The Art of Campaign Marketing "You Cannot Make a Cactus into a Cotton Blanket"

Article excerpt

In a job interview, they say you're selling yourself. For political candidates, a campaign is one long job interview where they sell themselves both in person and through actual advertising.

It's a tricky business. Determining what to say, when to say it, and what venue to say it in, can make or break a campaign. And although there are broadly accepted rules that govern campaign strategy, officials say the number of variables involved means there's no simple guidebook to help you win the public relations war.

"It's not nearly as scientific, I think, as some people would have you believe," said Nate Webb, a spokesman for Republican Steve Largent's gubernatorial campaign. "I think a lot of it is gut."

One reason that campaign advertising is more art than science is the fact that people often respond more to image than content, at least in the early stages of a campaign.

Exhibit A for that argument: One of the most memorable ads in the governor's race so far this year was not for the candidate's stands on issues, but for the pictures of his family. In the ad, Democrat Brad Henry is seen with his three school-age (and extremely cute) daughters.

"Why that's important, I don't know," said Leroy Bridges, interim director of the Political Communication Center at the University of Oklahoma, "but the kids on his TV ads, a lot of people comment about. Maybe they didn't remember what he said about the issues, but they liked the looks of those kids."

Richard Johnson, associate professor and political science chair at Oklahoma City University, said Henry's positive ads -- which focused on his family and local roots -- are a major reason he became the Democrat nominee for governor.

"I give Henry high marks for the advertisements that he ran -- at least the positive ones," Johnson said.

Ads that prominently feature a candidate's family may be light on substance but they go a long way to building voter identification with the candidate, Bridges noted.

But Johnson said warm, fuzzy ads can only take a candidate so far. Although "soft" spots can help a candidate who is "relatively unknown, as Henry was," those ads have less impact for well- established figures.

"You cannot make a cactus into a cotton blanket," Johnson said.

Johnson and Bridges both noted that the Largent and Henry campaigns have mostly (so far) focused on positive ads to increase their favorability ratings. Johnson stressed that the image projected in those ads is almost as important as the issues stressed.

"I think Largent's pretty photogenic, comes across fairly well," Johnson said. "I thought his soft commercials were actually pretty good."

Combining an appealing candidate with a popular message is the key to electoral success, and Johnson believes Largent's ads have done a good job of combining the two. In his ads, Largent speaks of his vision for Oklahoma and his belief that the state's "best days" are still ahead.

"Optimism, I think, is something that resonates with people," Johnson said, "particularly in a time when we have a lot of underlying stress about the stock market, and corporations, and the price of oil, and the possibility of going to war with Iraq, and state budget cuts. This is not a real nice time in a lot of ways."

This year's race for governor -- with Largent, Henry and Independent Gary Richardson facing off -- has been one of the most unusual political marketing efforts in recent memory, thanks to Richardson's efforts.

"If you don't have name recognition, you start a year ahead," Bridges said. "That's what Richardson did."

"Richardson is more dependent upon the media than the other two candidates because he does not have a natural base to run from," Johnson said. He noted that most registered voters might flirt with supporting an independent candidate but tend to "come home" to their political party during the final weeks of a campaign. …