I have always advised my clients to approach running for office as a respectful, hopeful conversation with voters about their concerns. But there comes a time during any campaign when you have to draw stark distinctions with your opponent.
If you face aggression, you have to defend yourself. Not all candidates want to fight fire with fire. So when those negative ads appear from the other camp, I have a sitdown with my clients.
During these chats, I quote consultant Joe Gaylord. “All political communication,” Gaylord famously said, “is not what is said by candidates, but what is heard by voters.”
Now, if we’ve formed a strong, personal bond with voters, we may be able to ride out an attack without engaging in negative, rebuttal ads. But that’s usually not how it goes. More often than not, we have to sit down and make the call to rebut or define our opponent. And this takes many clients out of their comfort zones.
When approaching these conversations, remember it’s not our face or reputation being scrutinized on broadcast TV — it’s theirs. Moreover, it’s the candidate's family and friends who'll have to discuss these ads at their local supermarket checkout.
Media consultants have learned that it’s often not the candidate but their spouse or close friends who squeal first when going negative inevitably comes up. While it might require more phone time on our part, we should remember these people do have skin in the game. The candidate is someone dear to them. The opinion of friends and family counts a lot.
So how do you get a candidate out of his or her comfort zone. First you try the football coach approach. “Are you in this to win it?,” you say. “Do you really care about our children’s future?
“Do you want that other guy making decisions about your family for the next 2-4-6 years? Get mad dang it!” Helmet slam. Usually when a candidate has just been hit, this work’s pretty well.
If that doesn’t work, we bring out the “cheeseburger principle.” It works like this: “Which is more important to the people of the 2nd district, you or a cheeseburger?” That’s what I’ll ask during a closed-door meeting.
Fast-food giants McDonald’s and Wendy’s have been attacking each other in ads for decades. Think of the "where’s the beef?" campaign. Corporations call out their competitors all the time. They do it so consumers can make informed decisions. There's no question that choosing leaders who’ll have such a great influence on voters’ lives is as important as what kind of cheeseburger they eat.
Give them the information to make an informed decision. We can use humor, we can be dramatic, we can be subtle, but let's make sure voters know what they might get if they choose your opponent. If you truly believe you're the better choice for your constituents, then let's make sure they know why.
A lot of the hesitation from clients exists because most contrast ads are terribly produced and hackish. Scary music, black-and-white picture of an opponent, cue a somber announcer: “John Smith, can we trust him?”
Those kind of ads are worn out these days, and don’t work well. We tell clients right out of the gate: We don’t do lame, ineffective smackdown ads. If we’re going to attack or rebut, we’re going to make an ad that’s honest, fair, and relevant to voters’ decisions.
No cheap shots, no melodramatic tangents. Consultants worth their salt know these kinds of ads don’t work anyway. Voters aren’t dumb. They’ll call bull or worse on disingenuous or over-the-top spots. So we resolve to make humorous, or evocative ads that actually mean something to voters, and deliver valuable information. Make no mistake: these ads can be dramatic, and edgy, but only work if the drama addresses true, core concerns of voters.
Campaigns are often compared to a sport. It’s a competition, and the players should have as much zeal and drive, as pro football teams have to win. That fire is a vital part of the process.
But elections are much more important events. Candidates should be prepared to fight for the job. Fight fairly and morally, of course, but fight hard nonetheless.
We’re not electing a cheeseburger. When the votes are counted, we want the winner to be a thoroughly vetted leader we can trust.
Kim Alfano is the founder of Alfano Communications.