Published June 11, 2012
This is the first in a three-part series on the world of campaign ads. In this installment, Fox News examines the making of political ads, through the lens of one of the nation's most prolific consulting firms.
When your rental car pulls up into a side road in Delaware, Ohio -- a town 30 miles north of Columbus -- all you see is a nondescript house. It almost looks like a shed, painted in what is perhaps the most unmemorable of the 50 shades of grey.
Inside, however, a visitor sees the shed attached to a gorgeous brick mansion. The immaculately restored manor is distinguished by dark oak wooden floors and crisp white-trim molding, a perfect place for tea and crumpets that looks every inch the landmark it is: The Gooding House and Tavern, to be exact. Entered on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, the structure was built in 1827 as a stagecoach stop halfway up Ohio's "Mud Pike."
The other half of the place, the old tavern-shed, is done up modern -- all sharp lines and angles, to the point of severe -- and is home to a state-of-the-art conference room, a series of hi-tech video-editing suites and an enormous white backdrop with a curved bottom, of the kind used for photography sessions with fashion models and child actors.
Welcome to the offices of The Strategy Group for Media, one of the country's leading political advertising and consulting firms. Since it was founded in 1994 by political consultant Rex Elsass, a former executive director of the Ohio Republican Party, the Strategy Group for Media has produced tens of thousands of television and radio spots for conservative candidates, campaigns and causes.
Before arriving at the full-service bar and billiards table (used only by clients), a visitor is accosted first by the sight of an entire wall stocked with gold statuette trophies. These are "Polis," the Emmy-like awards given out each year by the American Association of Political Consultants.
Roughly 50 firms in America do this kind of work, with each side of the political aisle serviced by about two-dozen of them. Most are located in New York, Los Angeles, or the Beltway area, and most do not execute the full range of activities related to political advertising that the Strategy Group, under its Historic Registry auspices, performs for its clients: the research, scripting, shooting, editing and purchasing of air time for TV, radio, and Internet ads.
SGM's client list reads like a Who's Who of GOP lawmakers, joined by more than a dozen state GOP organizations and the Republican national campaign committees for both the U.S. House and Senate. On its website, SGM boasts a "win record" of better than 80 percent over the last five election cycles -- and with the roughly 1,000 TV and radio spots the company will churn out before year's end, its principals expect to gross about $200 million in revenue.
On the day when Fox News was permitted to tour the place, even the pre-Civil War manor part of The Gooding House was humming with activity. Media buyers in their early 20s peered into flat screens, purchasing ad time and diligently monitoring the purchases of opposing candidates. "It's a full-time job," company president Nick Everhart said about the effort to track the ad time purchased by candidates running against the firm's clients. "We're basically communicating with (TV and radio) stations and compiling that information so we know exactly what they're spending."
He casually throws out terms like "gross rating points," which help the firm determine the number of eyeballs and ears that received the messages of an opposing candidate. "If you don't have that information, you're flying blind. And so we put a premium on having all that kind of data compiled and put together so that frankly, we can be in a real-time-situation understanding as to what's going on in a race: if we need to respond (to an attack), if we can stick with the message we've got. It's a constant 24-7 surveillance."
With his pale skin and shaggy blond hair, the 32-year-old Everhart, a fresh college graduate when he joined the Strategy Group a decade ago, vaguely resembles the actor James Spader. His knowledge of politics -- the states and their newly redrawn congressional districts, the candidates and consultants who work with them, the media firms and their most lucrative clients, even in the corporate sector -- borders on the intimidating.
He talks wicked fast and while much amuses him, he is not easily given to laughter. He and John McClelland, another 30-something veteran of politics who is SGM's public affairs director, enjoy between them a kind of Buddy Movie camaraderie.
I asked Everhart if he thinks people harbor misconceptions about political ad makers.
"I think it's probably a misunderstood industry that's been given most of its face by movies, or shows like 'The West Wing,'" he replied. "I didn't even know this job existed when I was a freshman in college. I mean, it's cloaked in a lot of uncertainty, but so is advertising in general. The idea of an ad man -- it's why a show like 'Mad Men' does so well, because there's an intrigue with anybody that creates something creative."
Since political ads first started cropping up on television -- the soft-edged "I like Ike!" cartoons of 1952 -- the form has evolved as rapidly as the media. Traditional TV and radio commercials now co-exist alongside Internet search and banner ads, even slick videos that look like TV ads -- and probably cost as much to produce -- but behind which a campaign spends no money for air time.
Instead, these "web ads," sometimes up to four or five minutes in length, are simply uploaded to YouTube while a campaign apparatchik blasts out a link to reporters and supporters.
Some news media executives have wondered whether they are effectively allowing themselves to be "used" by covering a campaign's "web ad" as dutifully as a spot for which a campaign spent money to purchase ad time. But Everhart and other industry professionals contacted by Fox News agreed the online-only message poses no immediate threat to paid political advertising.
"(The web ad) is a great way to tell longer stories on websites to people who visit your website," Everhart said. "If you want to try to drive a media story, one of the best ways to do it is to have a web video that accompanies it. If you're in a position where you don't have the resources of your opponent and you want to respond and push back with something more creative than a press release, and/or your spokesman just giving a quote, you produce the web video and you push back with that. The problem with that is it's not a replacement for paid advertisment or intrusive advertising. At the end of the day, the only way you're going to connect with the uninterested and the uninformed -- who happen to vote and decide who governs this country -- is by television, radio, cable and online advertising."
The Strategy Group can produce a TV spot, from start to finish, within the time it took for the Nixon-Kennedy debates to be televised. "If we get attacked, say, at four o'clock on a Thursday," Everhart explained, "we'll then propose a script, produce an ad, and we can have the thing finished in an hour-and-a-half, two hours, max, and in one hour D-G it to the stations. I mean, we can actually have it sitting at the traffic department (of a local TV station) within an hour, so the next morning, when the traffic folks come in, they can put in the rotation, we'll have it on the air. It's rapid response. Absolute triage."
Over in the hi-tech tavern-shed, an editor was using TK to put the final touches on a new ad for Rep. Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican presently running for governor. The 60-second spot features Pence -- a Strategy Group client from his first election to the House, back in 2000 -- returning with his wife to the ice skating rink where they enjoyed their first date. Mrs. Pence talks about love at first sight as the two hold hands and glide across the ice. It took a whole day to shoot and is meant, Everhart said, to "introduce" Pence to the voters of the Hoosier State.
I asked: Haven't the voters in Indiana gotten to know Mike Pence by now?
"A great question," Everhart said, before reeling off, in his typically rat-a-tat-tat fashion, the rationale behind the ad. "When you transition from being a member of Congress to being a governor, people have a different perspective and understanding. It's a leadership job. It's a job that's about being back home. It's a job about being focused on job creation. So it is a re-introduction."
SGM also did some work this cycle for two GOP presidential candidates: Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "We do anything from city council to state legislative, state senate, congressional, U.S. Senate, gubernatorial, presidential. And the reality is there is no cookie cutter approach to any campaign," Everhart said. "Ultimately somebody hires you to win and that's our ultimate focus and utmost goal. ... We've got 75 words and 30 seconds, and my job is to tell the story that best advances our clients success on election day."
All political ad makers will tell you their ads are 100 percent truthful, or, as Everhart likes to say, "rooted in the truth." And political consultants are assuredly being truthful when they maintain as much. But the reality is that political consultants on opposite sides of the aisle are a lot like lawyers on the opposite sides of trials: The prosecutor and defense counsel are not engaged in a truth inquest but rather in an adversarial proceeding. Each aims not to establish the truth but to win. To accomplish that objective, each approaches the venue -- a courtroom, say, or a campaign -- armed with competing narratives, a set of truths he wishes to emphasize to the exclusion of others.
This, above all else, is why political ads are the staple of modern politics Americans most love to hate. These televised intruders into our homes bray for our attention while we're trying to enjoy "The Kardashians" or "The Biggest Loser." And then, with the predictability of the seasons, they simply ... vanish. And at all points, we suspect they are not 100 percent truthful. But they are -- within their own frames, on their own terms.
Everhart prefers to call negative political ads "contrast messaging."
"That advertising is subjected to a lot of criticism," he said, "but the reality is survey research and focus groups and all that information shows that it's frankly some of the most honest information that voters get during a campaign. If both sides only ran positive campaigns about themselves, I don't think we'd learn the full truth about the character -- and the lack thereof -- and the voting record and the truth behind things."