Anti-Prop. 65 Campaign : Selling the Message--an Image Is Crafted for TV
In earlier installments, Sal Russo and Doug Watts--Sacramento-based campaign consultants with a strong regional reputation as Republican strategists--were hired to run the campaign against Proposition 65. They spent the spring and summer researching toxic laws and testing public sentiment toward the toxics issue. By late July they were wrestling with campaign strategy as the time drew near to actually make television commercials.
In late July, a strange and wholly unexpected quiet enveloped the campaign against Proposition 65.
This posed a mystery, for a strategy session earlier in the month had left the impression of a campaign about to take wing. A poll would be conducted, resolving a quandary over what message to sell voters. Radio would be saturated throughout August with anti-Proposition 65 advertisements. Television commercials would be prepared for an early September assault.
None of this happened. No poll results. No radio. No television shoots. For three weeks the entire campaign to defeat Proposition 65 idled in a neutral gear.
The campaign, Doug Watts explained in an Aug. 4 telephone interview, was in a “state of emergency. We are having severe money problems and severe organizational problems. Until the money comes in, everything is on hold. We are now a week behind. We should have been on the radio already. I held up the poll. There is no money for it. We have raised $150,000 so far. That’s chicken feed. They keep saying there is $2 million in the pipeline somewhere, but we can’t shake it loose.
“It is hurting. I don’t like being off the air in August. We can’t afford to give away this month. The only reason we are still in business at all is that I literally have been paying the postage. I haven’t slept in 10 goddamned days, worrying about this stupid money situation.”
He suggested it was even possible that his political consulting firm might abandon the campaign.
Two days later Watts performed a turnabout that was baffling, given the grim tenor of his last communique.
“Well,” he cheerily told a reporter, “come on up. We’re going to start shooting.”
But what about the money?
“It’s not any better, but I feel we need to get things rolling. We already have lost August for radio. We can’t afford to waste any more time.”
But what about the poll, the need to resolve the argument over whether a campaign built around the exemptions argument could win?
“I’m not going to wait for it. I feel comfortable with the information we got. We can make alterations later. . . .”
But what would the commercials say? And what about actors, auditions and all?
“I haven’t finished the scripts yet. I haven’t gone beyond concepts and notions. Some of this stuff doesn’t require great acting talent. And the cost is prohibitive. We’ll use some local people. Anyway, come on up. We start shooting Saturday morning.”
The first of what would be 18 television spots produced by the opponents of Proposition 65 was shot on Saturday, Aug. 9, in a roomy suburban movie house. It required a cast of 100 extras and one actor. The actor, a local talent, had the only speaking role. It was one line, consisting of just one word:
The spot called for 28 seconds of action: Camera pans movie audience until it fixes on actor sitting at front of theater. Actor leans forward and shouts, “Toxics!” Other moviegoers flinch, hurl popcorn in the air and otherwise feign fright. Actor settles back, smiles a sleazy smile. The ad ends with the troublemaker being escorted from the theater. Moviegoers applaud and whistle.
It took three hours to film the spot, and much of the time was spent strategically seating extras. Randy Bond, the director, wanted the theater to appear crowded even though it was not, and he wanted extras with the more interesting faces down closest to the action.
Watts had other considerations. “We can’t have it all white,” he said. “I think we need a tad more ethnic diversity in the center.” Two teen-aged blacks were moved behind the actor. Later, Watts also placed a motherly looking woman, a father type and a small child front and center--nuclear family as victim.
The actor was a young man with a pleasant face and thick, dark hair. He projected a somewhat oafish image. Watts was pleased: “He has a quasi-Tom Hayden look, doesn’t he?”
Smoke was fanned throughout the theater, a cinematographer’s trick that lends texture to a film image. Cartons of popcorn were passed out to everyone in camera range. Once under way, the actual filming went quickly.
The only real difficulty was making the actor look, as Watts put it, “a little more devious. When he does his yell, I want him to be slightly impish, but he also is supposed to be seriously trying to cause trouble.”
The actor rehearsed a snarling look as the camera was readied to roll again.
The next morning Watts and crew embarked on a three-vehicle caravan through the Sacramento Valley countryside. They were hunting images. Watts drove his fire-red Porsche convertible, top down, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in the compact disc player. Director Bond and a couple of crew members rode in his Toyota van, with the personalized license place FLMKER. A larger van carried camera equipment and the rest of the crew.
The first stop was the county dump, and right away they hit a snag. The gate guard believed that approval of film-making fell outside of his job description. He directed the convoy to the senior foreman’s office. There, another worker said the senior foreman was gone and wouldn’t be back for 15 minutes.
Second thoughts were entertained.
“The city dump is a lot better than this,” said Landy Hardy, the photography director. “This doesn’t read ‘Dump.’ ”
“It isn’t dumpy enough?” Watts asked.
“I don’t think so.”
It was decided that Hardy would pick up a shot of the city dump later. The convoy pulled out. Next stop: the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. Because the plant is publicly owned, it would be exempted from provisions of Proposition 65.
Watts and crew parked on the shoulder of a narrow country road on the plant’s back side. Hardy placed the camera on a tripod and squinted. He had been there earlier that month, filming for Mayor Tom Bradley’s gubernatorial campaign. Good political advertisements are about powerful images, and nuclear cooling towers that loom over bucolic grazing lands can expect heavy modeling duty in a campaign season.
“It’s a little prettier over there,” Hardy said. “But you probably don’t want that.”
“Those things are pretty damn ominous,” Watts kept saying, “pretty damn ominous.”
Aided by Wife
From the nuclear plant it was on to a tiny wooden house with whitewashed walls. Bond’s wife, Carla, who serves as producer for his Spectrum Films company, had obtained permission to shoot on the front porch.
Five models--a man, a woman, a little boy and girl and a baby--were to pose as a farm family. Rural stock as victim. The woman wore a faded cotton dress that made her look as though she had just tumbled out of a covered wagon. “I think that might be a little too much,” Watts said. “This is supposed to be a modern farm family. It’s not supposed to be the 18th Century.”
The models were positioned. The little boy, who had to have the most serious baby face in all of America, stood by the door. The father wiped his brow, looking like he had just run out of Malathion in the midst of a locust storm. The mother, hard-faced, cradled the infant. A barefoot pixie in pigtails sat on the stoop. She petted a yellow dog named Cubby, a frightening mix of golden retriever and dachshund. “Grapes of Wrath” revisited.
The last shot was that of parked cargo planes at a military airfield, another potential polluter exempted from Proposition 65. They filmed it just as the sun, by now a huge red ball, poised on the Western horizon.
Watts writes scripts in his office. He says he works best in the early morning, a Diet Coke at his side. It often takes only half an hour to finish a 30-second commercial. He composes in longhand on a yellow legal pad.
The first batch of three Proposition 65 scripts was finished just in time for an audio session on the morning of Aug. 14.
Like most of Watts’ scripts, these at first seemed overly simple, too colloquial:
--The politicians behind Proposition 65 say, ‘Get tough on toxics.’ Well, let’s see how tough they really are. The list on the left shows known toxic polluters. The list on the right shows known toxic polluters--who are exempt from Proposition 65. Notice any similarities. Those politicians are pretty sneaky, aren’t they?
--Welcome to Proposition 65. The Toxics Initiative. First meet the winners--because they’re exempt. Local government. County dumps. Military bases. Publicly owned nuclear power plants, even they’re exempt. Now meet the losers. California farmers--they’re not exempt. Does that seem fair?
--The people behind Proposition 65 want to scare you. California leads the nation in tough toxic laws. In fact, over 50 tough new laws in the past two years alone! California needs tougher enforcement of existing laws--and Californians should reject Proposition 65 with its exemptions.
All three ended with the same tag line:
Vote NO on Proposition 65. It’s full of exemptions.
After a few readings, however, the subtlety and sweep of the messages become more apparent. Watts’ craftsmanship is in lines like “nuclear power plants--even they’re exempt” and “those politicians are pretty sneaky, aren’t they?” and “California needs tougher enforcement of existing laws.”
For these seemingly simple phrases were packed with the political messages that the opponents of Proposition 65 believed they must convey to the electorate: the measure was a tool of politicians with a hidden agenda; it was unfair, especially to agriculture; even people concerned with toxic pollution should not feel obliged to vote for the measure.
Watts had been unable to secure a celebrity spokesman. He had developed a list of about 25 possibilities, with Leonard Nimoy and Henry Morgan near the top. “This issue is so rough,” he said, “it’s hard to get anybody from the entertainment industry to buy into it. They take it at face value, and then they hear that Fonda and Hayden are for it, and they get scared. They say, ‘Gee, I don’t want any part of that.’ ”
So they needed a voice for their campaign. They hired a longtime Sacramento broadcaster to lay down the audio tracks for the first three spots. He showed up an hour late, low on sleep and unable to pronounce exemptions. The announcer did, however, have a resonant, deep and surly voice, which he made drop even lower by plunging his finger into the lower hemisphere of his potbelly. Still, Watts would use his voice only on these first three spots.
“The voice is right,” Watts said, “but something is missing there.”
“Yeah,” director Bond agreed. “Like clarity.”
After the scripts were taped, Watts and a studio technician explored a closet where albums of background music were stacked. “Any time you put music behind something,” Watts explained, “it helps.”
For these ads, he requested something “neutral, but with a sting.” Various pieces were sampled, with such titles as “Dynamic Power,” “Bombastic,” “Industrial MOR,” and “Boom Time.” The winner was “Rain Painting,” a tinkling number with a vaguely eerie quality.
Watts left the audio technician with a grocery list of sound effects: A small bite of movie dialogue, light hand-clapping, whistles, a rubber stamp and a dog whimper.
The production of commercials followed a six-stroke cycle in the anti-Proposition 65 campaign. First there was marketing research. Then Watts developed a concept. Film was shot, sometimes with scripts, sometimes without. Audio tracks were laid down with an announcer and music was selected. Then all these ingredients were mixed together at an editing studio, where graphic effects were added. Completed, the spots would be tested at focus groups and put on the air.
It was not until the process reached the editing studio that the commercials started to look, at least to the untrained eye, like commercials.
A colony of commercial makers has grown up around Sacramento, in part because non-union crews make the process less expensive, and many production companies edit at the same facility, Cal Image of Rancho Cordova. Cal Image’s studio would serve as a second office for Watts throughout the campaign season.
It is equipped with 17 television monitors and several large control boards, each with innumerable knobs, dials and levers. Watts and Bond would sprawl on a couch as technicians worked the editing console, building the spots slowly, piece by piece. The technicians would punch up charts, titles, captions and an assortment of other graphic effects on a computer keyboard. The technology is only about a decade old.
In the editing studio the scripts started to make sense. A red “exempt” stamp was created to appear on shots of the nuclear plant, city dump, a nondescript government building and the military base. A sound effect was missing so Bond, after some experimentation, disappeared into an adjoining sound booth with a dictionary. He pounded it a few times with his fist until satisfied he had created a proper thump. Instant stamp.
List of Toxics
For the theater commercial, a roll call of existing toxics was typed onto the blank movie screen, to coincide with the announcer’s reading of “over 50 tough new laws in the past two years alone.” And just as the announcer’s voice said, “The politicians behind Proposition 65 want to scare you,” the actor was shouting “Toxics!”
Decisions were made in the editing studio. For instance, Hardy on his own had shot exciting footage of fighter planes peeling off overhead, and Bond suggested this might be more stimulating than parked cargo planes. Watts was tempted, but then decided against the fighters.
“I just think,” he said, “that a lot of planes sitting around looks like surplus, looks like refuse, looks like dump. And that’s what we want.”
The studio also could be a house of tedium. Everything moved slowly. It was a place for call-in pizza, for flipping laconically through trade magazines or racking the brain for an old joke that might break the monotony. It was also a good place to plot.
“I’m thinking about having someone follow Bradley all over the state,” Watts said. “Follow him to every press conference with two glasses of water. One glass is L.A. discharge and the other is from a farmer’s tap. We hand him the L.A. discharge water. ‘Here, Tom, if your water is so peachy clean and pure that you’re exempt, drink this.’ ”
“I’m going to make Bradley run two campaigns.”
During lulls, Watts also would analyze the campaign’s early troubles. Money was still surprisingly tight. Watts and his partner, Sal Russo, who was responsible for seeing that sufficient donations were raised, had developed a list of possible reasons for laggard contributions from industry.
“I think the business community is tired of being tapped,” Watts said. “Everybody is looking to the other guy to do it first.” The consultants also suspected that some corporate lawyers believed the proposition was so convoluted as to be unenforceable or, conversely, that no law could be as threatening as Russo and Watts claimed. They also wondered about public relations concerns--did businesses fear that giving money to the campaign implied confession to the dumping of dangerous toxics?
Russo and Watts hoped, however, that a simpler explanation existed: Corporations make decisions slowly, and the matter simply had not reached the proper people yet.
Telephone interruptions in the editing studio were commonplace. A secretary would buzz in. Leo McCarthy was returning Doug Watts’ call.
“I think I can make a pretty good case for you,” Watts told the lieutenant governor. “I got some stuff I’d like to talk to you about and show you.”
A meeting was scheduled. Watts had never been more enthusiastic about his plan to persuade McCarthy, the highest-ranking elected Democrat in California, to endorse a no vote on Proposition 65. He envisioned closing the campaign with a spot that declared the state’s leading elected officials from both parties, Deukmejian and McCarthy, were opposed to Proposition 65. It was a nifty plan, but Watts also was aware that persuading McCarthy, a strong advocate of toxics laws, would be tough.
“He’s no dummy,” Watts said. “I’m not going to sell him on exemptions or bounty hunters. What I’m going to sell him on is two things. One, he needs to be different than the rest of the Democrats.” McCarthy, Watts believed, had ambitions to run for governor in 1990. “He can at the same time get some free exposure.”
“Two,” Watts went on, “it would be a great thing for McCarthy to cut Mike Curb off at the knees. It would be great for him in the valley.” Curb was the Republican running against McCarthy for lieutenant governor, and in a tight race the blue-collar Democrats of the Central Valley might be pivotal.
At last the first three spots were finished. The technician played them back all in a row. Images. Narration. Music. Sound effects. Graphics. They all were blended together. It looked like something you might actually see on television. Watts and Bond watched from the couch, mesmerized.
“I’m amazed,” Watts said, “I like these spots.
Still, there was one more commercial he wanted to produce in time for the opening of the television campaign. This one would be a real clincher. He saw two images. A farmer. A nuclear plant. And he wanted to make them one.
A red barn had been located behind a rural residence across the road from Rancho Seco. An actor was hired through a Los Angeles agency to play a farmer. Watts wrote a script:
You know , some laws just don’t seem fair. Like my neighbor gets special treatment if this new Proposition 65 passes. It’s some crazy thing written by politicians--who don’t like farmers, I guess.
Says my neighbor can use weed killer, but I can’t. It also says my neighbor can use bug spray, but I can’t. In fact, according to Proposition 65, there’s a whole long list of things my neighbor can use, but I can’t.
I like growing things, but it’s going to be pretty tough to keep on farming if Proposition 65 passes. Oh yeah, meet my neighbor.
Here, Watts envisioned the nuclear plant coming into view over the actor’s shoulder.
You see, publicly owned nuclear power plants are exempt from Proposition 65. Us farmers? I guess you can say we’re the targets. It don’t seem right.
The spot was directed at women--"our toughest audience.” In opinion polls, the dangers of nuclear power and the plight of farmers were strong concerns among women voters. With this spot Watts would get a political bargain, two issues for the price of one.
The ad was shot Aug. 18, a Monday. In the morning Watts handed a script to Bond. It had been written the night before. National commercials often are conceived and filmed over months. That Bond would be able to block out and film this entire spot in one day would go a long way toward explaining why his work has won statewide awards and why he is much in demand as a commercial director.
First, he needed props. A posthole digger was found in the barn. The actor could sling it over his shoulder. Might as well have a working farmer, and not some whining shirker. The spot could open in a pickup truck. The woman who lived in the house knew a fellow down the road with a battered old green truck. It would do nicely. Bond stood alone in the middle of a field behind the barn. He stroked his chin with one hand and read the script, performing the lines out loud and making little acting gestures.
A crop in the foreground would enhance the “I like growing things” line, but there was nothing growing but brown grass and a paltry strand of table grapes. Landy Hardy, the director of photography, was consulted. If the camera was positioned just so, the grapes would appear as the bordering edge of a flourishing vineyard. Who needs reality?
From there it was a matter of blocking out a move at the barn. When the actor said, “Meet my neighbor,” the door would open to reveal the Rancho Seco cooling towers behind him.
The actor was Dan Leegant. A 50-year-old veteran performer, he had just moved from Berkeley to Los Angeles seeking more work. He had been paid $1,200 in advance. Political commercial makers are always required to pay in advance.
The filming proceeded quickly. Before long the crew was at the well, where Leegant was saying, “There’s a whole long list of things my neighbor can use, but I can’t.”
Here the crew discovered it was being watched. A pickup with markings of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District--the agency that runs Rancho Seco--was parked on a rise. There appeared to be two men inside. The woman who lived at the house suspected security guards. She said tensions exist between the nuclear plant and some neighbors who blame the facility for water contamination.
The camera was turned around and trained on the truck.
Hardy, the burly director of photography, tightened the focus until he could see a set of binoculars looking back at him. Hardy is a character. When he was learning the trade, he didn’t have enough money to purchase practice film. Undeterred, he and an aspiring television newsman would lug an unloaded camera to the Sacramento airport and wait for politicians. They would identify themselves as a television news crew and, while his friend asked questions, Hardy would pretend to shoot, honing his technique.
On this hot August day Hardy wore only short pants and an Army helmet. The helmet was from an ever-growing collection of potential props.
This is what the figures in the pickup truck witnessed next: A big man in short pants and an Army helmet perched on his head stepped away from the camera and faced their pickup truck. He assumed a statuesque pose, one foot forward, the other back, and slowly, deliberately lifted his right hand high over head. He extended his middle finger. He began to shout.
“You bums will be out of work when we get through. You’re going to wind up on 12th Street where you belong.”
Reference to Skid Row
The last reference was to Sacramento’s Skid Row. Watts, watching Hardy’s antics, was overcome with convulsive giggles. The truck pulled slowly away. Shooting resumed.
They filmed the barn scene and then broke for lunch. Leegant, the actor, started asking questions. He didn’t quite understand Proposition 65, or the script. For instance, what did nuclear power plants have to do with bug spray?
“I’m political,” he said. “I asked my friends before I came up here what Proposition 65 was about, but none of them had heard anything about it.”
Watts explained about being on the side of more safety, not less. He explained how Rancho Seco would be exempt from Proposition 65, but that farmers would not. He explained about politically motivated politicians.
Leegant wasn’t buying. The actor said he had been led to believe that the job was strictly an anti-nuclear advertisement. He didn’t like bug sprays. He didn’t like weed killers. In Berkeley, Leegant said, he bought his food at a store that sold only organically grown produce.
“I’m on the wrong side,” he said, miserable. He asked how Henry Winkler, Barbra Streisand and other politically liberal entertainers would line up on Proposition 65.
Watts told the actor that they probably would be all for it.
Leegant became silent. Bond was nervous. “Don’t quit on us mid-shift now, Dan,” he coaxed.
The actor let it go, for now. “Who do you believe?” he asked with a sigh. “You hear both sides and they both have points.”
As the shooting resumed, though, Leegant’s questions didn’t stop. Who wrote it? What would it do? He didn’t hear much that he liked, and toward the end was muttering about how he had to have a word with his agent back in Los Angeles.
“My agent should have known,” he said. “I’m political.”
The last line in the commercial was delivered at a fence in front of the place. By now the late afternoon shadows were long. Everyone was tired. A hot summer breeze blew toward Rancho Seco. Leegant put one foot on the bottom rail and rested his head on his hand, looking off toward the cooling towers.
“It don’t seem right,” he said as the camera rolled.
“Again,” Bond instructed.
“It don’t seem right.”
“OK, good. Once more. Camera rolling. And action.”
“It don’t seem right.”
The actor delivered the line with great conviction.