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Political Ads Don't Get a Break From Pros


The man who brought us Monica S. Lewinsky in Jenny Craig weight loss ads slumped in front of his TV monitor.

"Wasted opportunity," moaned David Suissa, CEO of Suissa Miller advertising agency. Suissa, a high-octane West Los Angeles ad executive, was reviewing presidential campaign ads, including one in which a soft-spoken Michael Jordan, dressed in a black mock turtleneck, earnestly endorses fellow basketball great Bill Bradley. Suissa was not impressed.

'It's Michael Jordan," he said, "the No. 1 king of the world. This is the first time he's ever endorsed a political candidate, and what did they do? Nothing."

Suissa, film director Barry Levinson and ad executive Norma Orci took a break from editing sessions of their own to review some presidential ads that have aired in California. To put it kindly, Tinseltown gave the politicos a thumbs down.

"I don't think these spots would ever motivate anyone to either vote for one of these guys or change their vote," said Levinson, director of the dark comedy "Wag the Dog," which parodied the final, frenetic days of a presidential campaign, including the commercials.

"The only thing that stood out is they all wear red ties," he said.

Orci, who has made ads for Spanish-language markets for 30 years, said, "What most of these spots have is a lot of fluff."

Academics and political consultants admit this year's ads are lackluster but said the conclusions of these Hollywood pros are wrong. Study after study, from Pavlov's dogs to today's focus groups, have shown that repetition is persuasive, said Brown University professor Darrell West. That includes flashing repeated images, even banal ones, at TV viewers in the days preceding an election.

Besides, a lowly political ad costs $20,000 tops to produce and is often made overnight. A McDonald's ad can cost millions and take months to make.

The Hollywood executives were sympathetic. Sort of.

"It's so hard to love a political commercial," said Suissa. "Still, you don't need five months to make an ad more compelling than this."

Levinson, whose main character in "Wag the Dog" faked a war to capture TV viewers, said the whole idea of packaging political leaders as products is "frightening."

"They are just commodities, they are bars of soap," he said. "We're all used to living in today's world, but below that level, there is something that makes you say, 'God almighty, is this what has happened to us?' "

So what is it that's so frightening, so fluffy, so sadly dull? Let's go to the videotape.

In the Michael Jordan ad, called "Chicago," Jordan talks to the camera about serious issues such as health care and child poverty. No cartoon characters, no basketball shorts. The camera barely moves from him, though there is one shot of Bradley with his wife on a beach at the very end.

"Terrible," said Suissa. "They could have gone way beyond the normal talking head with this one."

"It feels so earnest," Levinson said. "It's almost like he's not Michael Jordan."

Levinson said he would have put Jordan and Bradley together on camera, to show the viewer the friendship between the two and give a rationale for why Jordan made this move.

Another Bradley ad, "Give Him the Ball," features a rapid-fire montage of his life, from Rhodes scholar graduation to winning Knicks shots to time in the Senate, complete with driving music. An announcer urgently says Bradley would make a great president, "but first, you've got to give him the ball."

As for the announcer, "he's a heavy breather," said Suissa. With five still photos and a few elegant phrases, Suissa suggested, the ad could have powerfully captured Bradley's "incredible life."

In George W. Bush's "Once in a Generation," the Republican governor of Texas air kisses a Latina girl and poses with a group of elderly and ethnically diverse women. Phrases such as "patients' bill of rights" and "tax reform" flash across the screen.

"This is the worst," said Suissa. "Chaos in a kitchen sink. . . . What Bush needs to do is convey to people that he's got substance. . . . You don't have a single thought that matters in this."

"A generic 'candidate running for president' ad," said Levinson. He said he would film Bush endlessly as he campaigned, seeking scraps of authentic behavior.

"Get him talking over his shoulder instead of posing with children," he said. "Try to find those little moments that seem natural, so you can make the anti-commercial."

In his "Reagan Conservative" ad, John McCain stands in a living room with tasteful paintings, speaking to the camera. He wears a blue suit, and, yes, red tie. He denounces what he calls the negative campaigning of his opponent and assures viewers he is the anti-establishment candidate.

This spot drew even bigger boos. "Look at him!" said Suissa. "He's trying to say he's not a stuffed shirt, and he's wearing a stuffed shirt! It screams establishment. The visuals just kill the message."

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