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Politics & Government

Political Campaigns From The Ad-Maker's View

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you haven't seen any campaign ads this season, it probably means your TV is broken. The elections are less than three weeks away, and before then, we're going to introduce you to some of the people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to get their candidates elected. First up, the ad makers.

ALEX TORNERO: It can be very stressful at times, particularly this time of year, you're only getting, you know, a few hours of sleep working 18-hour days. You have to love what you're doing and feel like what you're doing matters.

MARTIN: That's Alex Tornero. He's a young campaign ad maker working for The Strategy Group Company. They make ads for Republican candidates.

CHRIS SAUTTER: My name's Chris Sautter. I have a political consulting firm called Sautter Communications. Little known claims to fame is that I was Barack Obama's first media consultant.

MARTIN: Chris is a political ad maker from a different generation. He started out working for Democratic candidates more than 20 years ago, but he says at its core, the work hasn't changed.

SAUTTER: The spots have to message-driven, but you have to find a way to make them unique so they stand out in the clutter. But also so that they connect to an emotion.

TORNERO: We start with polling where we've tested messages to see what's resonating with the audience.

MARTIN: That's what Alex was thinking about when he produced an ad for then-candidate Curt Clawson of Florida. Clawson ran for Congress in a special election earlier this year.

TORNERO: He was a relatively unknown candidate. He only had probably about two percent name ID when this ad ran. It's Curt standing in a basketball arena. It's dark. He's talking to camera. He's making shots. He's dribbling.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

REPRESENTATIVE CURT CLAWSON: I'm Curt Clawson. I'm challenging President Obama to a 3-point contest. I want to take on Obama in Congress so why not start on the court? In college, I hit game-winning shots and won a big-time championship. And Obama? He's been missing a lot of shots lately.

MARTIN: The Clawson ad had a prime time slot during the Super Bowl and...

TORNERO: Within about 24 hours, he had about 50 percent name ID. It was a special election. It was a three-month sprint to Election Day, and we had to quickly get him on people's radars. And so we needed to do something interesting, funny, eye-catching. And this ad did that.

MARTIN: And it may be hard to imagine, but there was a time back in the 2000 election when no one had heard the name Barack Obama either.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Say what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: State Senator Barack Obama.

SAUTTER: This is the Obama race for Congress on the south side of Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: As a community organizer, Obama fought to make sure residents in Roseland and Atgeld Gardens received their fair share of services.

SAUTTER: I remember Obama trying to tinker with the copy and having to talk him out of changing, which was an ongoing challenge. And his name was very unusual. We had the man in that ad kind of stumbling on his name and the woman correcting him.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Here come the lights. ComEd must've heard from that Senator Bama.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: That's a Obama. Barack Obama. And they'll be hearing a lot more from him.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Barack Obama, Democrat for Congress.

MARTIN: So what's the biggest difference between making campaign ads now and back when Chris Sautter was starting out? Money and media. Your ads now have to be everywhere and it costs more to put them there.

SAUTTER: In the '60s, if you advertised on network TV, you would reach 80 percent of the voters. And nowadays, it's probably half. So you're spending more to reach fewer people.

MARTIN: Alex Tornero sees it as a challenge.

TORNERO: What we are doing a lot more of is mirroring advertisements where we'll have the same message playing across different platforms. So you'll see an ad on television, and then you may see a 15-second version of it online before you watch a YouTube video. And you may hear a 60-second version on the radio.

MARTIN: And what about all that talk these days about political ads being more negative? Not so says Chris.

SAUTTER: Probably one of the most negative campaigns that was ever run was run by Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Four, three, two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET LAUNCH)

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God's children can live or go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.

MARTIN: No matter if it is foreboding or aspirational, the big question is can a good campaign ad be enough to tip the scales in an election? Here's Alex Tornero.

TORNERO: Absolutely. I wouldn't be in this business if I didn't think that what we do can't be the dealbreaker.

MARTIN: After years in the game of politics, Chris Sautter, though, see limitations.

SAUTTER: Good ads do not win campaigns. It takes a lot more than good ads. It takes a good message.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

SENATOR JONI ERNST: I'm Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Senator, I'm a retired coal miner. I want to know how you could've voted to raise my Medicare cost to $6,000?

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

TERRI LYNN LAND: I'm Terri Lynn Land. Congressman Gary Peters and his buddies want you to believe I'm waging a war on women. Really?

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

MIKE MCFADDEN: I'm Mike McFadden, and I approve this message.

MARTIN: In the end, voters will decide which messages make sense and which ones just make noise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.