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Accountability in Campaign Advertising

Okay, class, we had a roaring debate yesterday about Darcy Burner’s first ad.  Here’s another case example for community review:  John Courage’s first ad.

Here are the yardsticks, based on this excellent, original polling and analysis.  Note that this polling review of why Francine Busby lost in her bid to take over the criminal Duke Cunningham’s seat is critical to this year’s crop of Dems.  It does what advertising consultants in politics don’t do:  figure out why a person lost and what messages actually mattered to voters.  It is also the only data we have about a real congressional contest in 2006: 

Candidates should run aggressively on accountability and the war in Iraq. Here are six specific `rules of thumb’ we recommend you use for planning purposes.

  • 1. Iraq must be central in your campaign and you must blame Republicans for it Ignoring Iraq, downplaying its significance, or accepting Bush’s framework by not blaming leaders is a sign to voters that you are weak, unlikely to bring change, and not addressing the main issue of the day. Regardless of how you approach the policy going forward in Iraq, the key trait that voters seek is a willingness to hold failed leaders accountable for the debacle. Be willing to uncover the truth, place blame, and demand consequences.
  • 2. The debate on whether Bush is a competent, trustworthy President is over. He is considered among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents a leader who makes mistakes and then won’t tell the truth about those mistakes. This is not about competence. This is about massive failure of leadership with no end in sight.
  • 3. Republicans cannot run against Bush and Iraq. Voters do not think that Republicans are willing to hold Bush or other administration figures accountable for those mistakes, so Republican Congressional dissent on the war is unlikely to help Republicans. But dissent will, in fact, work to Democratic candidates’ advantage. It shows strength and, most importantly, principle and personal values.
  • 4. `Terrorism’ scares only work in the absence of strong accountability messaging, since Republicans are no longer trustworthy on issues of war and peace. Voters know Republicans will let mistakes slide and they want accountability in the face of that.
  • 5. Oversight beats withdrawal. Journalists or other messengers who frame politics in terms of a need to have an alternative plan in contrast to Bush are insulting voters, and should be taken to task aggressively for framing false choices and misrepresenting the role of Congress. Congress primarily serves as military oversight, not military policy. Voters know that.
  • 6. Pick a fight, any fight. Voters need to be convinced that Democrats can credibly challenge Bush. Whether the fight is over de-funding Cheney’s personal staff, attacking John Bolton’s confirmation, impeachment hearings, or stopping war profiteering with a new `Truman Commission’, Democratic candidates must demonstrate strength through aggressive confrontation where the term "accountability" is more than just an abstraction or corporate lingo. It must be made real through a fight you plan to pick.

    When presented with squeals from journalists and Republicans over your fight, a resolute willingness to not back off in the face of criticism is key. Your willingness to hold Bush accountable must be made real. For example, demand that the president and the party in power come to account for having squandered lives, security and treasure while enriching CEOs of major corporations such as Halliburton.

    Here’s a real-world example of this dynamic from US history: Harry Truman became vice president because as a US Senator, he had the backbone to demand that major figures in the American economy either give back money stolen in the provision of shoddy materiel for World War II, or go to jail for treason.

In sum, whatever fights you pick, whether specific local issues or national ones, our poll shows that accountability regarding Bush, Congressional Republicans and your opponent is crucial to building the credibility you need in order to break through with a majority vote in November. Democrats, Independents and even many Republicans want this to occur. Do it.

Let’s also review some key points about political ads and the Democratic advertising machine:

  • Good ads show more than they tell.  This is a visual medium.  Tell your story with pictures, then use words to accent your story.  Fit the words to the images, not the other way around.  A powerful, visual impact is critical to a successful ad.  Ned Lamont’s ads are here.  Look at Commercial #1.  It tells a story visually.  Look at Commercial #4:  another powerful and memorable visual.  MoveOn’s highly web tested (not focus groups, and done pre-launch), successful "red hands" series is another model (quicktime link).
  • Effective ads move poll numbers.  5+% is achievable with a great ad campaign, but television time is expensive.  The stakes are high, and since the costs are high, there’s just no room to spend or waste money on lackluster ads.  Most money in politics is burned up in advertising, in part, because advertising really matters.  If it costs that much and the stakes are that high, it’s worth doing right.
  • Democratic advertising consultants are made up of a closed, unaccountable priesthood of losers with perverse incentives.  If you see a cookie cutter ad, it’s because it’s a cookie cutter ad with no imagination, and hence, no impact.  The same consultants get hired by Democrats over and over, and they get paid as a percentage of the advertising placement (GOP advertising people get a flat fee).  Their incentive is to spend more money on big ad buys, but since the same consultants get recycled whether they win or lose, they actually have no incentive to win or to learn from mistakes.  They only have an incentive to burn up campaign cash.  Contrast this with the people doing Lamont’s ads or Ellliot Spitzer’s ads, who are from the corporate world and accustomed to using cutting edge visual strategies to sell products for clients who hold them accountable for results.
  • In a competitive race, a good ad campaign makes the case for a candidate, defines the candidate and defines the opponentThis is what a good multi-ad campaign accomplishes.  No one ad can do it all, but the basics of good ads across a campaign hold true.  Once again, look at the ads in the Lamont campaign for his primary win.  Different ads do different things, but they all make a striking visual presentation, even when the visuals are the fresh, attractive faces of Ned’s inner city students.
  • The netroots should become much more sophisticated about criticizing advertising because advertising is so central to candidate success.  If we care about winning, we have to become sophisticated viewers of ads, and begin to hold campaigns and the party accountable.  Otherwise, the cycle of persistent Democratic campaign fecklessness will continue.  It’s up to us to change the system and create incentives for campaigns to win and to learn.  Now that the netroots are able to do real polling designed to evaluate actual campaign performance, we have the tools needed to help progressive candidates break free of the stranglehold placed on them by the DC insiders and the congressional campaign committees who recommend these loser consultants as a precondition to bestowing active party support.

Okay, gang, so what do you think of John Courage’s first ad?  Discuss.

UPDATE:  I just got late word this was an in-kind donated ad to the Courage campaign, so the campaign put no money into it.  I’m not yet clear who made it (I have some names but don’t know who they are) or whether or not they are advertising pros.  Obviously, if this is something done by people who are not advertising people on a budget, that influences how we should judge the end product.

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