How to Sell a Candidate
Unpackage him. Show his heart, his soul, his humanity. And throw away the scriptalong with the leather jacket.
THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ABOUT POLITICAL media consulting is that it’s our job to create something that isn’t there—to package candidates. A lot of consultants do that. I would argue that the successful ones do just the opposite. I think the effective approach is to unpackage candidates.
There was a time when people were not used to political advertising. They were much more easily persuaded by theater, and they were more easily misled. Today, for a variety of reasons, they’re media savvy. They’re incredibly skeptical, discerning, and sophisticated about politics. What they look for are clues to a candidate’s humanity: what’s at his core, what he believes in as a human being. It’s a consultant’s job to determine that element of humanity.
The most successful political commercials today are ones that no one would even guess are political commercials. They’re more like documentaries—they’re thirty-second glimpses of a candidate’s soul and heart. It’s important to talk about the issues people care about, but when someone’s running for office, what’s more important than issues is character. Is the candidate honest? Does he have integrity? Does he have a sense of humor? Does he take himself too seriously? How does he treat his staff? His family?
Consultants make a mistake when they produce political ads with typical political-ad music, soundbites, and logos; I try to eliminate logos altogether. You have to remember that a voter’s first instinct when one of these ads comes on is to flip the channel or tune out. The second a voter gets a sense that he’s watching a political commercial, he’s gone. That’s why it’s better if it looks like a candidate has been caught unscripted and unguarded. The reaction you want is, This is interesting; this is not what I’d expect to see from a politician.
In a presidential election, especially, or in another chief-executive race, like governor or mayor, people are looking to elect the head of the family. Their lives are busy and crowded. They’re looking to elect someone they can trust to run the country or the state or the city, but they want characteristics and attributes beyond a set of positions on issues. What they’re thinking is, I may not agree with this person all the time, but I trust him to exercise good judgment, to be honest, to have integrity. That was why swing voters found President Bush appealing. They thought, “I may not agree with him on guns or other issues, but I trust him. He knows who he is, he knows where he wants to go, and he’s honest. Therefore, I’m going to trust him to make the right decisions.”
If you’re trying to communicate humanity, it helps if you have a guy who has a lot of it. I remember making a film for the Republican convention in 2000. We were shooting the president—he was then the governor—in Crawford. In one part of the film he and the first lady were talking about when their children were born. The president was telling a story about being in the delivery room, and he totally garbled the line. He blew it; he just blew it. And he started laughing. When we went into the editing room, this was something that obviously had to be fixed. But you know what? It was a human moment. It was so characteristic of him to garble a line the way he did. So rather than cover it up, we decided to make it an asset. The conventional wisdom is that you have to make your candidate perfect. But today, unlike years ago, humanity is more important than perfection.
The president is one of the easiest candidates I’ve ever worked for. He sat with us early on and said, “Listen, here’s what I want to talk about. Here’s what I believe in. You’re the creative guys—go do it.” He’d come back to us with changes to our scripts, but creatively, conceptually, he never said no. He trusted us to make decisions. As a general proposition, good candidates are like that.
Bad ones think they know everything about the media; they obsess about the color of their shirts and suits. People think so much of our job is about the color of the bumper stickers or which typefaces we use. It has nothing to do with that. I had a Texas congressional candidate one time who got so obsessed about the details that he would literally stay up until one-thirty in the morning watching television to make sure his commercials were running when we said they would. I’d get calls: “McKinnon, they’re not running!” What in the hell was he doing up at one-thirty in the morning watching television? That’s not the candidate’s job. The candidate’s job is to get a good night’s sleep so he’ll be fresh the next day on the campaign trail.
The best commercial I ever made is one we did for Bob Bullock, a spot of him on his porch in Llano. Again, it was truly a documentary moment. We had been filming him scripted all day, and then a reporter came up to talk to him. We just kind of sneaked the camera over there—Bullock didn’t know it was still running. It was a gorgeous day. The birds were chirping. So the reporter asked about some award he had won. “Awards don’t mean anything to me,” Bullock said. “What I care about is serving Texas. About making life better for Texans than it was for me growing up.” It was a profound moment, totally unscripted. It captured Bullock perfectly.
Unquestionably, the worst commercial I ever made was a spot co-produced by Roy Spence, Paul Begala, and me. No one will take responsibility for it; we all blame each other. This was the Bob Krueger “Terminator” ad. I think all the copies have been burned. It was during the special Senate election against Kay Bailey Hutchison, in 1993. We put Krueger, this very erudite professor, in a leather jacket and sunglasses. We were forty points down. Nothing we had tested worked. We were desperate. It was just a total throw-deep strategy. And it helped us claw our way to the bottom.
Mark McKinnon is a partner at Public Strategies and the president of Maverick Media, which produces the advertising for President George W. Bush.