Here at Hardball, we spend a lot of time assessing, well.. more like dissecting, political advertising. When a new ad comes out we're quick to critique it. Is it accurate? Is it effective? Where is it running? Will the target of a negative ad respond? We like to think we're pretty smart about these ads, so we decided to put our creativity and political savvy on the line and make our very own mock political TV spots. How hard could it be?
As subjects of positive and negative ads, we selected Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and North Carolina Senator John Edwards. Both Senators are from the South, and both could be on a national ticket.
Two veteran campaign ad strategists served as our advisers: Steve McMahon, a Democratic ad strategist who most recently helped run the Dean campaign, and Art Hackney, a Republican who has produced more than 300 ads. The two veterans guided us through the process – from the initial brainstorming, through scripting and shot selection, to the final editing.
Bill Frist ads
Knowing what we did about Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), the team decided to focus on the things that stood out: He was the Senate majority leader, a doctor and he was also an executive with a controversial health care company.
For the positive ad, we decide to focus on Frist's medical profession, as well as the positive press he received when he helped out in a Florida highway accident, and in the Capitol shooting.
“It’s a remarkably powerful thing to say –- he’s a doctor, he’s saved lives. He’s changed medicine in some way,” says Steve McMahon. “In my view, it’s the best thing he’s got going for him."
Art Hackney says that Sen. Frist going out of his way to stop on a highway and help out at an accident site “speaks volumes.”
We worked both things into the ad, and came up with this copy:
"He’s the leader of the Senate
And he’s a doctor who is still saving lives.
In Florida, he treated the victims of an awful highway accident.
In the Capitol, when two police officers were shot, Bill Frist was there.
He’s also saving American jobs and helping small businesses, and protecting our national security.
Bill Frist, a record of accomplishment and the right prescription for everyday Americans."
McMahon pointed out that it could be powerful to turn a positive — his leadership in the Senate — into a negative. “You can take the leadership thing, which is positive, and you try to make it actually work against him. We can ask: What’s Bill Frist the Republican leader done? Nothing. Nothing to create jobs, nothing to lower the deficit, and while companies are moving jobs overseas, Bill Frist is giving them tax breaks.”
We agreed that Frist had some vulnerability with leadership. We factored this into choosing the images we used. We found some pictures of Frist looking awkward that help make our point.
Our final copy:
"Bill Frist is the Senate leader, but here’s what he and his Republican Right wing friends have done: 2 million jobs lost, 43 million Americans now without health insurance, soaring budget deficits, manufacturing headed overseas, and a society bitterly divided over culture and values.
And now, Doctor Frist wants to lead the nation?
Even Time Magazine wondered, “Is he equipped for the job?”
The Hippocratic oath says, ‘Do no harm.’ Has Bill Frist forgotten?"
John Edwards ads
For Sen. Edwards’ positive ad, everyone agreed that we should use his bio. “That’s the most powerful aspect of his message,” says McMahon. “He grew up the son of a mill worker, which I know everybody’s heard in the media, but most people in America haven’t heard that.”
For the negative ad, the team decided we should focus on Edwards resume: he's a trial lawyer with little political experience on the national stage. We came up with the line "America needs a leader, not a lawsuit."
We think the ad experts would approve of our line, but Hackney disagreed with our strategy. "There's already a perception of trial lawyers being ambulance chasers. Is that perfect fair game? Absolutely not. They [the opposing party] can always come back and talk about the example of the one poor little kid who would have been crippled for life, if it hadn’t been for [Edwards and] what the laws allow you to do.”
Here’s what the 'Hardball ad team' came up with:
"He is the son of a mill worker who attended public schools and was the first in his family to go to college. He paid his own way through law school, dedicated his career to working families and their children, and for 27 years has stood up against powerful corporations.
EDWARDS: 'When you remember where you came from, you’ll always know where you’re going and what you need to fight for -- real change that will give today’s families a chance to give their kids a better life. As president, that’s what I’ll fight for every day.'"
"John Edwards says there are two Americas. Actually, there are two types of politicians – those we trust to handle dangerous times (show Frist treating Capitol Hill victims), and those most interested in career advancement . Edwards made millions suing hospitals and family doctors. Then before completing a single Senate term, he set his sights on the White House. His own records show most of his money is coming from trial lawyers.
But is John Edwards ready to lead? That’s right Senator, not so fast."
I thought as first timers, we did a decent job, but making a political ad wasn't as easy as we thought — there are so many issues to consider, and so little time to get your message across. Here's some of what we learned in the process — aspiring political ad gurus, take note. And of course, for any voter, it helps to know more about how the politicians are playing the political game.
So you want to make a political ad?
- Be relevant and credible. “The two things you always have to keep in mind are relevant and credible,” says McMahon. “If you make spots that are both, you are way ahead of the game every single time.”
- Music is important. “You can take some bad visuals and make a great spot if you’ve got good music,” says Hackney. “You can ruin a spot if you’ve got bad or inappropriate music.”
- Choose your images wisely. For the negative Bill Frist ad, we chose images of Frist looking a bit awkward to make our point. Also, we were careful not to use pictures of our candidates standing next to people from the other party.
- Be careful about attacks. “Be careful of what line you draw before you draw it,” says Hackney. Hackney thought that wasn’t fair of us to paint Edwards as a puppet for trial lawyers. He also thought that one of our ideas -- likening Bill Frist's involvement with the Columbia HCA to Cheney and Halliburton -- was a stretch. His point? One can go too far.
- Make sure the source is there. Whenever a fact is mentioned, notating the source of the information is necessary, even if it's in tiny type. “People don’t necessarily want to read the source, but they want to know it’s there,” says McMahon. “They want to know that you aren’t putting something out there that can’t be substantiated.”
- Don’t assume everyone’s heard of everything. McMahon thinks most people in America haven’t heard of John Edwards’ bio and his father being a mill worker, despite it being common knowledge to the media. He urged us to use this story, since it gets people's attention. “It’s very hard to get people to listen, especially in primaries in this day and age.”
- Let the news media handle the more controversial allegations. Our ad gurus said that sensitive allegations like "wife-beating" or "DUI" should always be left to the news media and should never be used in an attack ad. (We discussed it as a hypothetical, Frist and Edwards have never faced such allegations.) You never don't want to be the one raising that charge against your opponent.