Why Do Romney's "Mad Men" Think Their Ads Can Make a Difference?

The new science of winning campaigns
Aug. 24 2012 11:04 AM

Why Do Romney's "Mad Men" Think Their Ads Can Make a Difference?

CHICAGO - MARCH 20: (EDITOR'S NOTE: Images were shot with an iPhone) In this diptych, TOP: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appears on a television monitor while conducting a Google+ 'hangout' town hall at the Google Chicago headquarters March 20, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. BOTTOM: During Romney's 'hangout,' the traveling pool of journalists who follow Romney were sequestered in a meeting room called 'Adventures in Babysitting,' where handwriting on the wall told people to turn off an Xbox game when finished. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Washington Post’s Phil Rucker today profiles the Madison Avenue team recruited by Mitt Romney’s campaign to produce his general-election ads. Rucker unfortunately lets his subjects get away with calling themselves “the Mad Men,” but gives them the chance to articulate their theories of a single ad's power—arguably the greatest mystery to those who practice and study political communication.

Together, they clock 12-to-14-hour days in their shared offices and try to apply what they’ve learned in careers marketing Colgate toothpaste, Big Macs, BMWs and Nationwide Insurance to help pitch to the American masses a product that lacks a dominant market share: Mitt Romney.

Much of the money that Romney raises falls into the hands of the Mad Men, who already have cut spots and laid plans to blanket the airwaves in battleground states throughout the final 10-week sprint. Romney can raise all the millions there are to raise, but if his ad wizards don’t make compelling and persuasive ads, it won’t do him much good.

“We can keep throwing ads up there all day long, but is there an idea that’s really going to touch people? It’s going to get them to pull that handle, and we’re going to win,” said Jim “Fergie” Ferguson, the Texan.

The knock on Madison Avenue types dabbling in politics, from the 1950s onward, has been that they approach political campaigns as a form of consumer marketing. (“The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process,” Adlai Stevenson said in 1956.)  But I find it hard to believe that Ferguson—whom Rucker credits with coining “It’s what’s for dinner”—considers the process of winning a vote for Romney the same as converting someone into a beef-eater.

These days, it seems that the corporate-advertising world has healthier and more intellectually honest conversations than political consultants about what a single ad can or cannot do for its products.  Madison Avenue rarely operates under an election year’s accelerated timetable. They think in terms of cultivating consumers’ long-term attachments to brands, and seem comfortable with the notion that there is not always a direct relationship between an ad’s power and immediate market share. Political consultants can’t afford that patience, and always seem eager to claim short-term successes—attributing poll movement to a particularly memorable or distinctive ad, for example.

As a result, the conversation around political ads often ends up confusing  aesthetics and effectiveness. The moment after I first saw the Obama campaign’s ad “Firms”—a thirty-second John Del Cecato masterpiece generally known as the Mitt-warbles-America-the-Beautiful ad—I tweeted that it was “an instant classic to remind [us] that, like abstract expressionism and bluegrass, attack ads are a great American art form.”  It’s six weeks later, and while the distinctive ad appears to have helped sustain a media conversation about Romney’s personal finances, it’s unclear whether those thirty seconds had any direct impact on public opinion. Those who were asked to score it as part of an academic ad-rating project said it was “memorable.”  There may have been an idea in there that touched people, but will it get any of them to pull that handle?

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.


Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.


How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 10:42 AM Scalia’s Liberal Streak The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 18 2014 11:25 AM Gays on TV: From National Freakout to Modern Family Fun
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM Where Pregnant Women Aren't Allowed to Work After 36 Weeks  
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM Where the Girls At? Jhené Aiko, Marsha Ambrosius, Ledisi, and the other brilliant women of R&B who aren’t getting their due in 2014.
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 10:07 AM “The Day It All Ended” A short story from Hieroglyph, a new science fiction anthology.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?