Wes Clark's beautiful but sneaky bio ad.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Nov. 20 2003 10:56 AM

Still Life

Wes Clark's beautiful but sneaky bio ad.

"Story" was produced for Clark for President by Joe Slade White and Co. Inc. To watch the ad on the Clark campaign Web site, click here and choose your preferred format and download speed. For a transcript of the ad, click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

How do I love this ad? Let me count the ways.

I love it because it's a story. It doesn't simply characterize the candidate or organize his merits in the form of an argument. It starts with something immediately compelling—the Vietnam battle for which Clark won his Silver Star—and proceeds through the arc of his career. Clark doesn't appear in civilian dress until more than halfway through. It's the story of a soldier, not a politician.

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The ad doesn't rush the viewer. It doesn't try to cram a maximum of words and images into 30 seconds, as many ads do. It relies on still black-and-white photographs, giving you eight seconds to absorb the first scene—an unheard-of commitment in television time—and three to five seconds to absorb each of the rest. I like the attitude this commercial reflects: If you can't do the job right in 30 seconds, take 60.

Some campaigns think they have to use motion and color just because television permits it. But what if motion and color are part of the blur you're trying to cut through? Sometimes the best way to catch people's ears is to whisper. And sometimes the best way to catch their eyes is to show them something still, simple, and powerful, a reprieve from the chaos of the medium.

The narration matches the ad's spirit. "Wes Clark's life is simply an American story," says the narrator as you follow the story, forgetting momentarily that it's a political ad. "His actions speak more eloquently than words," says the narrator as you absorb the pictures and barely notice the words. "A quiet, real American courage," says the narrator as the scene quietly shifts from one reality after another. Only one word emerges on screen to summarize the pictures: "responsibility." The word stays there for four seconds, white on black, unencumbered by imagery, and no words follow to wash it out. The point isn't to stuff your head full of words. The point is to leave your head alone so this one word sticks.

The risk most people associate with electing a general to the presidency is authoritarianism. The ad does a nice job of dissolving that concern, too. As the narrator says, "Now, when we need a leader," the screen shows Clark smiling with his hand on the shoulder of a soldier, looking more collegial than bossy. Later, as the narrator says Clark "liberated a people," the screen shows Clark swept up in a joyous crowd of what appear to be Kosovar Albanians. He isn't standing before them or above them. He's one of them. As the setting shifts from battlefields to classrooms and town halls, the pictures continue to show the friendly general on a level with, or even slightly below, those whom he seeks to lead. The message is: Real leadership doesn't need trappings.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

Keep your shirt on! I'll admit this is an effective bio spot. That orchestral music playing under the voice-over made my spine tingle. Stories of military heroism are always stirring, even if Clark milks his pretty shamelessly here: