Nearly all the political advertising I've ever seen is locked in a kind of pre-ironic, 1950s sensibility. You tout your candidate's supposed virtues. Or you disparage the other guy's vices. You try to use symbols and images to play upon the emotions of voters. But whatever you do, you play it straight, because politics is not supposed to be a laughing matter.
Bill Hillsman, the guy who produced this Nader spot, tosses these conventions overboard, creating something closer in sensibility to the high-concept type of commercial advertising we got used to in the 1990s. I don't know if Hillsman is the greatest political adman of all time as his buddy Scott Shuger argues in this piece. What Hillsman does is so different from what his professional colleagues do that I'm not sure you can even compare them. The Bob Shrums of the world play hardball. Bill Hillsman shows up with a whiffle ball and performs a Saturday Night Live-style sendup of their game. But it's genius in any case.
Hillsman's ads are delightful because they throw out the ready-made conventions of the genre and start from scratch (though, as you point out, the Nader spot does follow the basic format of a "contrast" ad). The commercials of his that have become legend rely on two basic kinds of humor: parody and self-parody. Examples of Hillsman's use of parody are a 1998 spot he made for a Democratic candidate for Minnesota governor named Doug Johnson, which sent up the Budweiser "frogs" commercial (instead of "Bud," the frogs croak "Doug") and his 1990 spot for Paul Wellstone's Senate campaign, "Rudy and Me," which satirized the movie Roger and Me (Wellstone scours Minnesota for the incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz, and can't find him anywhere). Examples of Hillsman's use of self-mockery include the hilarious commercials he created for Jesse Ventura's 1998 campaign for governor of Minnesota. In one, Ventura models his body as Rodin's thinker. In another, the most famous spot Hillsman has done, two boys play with a Jesse Ventura "action figure," clobbering a "Special Interest Man" doll. The self-irony in these ads had the effect of inoculating Ventura against ridicule from others. Nobody could make worse fun of "The Body" than he made of himself in Hillsman's ads.
"Priceless Truth" picks up where the Ventura ads left off. It combines both brands of Hillsman parody—a satire of a familiar piece of commercial advertising and an exercise in self-effacement on the part of the candidate. The ad is, of course, a goof on the saccharine MasterCard commercials. But halfway through, the sendup ends and the self-parody begins. It's Ralph in an office stuffed with file boxes and manila file folders to the point of mania. The shot pokes gentle fun at Nader's ascetic zealotry. As with Ventura and Wellstone, Hillsman casts Nader as a nonconformist who can laugh at himself. By making mild fun of his own wonkery, Nader neutralizes his own stereotype as a nerdy fanatic and turns it into a political asset.
This kind of advertising works for the kind of candidates Hillsman works for: political outsiders who are themselves calling the rules of the system into question. You'd be skeptical if such candidates ran conventional-type ads, because that kind of advertising is part of the corrupt political system they object to. By being clever, candidates like Wellstone, Ventura, and Nader can disarm their own complicity in it.
But I don't think Hillsman's ads are going to be widely imitated despite their wit and originality because this approach won't work for the vast majority of major party candidates. If Hillsman produced ads for the Gore-Lieberman ticket, I imagine they'd seem off-pitch, like the Dukakis ad you refer to. Although it is fun to imagine what Hillsman might do with the account: Ivory Al Gore: 99.44 Percent Pure. Or perhaps a variation on the American Indian eating Levy's rye bread: You Don't Have To Be Jewish To Love Lieberman.
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