Their guns are trained on us. Soon Michael S. Dukakis and George Bush, in consort with their media advisers, will blast away with interminable television and radio commercials. The public will stare back and sigh.
Almost by tradition, political advertising is a notoriously gross craft, full of obvious manipulation and hype. Its general strategy seems to be: Bludgeon the populace and hope for the best.
This is not to say there hasn't been some successful political advertising. Hal Riney created Ronald Reagan's controversial heart tugger, "Morning in America." Riney is also the man who single-handedly brought effervescence to wine coolers with his American gothics, Bartles & Jaymes. Yet it has been far more common for politicians to solicit Madison Avenue's advice and then ignore it.
Attitudes, however, may be changing. Both Dukakis and Bush are reaching out to some of advertising's vaunted deadeyes--no one of Riney's stature, but big names nevertheless. Edward McCabe, the pitchman who made Perdue Farms' Frank Perdue the king of fowl, has been named Dukakis' "creative chief." Among those to serve Bush will be Thomas Messner, Barry Vetere and Ronald Berger, famous for their MCI ads that boldly lampoon AT&T;'s sentimental "call home" spots.
The word is that not only are prized individuals being recruited, they are being given real authority in managing the candidates' messages. Consequently, we can anticipate a raft of the latest advertising wisdom, including--believe it or not--subtlety and humor, plus many other in-vogue ad techniques.
What will the ad campaigns look like? How will political ads use the lessons of consumer products advertising? Is it conceivable that the candidate who employs the most brilliant, the most startlingly creative advertising talent, will have a special advantage that will catapult him to 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Lest one doubt the impact and persuasion of media images, remember that John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon partly on the strength of his television "presence." Much of President Reagan's enduring popularity is credited to his masterful ease before the camera.
The coming election is a bit of an anomaly. Polls reveal that voters have few certain convictions about who Michael Dukakis and George Bush are. Public appearances, news conferences and debates will help inform the public. In the end, though, the electorate will seek simple clarifications, and they will be susceptible to the candidates' ads.
After all, it's the American way. Ads determine whether we are loyal to Coke or Pepsi, AT&T; or Sprint, Chrysler or Toyota.
So what do the candidates' adsmiths have in store for us?
The most immediately apparent change in ads will be their substance. They will appear to have some. They will have the look of serious, thoughtful communication.
Seeking Catch Phrases
For example, the reasoned discourse of the high-tech, problem-solving ads that we have watched over the past year from computer and telecommunications companies (Wang, Hewlett-Packard, Xerox and AT&T;) and auto manufacturers (Nissan, Ford and GM) will be mimicked. The candidates will adapt the "smart talk" of executives and engineers, an extremely simpatico approach for two candidates sworn to proving their "competence" and managerial skills.
But don't be deceived by the easy logic of these ads. Paying homage to reason will, for the most part, be a ruse. Political candidates, like consumer products, are seldom marketed on the basis of hard facts. They are sold on emotion. Invariably, heart wins out over head.
"Mom, apple pie and Chevrolet." "The heartbeat of America." "It's the real thing." These ingrained slogans have extraordinary recognition value. Even though they reveal nothing about their products, they move us (at least, several tens of millions of us) to buy. Dukakis' and Bush's ad directors know how and why these symbolic catch phrases work. They are hurriedly trying to mine similar veins for their clients.
It came as no surprise when Dukakis goosed his ratings with choked up evocations of humble immigrant beginnings, of true American yearnings. Doubtlessly, Bush is planning some way to thin his blue blood when he debuts in New Orleans.
Other trends that will find favor include ad formats that go all out to humanize. We will witness what is now referred to as "reality" advertising. Although we may not glimpse quite the likes of Sprite's homemade student movie spots or John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance's "Real Life, Real Answers" docudramas, we can expect to see the candidates revealed in private moments. There will be little veneer. Hand-held footage of George dry-fly casting for trout? Mike tidying up the dinner dishes?
Mercifully, humor will be allowed to sometimes gently peak in, even if it isn't yet time for Joe Isuzu. Within the context of proper seriousness, we may see both Dukakis and Bush kicking back and appearing to relax. Perhaps, even a few all-out, broad smiles. (Some real belly laughs, some shaking of the jowls, by Nixon when he faced JFK might have altered the course of history.)
Grab and Release
Since the last national election, much has changed in the way advertising is done. Many ads are compressed into much smaller time slots. Fifteen-second spots are reduced to quick sights, sparse dialogue, propelling music, the stuff of music videos. Television networks, which spray program previews and mini-newsbreaks among their fare, have shaped these ads as well.
Political ad planners are well aware that today's TV viewers flip channels every few minutes. They know that their interests will be best served by dishing up ads that repeatedly grab and release, ads that do not try to hold on for too long.
Similarly, some ads will show their indebtedness to tactics used in the lightning war now being waged between Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke. One day after Mike Tyson defeated Michael Spinks, Diet Pepsi leaped forward with its boxing ad. Less than 24 hours later, Diet Coke counterpunched (and scored a knockdown) with a responding ad. For political contenders, ads that are produced to respond literally to the day's news will be popular.
Logos Are Enough
Finally, there will be ads that have absolutely nothing to do with the candidates or their promises. Enter the highly refined (and extremely effective) realm of corporate image advertising. It is advertising by association and context.
Our leading financial institutions are the masters here. So are companies whose products and brands are so significant to our way of life, they are able to merely present their signs and we get the message. IBM, Coke, Bud. Their logos are enough.
Often, an image ad will abruptly end; there is a beat, and the corporate symbol arises. The viewer has been invited to draw upon his own world view to arrive at a conclusion that reflects positively upon the advertiser. These ads induce the viewer to make a choice, at least subconsciously. They should be especially prominent as the time nears to pull the voting lever.
So in this political season, will ads make a difference? It seems relatively safe to say yes. Certainly, more difference than they have made in past campaigns.
Why? Because consumer advertising generally works, and the candidates will embrace the skill and expertise of Madison Avenue's best talents. Watch television for the next few months and you may decide for yourself if Dukakis or Bush is "the real thing."