For a time, the nation looked to Minnesota for innovative political ads. Working with local ad pros in 1990, an obscure college professor’s “Fast Paul” and “Looking for Rudy” TV ads were a national sensation.
Since then, Minnesota’s pols have gone conventional. Most ads now follow The Recipe:
Ominously droning music. Grainy photo of Evil Opponent caught in an unflattering facial expression. The Big Accusation(s).
Transition to heroic music! Lovely images of Our Photoshopped Candidate helping school children read, seniors do paperwork, and veterans secure their lapel pins! Images of Our Photshopped Candidate working at his desk in the wee hours, and in front of a sea of flags inspiring the masses with a forceful finger jab in the air! Call-to-action! Logo! Disclaimer.
Sound familiar? The ingredients to The Recipe never change appreciably. Just add special interest money, and repeat ad nauseum.
The Recipe produces ads that are so similar in tone and feel that it is very easy for voters to tune them out. Nothing about them sparks enough curiosity to prevent voters from closing their ears, changing the channel, or skipping the commercial via DVR. For this reason, The Recipe remains more effective than most tactics, but much less effective than it once was.
Still, year after year, political consultants convince politicians and special interests to bake up enormous batches of The Recipe. Consultants push it because it is relatively fast to produce, low-budget, and low-risk. Just shoot stock video and drop it into the template. Those are somewhat defensible reasons. But consultants also push mass production of The Recipe because it earns them a high profit margin, in the same way that any assembly line has higher profit margins than customized craftsmanship. The Recipe often serves the constulant’s needs more than the candidate’s needs.
In every election cycle, there are a few exceptions to the rule. Wellstone in 1990 was one. Jesse Ventura had a few. A couple of years ago, Steve Novick in Oregon was another. This month, there is a pretty decent non-conventional web video from South Dakota congressional candidate Jeff Barth:
Scoff at the production value if you like. Look down your nose at the campy humor. But this video, airing for free, has had over 150,000 YouTube viewings, due to peer-to-peer sharing, and referrals from free airings on news programs. For a primary candidate in a state of 380,00 voters, that’s a big deal. And unlike conventional ads, it is airing for free.
Why is something like this successful? After all, it’s not nearly as glossy, glib or compact as The Recipe. Barth’s video is successful because it is many things that the 30-second cookie cutter ads are not. It’s unique enough to draw you in. It’s funny enough to cause you to want to share it. It’s informative enough to make it worth your while. It’s provocative enough to stick in your memory.
Even if you only watch this video once, you come away knowing something about the candidate’s background, personality and approach to life and politics. This video leaves me thinking this guy Barth might not be another risk averse congressional clone. In a year when job approval ratings for Congress are at 10% that “not like the others” message is a strategically important leave behind.
Will anyone in Minnesota be imaginative and courageous enough to do anything unique with their political ads this election cycle, or can we look forward to heapin’ helpins of The Recipe?