If you live in Toronto, you’re no doubt aware that our city is in the midst of a heated and hotly contested election for mayor.
With just a couple weeks until election day, the campaign is now entering high gear: the candidates are working day and night, the media coverage is getting saturated and the campaign advertising is getting more intense.
As someone passionate about both politics and advertising, I’m always excited to see new campaign ads roll out and thought that I’d share my take on the candidates’ respective ad campaigns… wearing my “advertising” hat and not my “political junkie” one. (Note that our agency is not working for any candidate).
As someone who makes ads for a living and is passionate about the craft, I tend to view the category of political advertising as a pretty desolate wasteland. Lets face it: with a few notable exceptions (I’ll get to those), election ads are terrible. Poor production values. Boring, cliched, predictable messaging. A level of dishonesty that would make most client-side brand managers cringe.
This particular election, unfortunately, is worse than almost any I’ve seen.
Let’s start our review by looking at the candidate who entered the race as the early frontrunner and who was predicted to easily win in a landslide: George Smitherman.
Here is the latest offering from the Smitherman campaign, a TV spot.
If there’s something positive to say, it’s that the production values were high and it worked from a branding perspective.
But when you’re trailing by double-digits with two weeks to go, I’m afraid that this just doesn’t cut it. Not only is there nothing particularly compelling, it suffers from the mistake that far too many marketers make: inconsistency of messaging. This 30-second spot tries to cram in about five different messages. At the end of seeing the spot, you don’t retain anything and have little sense of what the candidate actually stands for. It’s like I frequently tell clients: if you have five messages, you really have NO message.
Political candidates, like any brand, need to own an idea in the mind of their consumer (in this case, the voters). In the automotive category, Volvo stands for safety. Lexus stands for luxury. Prius is about helping the planet.
The best candidates understand this principle. The two most effective campaigners in my lifetime were Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Think back to two years ago. Anyone could tell you that Obama stood for hope and change. Reagan stood for strength and resolve.
Running for re-election in 1984, Reagan did so with a clear, consistent and compelling message: we’ve come so far, things are better and we can’t go back.
Take a look at what I regard as the greatest election ad ever produced; a spot that was both written and voiced by one of my advertising idols, the late Hal Riney.
It’s proud, patriotic and emotional. It delivers a powerful message while simultaneously pulling on your heart strings. And it helped propel Reagan to one of the greatest landslide victories in presidential history.
The one candidate in this race who seems to grasp this principle is current frontrunner Rob Ford. When the campaign began, Ford was written off and given absolutely no chance. To be sure, he’s a deeply flawed candidate with a controversial past and a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. But he has a discipline of message that no candidate can match. From the beginning, he’s steadfastly stuck to his message of “respect for taxpayers”: lower taxes, eliminating wasteful spending and ending lavish perks for politicians. It was the right message at the right time and if he can keep it up for a couple weeks, he’s poised to be the next mayor. He’s done next to nothing in terms of advertising.
Here’s all I was able to find.
It’s a simple poster, costs next to nothing to produce and the design and production qualities are on par with what you’d see in a race for student council president at a local high school. But the polls have Ford leading by a wide margin, despite very little in the way of traditional advertising.
Then again, how much “traditional” advertising does Google do? They’re arguably the most successful company in the world and they’ve built their brand online, through experience and through word of mouth instead of relying on TV-heavy media buys.
Next up, we have current deputy mayor and torchbearer of the political left, Joe Pantalone. Despite some recent gains, he’s done little to define himself in the race and hasn’t exactly caught on with voters.
He and Ford are a study in contrast when it comes to personal branding. Despite 30 years in elected office, the last seven as deputy mayor, voters know next to nothing about who he is and what he stands for. Ford, on the other hand, with only 10 years on Council representing a distant suburban ward has long been a household name because of his consistent message.
Here’s an example of Pantalone’s latest print campaign.
Really, what can one say about this? It’s egregiously bad. If you’re curious, the message is a play on the fact that Pantalone is only five feet tall. Ok. We get it, Joe. You’re short. It’s cute. But when you’re running for mayor and have yet to successfully define yourself to the electorate, maybe you should be using this opportunity to actually tell us who you are and what you stand for.
Finally, we look at Rocco Rossi, the one candidate whose ads actually got some attention. Though, not necessarily of a positive nature.
Here’s one from a series print ads.
While these ads were widely attacked, including by those who claimed that they played into negative Italian stereotypes, I consider them successful if only because, unlike what’s been offered by the rest of the field, they actually got attention and got people talking.
They’re certainly memorable. They’re funny enough as far as election advertising goes. And they’re definitely distinct with clear branding for the candidate.
While there was some backlash, which was to be expected, I actually applaud Rossi for having the courage to do something different and a willingness to not take himself so seriously.
Were they a gamble? Absolutely. But Rossi, the candidate in this race with the most actual business experience, was smart enough to recognize that when you’re far behind and have limited time to gain a lot of ground, sometimes a big gamble is necessary. It took guts. Or as Rossi might say, “bocce balls”.
So there you have it. An advertising guy’s view on the campaign. Enjoy the final stretch of the campaign. I know that I will.