a Republican again. He’s taken different sides on the death penalty, on legalization of drugs — I believe, I’m not sure on that one — but [he’s] been all over the place. So, that’s another avenue of attack. And also, his business record is rife with opportunity. There’s a lot of bankruptcy in his history. There’s a lot of vendors he’s left high-and-dry. I would want to get all of that before I settled on any one direction and I would want to figure out if he’s still a factor, we’re going to have to deal with it but in a way that’s not only going to be a creative ad for the sake of making a creative ad. I could do one of those. I could make something that would would get a lot of attention about Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean it will work. All the creative ads that I’ve shown you that I’ve done are all rooted in research, all rooted in the strategic imperatives of the campaign. It wasn’t just me trying to make something that I thought would be entertaining.

FD: Let me add one quick thing to that. In my memo that was such a big hit with Donald was that he shouldn’t be in his ads. Can you imagine how he enjoyed that line? You should talk about how his skills and his successes have helped you and helped everyday people across America. That was not a big hit.

Q: Who also comments and decides on which ads run, and how do you get the candidate to follow your advice if there are other voices? How do you measure the impact you can claim on the ads? 

FD: Obviously, you claim everything if you win. You pass everything else off on the others in the campaign if you lose. The best way is very simple, and that’s to have your uncle be your candidate because he never even sees the ads before they go on the air. The “bug zapper” he saw and put on the air. It varies by campaign. Sometimes you have a strong candidate who’s a micromanager who’s very involved in every single word. An example would be Ben Sasse, a Senator from Nebraska. A great guy, but very, very, very focused on exactly that process-type stuff. You have people like John McCain running for president. …He would set broad strokes, like we would go to enormous lengths so that nothing could be felt as racist, and if you’re running against a woman, there’s a whole new set of skills. It’s a lot of different people. I like it when it’s a real small group, but too many of them get a little too large.

MP: Usually, it’s a campaign manager, a candidate, the pollster, the media consultant, often times a direct mail consultant — that’s usually the strategic core of the campaign. There might be a general consultant too. I always see it as a collaborative effort to figure out the strategy. I like to go off on my own and write scripts, bring them back, and then it’s collaborative again to try and make sure everyone agrees with what we’re saying in the ads and how we’re saying it. Getting a candidate to do something, it requires that level of trust. That’s why I do invest a lot of time up front getting to know them, spending time with their family and with their spouse. They’re always going to be a client, but you try to also become a friend to the degree that you can so that you understand them. Bill Richardson, before we did those job interview ads, there were a lot of people in the campaign that said, “That’s not presidential.” I didn’t think we had the luxury of worrying about that, frankly, when we’re at two percent in the polls, but I had done his 2006 gubernatorial campaign and I did an ad and the end point of the ad was that he had helped bring hundreds of millions of dollars of Hollywood business to New Mexico. The idea I had for the ad was that he would be the sheriff in every Western movie cliche you can think of and shooting that ad was a challenge because he never got it. I had one scene where he needed to gallop up on a horse with his posse, stop, yell, “We’ll cut them off at the pass!” The trouble was, I show up at that location and he says, “You want me to do what?” I said, ‘Well I need to gallop and yell, “We’ll cut them off at the pass,” and he said, “Mark, that’s not my horse.” And I said, “Sorry, that’s the only horse we have.” And he said, “It’s not my horse — I can’t gallop off.” And I said, “You need to figure out how.” The first take is clip-clop, clip-clop … “We’ll hit them off at the pass!” … clip-clop, clip-clop. And we finally got him to go a little faster and trot and we sped it up a little bit in the editing. There was a scene also in there where he busts into the doors of a saloon. Thank goodness there was a movie set in New Mexico we could shoot at, and he yells out, “Give me a milk,” after everyone dives underneath the tables. Everywhere he went after than and at the parades, kids would hold up milk cartons and say, “Give me a milk.” So he got it. After that he suddenly understood the ad, and when I proposed this job interview idea and there was some people in the campaign who said it wasn’t presidential and he said words to the effect of, “Forget them.” Those weren’t the words he said, but you can imagine what he did, but he said, “We’re going to try it.” It is earning trust over time. A lot of the times, I get hired because people want these sorts of ads. They expect that, and if they don’t get that from me, then they’re disappointed. To get a candidate to do something is first getting a campaign to agree on something, having the candidate onboard as well as he can and trusting that it will work and seeing your gameplan through and not pulling something off the air prematurely.

FD: There was a thing I did called “Demon Sheep.” I didn’t call it that; the press did. It got huge, huge press around the country and it’s this cheesy little video on Carly Fiorina’s Senate race in California, and every single person that Mark listed, “pollster,” down on this line didn’t want to run this ad. But Carly Fiorina, who had been the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was a marketeer and she understood that it would save her $5 million in having to get this one guy out of the race. It cost $5 million to run one ad for one week in California in a sufficient amount — I think it’s like 1,000 points or something. That’s a ton of money, and we had to get rid of this guy, and by doing this little viral video, we got rid of him handedly for $20,000 instead of $5 million, but it was only because the candidate overruled everyone. Just like David Perdue did on that baby ad.

This article was updated on Aug. 2, 2015, to clarify passages in the Q-and-A.