Introductory TV ads are a staple of modern political campaigns. As candidates try to shape their message and increase their name ID, each has to find a way to introduce themselves to voters.
With high stakes special elections taking place in New York – for the 23rd House district – and Massachusetts – for the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat – we are already getting a glimpse at the next wave of intro ads. Some of them are pretty unenlightening beyond basic details, others invoke the legacy of the seat and others are heavy on the candidate’s personal history, war photos and all.
The ads above use different tactics to answer the question of what makes a good intro ad. We surveyed media consultants and asked them what they look to accomplish in their intro ads. When, for example, is it best to sit the candidate down and have him tell his or her story to the camera? How much information do you need to cram into an ad? How many issues should the ad touch upon? More technically, how many times should the ad say the candidate’s name? Republican and Democratic consultants said that the ad should be driven by polling data. “All of this stuff should come out of survey research,” said Gary Nordlinger, a Democratic consultant. “You have to realize you are only going to have a little bit of time when you are going to be able to control the message dynamic.” Name recognition is the most important factor when considering whether to do an intro ad, said Jessica Keegan, a Republican Consultant at Edmonds Associates. “If there is no name ID, generally it is really hard,” she said. “If people don’t know who the candidate is, I’d probably recommend against TV.” Instead, Keegan said she would advise a campaign to focus on mail and events. Mark Putnam of Murphy Putnam, one of the most prolific Democratic ad producers, aims for five principles when making an intro ad.1. Frame the ad in a way that relevant to voters and base it on research or survey data.2. Capture the candidate’s personality. This is one area where Putnam said intro ads often fail.3. Find the story. The ad needs to include a hook of some sort. What is the most compelling nugget about the candidate? Putnam said this usually takes a lot of digging. 4. Don’t try to say too much. A lot of ads cram in too much of the candidate’s resume. Putnam said that is the most common mistake in intro ads.5. Break through the clutter. The ad has to stand out. “I’ve done intro ads in every style I can think of – documentary, elegant black and white, folksy, talking to camera, reenactment, etc.,” he said. “It really depends on the candidate.” Putnam also provided a couple examples of ads he is particularly proud of. One is from Ronnie Musgrove’s Mississippi Senate campaign last year. The ad shows Musgrove standing in the dilapidated house he grew up, recalling watching his father be carried out the door after dying. That’s the kind of compelling nugget Putnam recommends.
Another notable Putnam ad was a documentary spot for Ruth Ann Minner when she ran for governor of Delaware. During an earlier campaign for lieutenant governor, Minner’s previous media consultant lost her old family photos, putting Putnam at a disadvantage. So instead he shot reenactments, something he typically doesn’t do. The ad worked and Putnam won a Pollie Award for it.
One other technological advancement – high definition television – may be changing how into ads are produced. Paul Wilson, a Republican consultant at Wilson Grand Communications, said about a third of the country has a high definition TV and estimated that by next Christmas half of U.S. households will have one. Wilson’s firm has invested in high definition cameras and he believes high-def commercials will become the norm for candidates in big media markets. “Political commercials have to be as magnificent as the show they appear in,” Wilson said. “Some of these shows are just off the charts gorgeous.” And how many times should an intro ad say the candidate’s name? Most said five or six times.Jeremy Jacobs is the staff writer at Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org