Ad Experts: Bush, Kerry Spots Lacking Pizazz

The Madison Avenue creative gurus behind AFLAC's quacking duck and the "Enterprise: We'll Pick You Up!" rental car slogan think this year's presidential campaign ads could use some pizazz.

"They're content without charisma," said Linda Kaplan Thaler, whose firm produced memorable television commercials for the AFLAC insurance company, Continental Airlines and Clairol Herbal Essences Shampoo.

Frank Ginsberg, founder and chief creative director of Avrett Free & Ginsberg, a New York advertising agency, also said spots by President George W. Bush  and Democrat John Kerry (search) could be more captivating.

"The ads are like essays. They're just telling you, they're not selling you," said Ginsberg, whose firm is behind commercials for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, rum maker Bacardi and Ralston Purina, the pet food company.

The main criticism: Both campaigns take too cautious an approach, pack too much information into the allotted time and rely heavily on stock footage and stale background music.

Political admakers in both parties defended the Bush-Kerry ads and noted key differences between their work and that of their ad agency counterparts, chiefly money and time.

Presidential campaigns typically spend about $20,000 to $40,000 to produce an ad — including the writing, filming and editing — in less than a week and sometimes in as little as 24 hours, depending on news developments. Commercial agencies, with far more resources, spend anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000 per ad and can take months to put it together.

Kim Alfano, a Republican media strategist who worked on ads for Lamar Alexander 's (search) 2002 Senate race in Tennessee, said political admakers are always at a disadvantage when trying to compete with commercial firms.

"People expect a certain level of quality in everything they watch on TV, but campaigns certainly don't have the budgets that McDonald's or Nike have," she said. "It's a conundrum."

David Axelrod, a Chicago political media consultant who made ads for Sen. John Edwards  during the Democratic presidential primaries, said there's a "higher standard of proof for political advertising."

"You not only have to catch their attention, you have to persuade them that what you say is true," he said of viewers.

Presidential campaign ads are competing with a lot already on the air.

A 30-second Bush commercial accusing Kerry of "playing politics with national security" and assailing him on the Patriot Act may air between spots showing NBA rookie LeBron James sipping Sprite or Lance Armstrong cycling for Nike.

Ads peddling everything from Tide laundry detergent to Apple's iPod music player to Old Navy clothes may bookend Kerry's 30-second spot claiming that he will make America "stronger at home" and "respected in the world."

There also are TV show promos, movie trailers and public service announcements.

"I think they have to worry about getting heard at all," Thaler, a 24-year veteran of the advertising and entertainment business, said of the presidential campaigns.

Brad Adgate, a senior vice president at Horizon Media, a New York firm that buys airtime for the GEICO insurance company and the Joseph A. Bank men's clothing stores, said political ads must overcome the "tune out factor" since the average person is bombarded with about 3,000 messages a day.

"People watch TV to be entertained," he said.

The presidential campaign ads weren't all bad, however. Ad executives liked a quirky Bush spot that used quick-moving scenes and carnival-like audio reminiscent of the black-and-white movie era's Keystone Kops to assail Kerry on gas taxes.

"It's a lot of fun and it takes a position on something," Ginsberg said of the ad, which was released at the end of March. "They were onto something, but then they chickened out."