Home 30 seconds to Election Day: How campaigns use TV to reach voters

30 seconds to Election Day: How campaigns use TV to reach voters

Story by Chris Graham


They’ve spent $18 million to date on the 2005 gubernatorial campaign – and it could all come down to a folksy television spot that featured Jerry Kilgore and his twin brother, Terry, arguing over who is the better-looking one of the two.

“No, I had no idea it would take off like it did,” said Terry Kilgore, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, who said he hears from voters daily about the ad.

“I think what people like about it is that it gets you to get to know us a little bit better. All I know is, I’ve had more comment on that ad than anything else that we’ve done in this campaign,” Kilgore told The Augusta Free Press.

In an election that the pollsters are saying is too close to call, it isn’t that much of a stretch to say that the well-received “Not Terry” ad could play something of a key role in deciding who gets to lead Virginia into its fifth century.

“These candidates are crisscrossing the state every day. But the vast majority of people will never see them at a rally. And so what most Virginians are going to learn about these candidates is what they see on television and what they read in the papers. And given the competition in news with other topics, maybe campaign ads are going to be the most significant thing,” Stephen Farnsworth, a political-science professor at the University of Mary Washington, told the AFP.

More and more these days, political spots – as with “Not Terry” – are taking on the look and feel of ads for products like cars and clothes and hamburgers and the rest.

“The right way to do this is the same way that we do it in commercial marketing, and that’s to take each 30-second commercial and have them have one objective. You want to leave one thing in the viewer’s mind at the end of it,” said Bill Hillsman, a Minnesota-based political consultant who is working with independent gubernatorial candidate Russ Potts this year and was the creative force behind the campaigns of Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Jesse Ventura in 1998 and presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2000.

Hillsman’s idea for Potts was to do something to improve his name identification with voters – through a series of commercials featuring Virginians banging on pots.

“It’s pretty obvious what the one thing that we were trying leave in people’s minds was. Probably the best way to describe that spot is in terms of its objective, which was to raise Russ’ name ID statewide,” Hillsman told the AFP.

“Russ had a lot of credibility as a candidate from his time in the Senate and in leadership positions in the Senate, and a lot of good work that he’s done for people in Virginia, but what we needed to do in his case was raise his name ID statewide, and really get people curious about his race, and why he was in it, and what he was good for, et cetera, et cetera,” Hillsman said.
“You can’t do the job of educating people in terms of issues and stands on issues until you’ve got the name ID, and you’ve created that curiosity factor,” Hillsman said.

David Eichenbaum, the media consultant to the Tim Kaine gubernatorial campaign, hasn’t had to worry about issues related to name ID as much as trying to figure out a way to make voters feel like they were connecting with his candidate.

“We’ve had Tim talking to the camera more lately. That’s one way to reach out to voters,” Eichenbaum told the AFP.

“No matter how much Tim does to get out to meet with voters, he’s not going to be able to shake every hand. He’s not going to be able to meet every voter. By having him talk to the camera, he’s able to, in effect, have conversations with voters,” Eichenbaum said.

The conversations are somewhat limited, of course.

“People wonder sometimes why you don’t tell them more than you do. You have to be focused. You only have 30 seconds. You have to blend verbal and visual messages to be able to use that limited amount of time most effectively to tell your story,” Eichenbaum said.

The limited amount of time available for ads often reduces the messages to those that can best be described by using the mathematics term least common denominator.

“The reality is that you don’t have time in a 30-second spot or even a 60-second spot to lay out a policy proposal. There’s just not enough time. You can make noises to that effect, but what you’re reduced to doing, oftentimes, is attacking your opponent so that he or she is put on the defensive,” said Bridgewater College political-science professor David McQuilkin.

“A good case in point is Jerry Kilgore’s attacks on Tim Kaine on the death penalty. They’ve been able to make that into a wedge issue, and Kaine had to spend an inordinate amount of time and money defending his position, which took away from his ability to do what he wanted to do as far as getting his own message out there. They basically Swift Boated him,” McQuilkin told the AFP.

The Kilgore death-penalty ads did earn the candidate scorn in the press and among moderate and swing voters who felt that the spots might have gone too far.

But then, with all the talk about “Not Terry” …

“Jerry was in the parade back in my district in Kingston Gap two Saturdays ago, and that’s all he heard. ‘Hey, Jerry, Terry’s the better-looking one,’ ” Terry Kilgore said.

“He looked over at me one time and said, ‘To think that we spent millions of dollars, and this is the one that people remember,’ ” Kilgore said.



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