, chief creative officer of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, has been the secret weapon behind many successful political campaigns. His ads helped Jesse Ventura become governor of Minnesota in 1998 and played a vital role in Paul Wellstone's successful campaign for U.S. Senate in 1990 as well as Ralph Nader's presidential campaign in 2000. While his work has been viewed as controversial and irreverent, those who know him describe him as spot-on and brilliant. As his own company's Web site will attest, "Most advertising is shit... ours is like manure." He spoke candidly with one about politics, advertising and how he keeps his hands clean in a dirty business.
Because I was working in commercial advertising and I looked at political ads and began to wonder why they were so bad. The more I investigated it, the more I realized that the people behind political ads ignore things that make marketing communication effective.
In the 1984 Ronald Reagan re-election campaign, that's when we got our first real look at political ads. It was the first time someone tapped into the Madison Avenue brain trust to see how much better they can make political ads. Reagan didn't have a very competitive race to run in, but the commercials that Hal Riney and others came up with were a high-water mark for political advertising.
What really interested me was that these guys who were working on the ads were pretty high up in the agency structure. And that's when people started to figure out that the Republicans know much more about business and marketing than the Democrats do. Most people were wondering why they would work for a Republican rather than a Democrat. It's because people high up were looking at it more as a business, and the Republicans were better in that sense than the Democrats for the agencies. If you look at the really creative people in advertising, like copywriters or art directors or agency producers, they seem more democratic. So I started to think, how could you offset the Republican spending advantage with the Democrats who had less money? Could you do that by making better commercials?
The mentality behind political ads is that you just keep piling on the points. It's kind of like Chinese water torture - if you hit them with the message enough times, they'll vote. But I thought, what if you could communicate your message to people with ads that they actually wanted to watch? You could get by with a lot less.
But I never got the chance to put my theories into practice until the Paul Wellstone campaign. When we did try that approach, we had close to 100 creatives involved, and we found out that you could offset a huge spending differential if you made better commercials. And we've been proving that ever since.
What makes a good political ad?
One that starts with the audience's interests at heart. This is something that copywriters and art directors can understand. The client wants to talk about how great a product is, but they rarely connect the audience to the benefits. Good copy and art direction has the ability to do that and make people understand why a product is beneficial to them.
With political commercials, they're constantly talking about someone's features or their image or the issues, but a lot of them aren't talking about what someone's position on the issues means to you and how it affects your day-to-day life. It's point driven, and the same issues keep cropping up. The depth of strategy is that this is what voters want to hear about, this is what we need to talk about and that's enough. But what they really need to do is to make it more meaningful, and they don't do it.
Who's doing a better job right now with political ads? Bush or Kerry?
Bush, by far. His people are better at political communication than Kerry. The guys behind Kerry are part of the old Boston crowd who ran the campaigns for Dukakis and Gore. They did an awful job, and now they're working for Kerry. This is the only place where that happens. I mean, how can you be a media consultant and fail miserably and then get rehired? It doesn't make sense.
Bush has a much better understanding of the likeability of a candidate and what that means to an undecided voter. Gore underachieved with undecided voters. If he had more of the independents or undecided voters, he would've won.
When Bush first ran, the expectations were low, and he overachieved in terms of the way his message resonated with independent swing voters. Despite his mangling the English language and so forth, in his public performances, people really saw something of themselves in him. They could say, I would be doing that too. And so they gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Outside groups like the Swift Boat Veterans and moveon.org are becoming the driving force behind ads. How has this changed the nature of political advertising?
Money. The Bush campaign in 2000 and in 2004 decided to have a huge war chest. With major donors, it's sort of a free for all. You want to spend money if you want your candidate to have a shot at winning, but you don't want to waste lots of money. So the idea with Bush is that the big donors should unite behind one candidate. And this is where Bush's father came in, he's great at fundraising. He got a lot of big donors behind him in the first election.
It's similar in 2004. The idea was to raise so much money that [the Republicans] had a huge financial advantage over the Democrats. And they did, they had over $200 million in hard dollars before the primaries, and they wanted to run the Democratic candidate into the ground. Kerry's resources were exhausted just winning the primary. So what happened was, the independents rallied to the Democrats' aid, all of these 527 groups. The Democrats were actually the first to have 527 groups play a major role in their campaigns. There's a bunch of them like moveon.org, and they're all very well financed groups, and the Democrats are counting on them to make up the difference. It's worked to a large degree, because they've been running a lot of anti-Bush stuff. It's the same way Dean got people excited. But this has been a different type of year, and depending on the ruling by the FCC on the legality of what the 527 groups are doing, they've probably changed politics forever. The independents' expenditures are now really more important than campaign dollars. There are restrictions on campaign finances, but none on independent interest groups' expenditures.
The other thing that both parties are allowed to do is, the campaigns are generally positive, and there's a plausible deniability with independent expenditure groups. They can say that they're not connected. So there's much more free reign for these groups to do what they want in their commercials without their candidates getting any backlash.
The Swift Boat ads that you see, we pioneered what they're doing. You take something provocative, something that the mainstream can't ignore, and you validate it by running an ad about it. Anyone who knows how much it costs to run a political ad can look at their buy rates and figure out that this isn't real. It's too small a budget to be a real ad, but it created a lot of talk. It's really designed to be a large media campaign stimulated by a very small campaign. It's brilliant, because everyone including the media didn't see that it wasn't a real ad. You run ads in specific markets where they think they might be real and you make people start to believe that they are real.
This is the first year the independents are playing such a huge national role. Independent groups usually advertise on a single issue, but this is the first time they're going after a broad audience. Most independent advertising isn't through TV -most of the time it's direct mail or some other kind of media.
To read more of this interview with Bill Hillsman, pick up a copy of the Fall 2004 issue of one. a magazine, available at the end of October.