Mitt Romney Involves Supporters in Campaign Ads

Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney is challenging supporters to create their own TV ad for his campaign. It's the latest in a series of efforts by political candidates to get their followers more actively involved.

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Okay. It worked for Doritos, so why not a presidential candidate?

Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney is challenging supporters to create their own TV ad for his campaign. This is the latest in a series of efforts by political candidates to get their followers - if they have any - more actively involved.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Mitt Romney's campaign is already using the Internet to spread his message, recruit volunteers and raise money. Romney's e-campaign director Mindy Finn says the idea behind the create-your-own-ad contest is to bridge those online efforts with a traditional mass media campaign.

Ms. MINDY FINN (E-campaign Director, Republican National Committee): Why don't we use the Web and empower our supporters to then create an ad that will go on television, which is still the most powerful medium for reaching the masses?

HORSLEY: Amateur editors can cut and paste stock footage from the campaign or add their own video to create whatever kind of ad they want, so long as it's responsible and doesn't violate anyone's copyright. The campaign will post 10 or 15 finalists on its Web site and visitors will choose the winner, to be broadcast in late September.

Ms. FINN: It won't only be a voter's ad, but it will be voters deciding on which ones they think best represent the governor's message and will best connect with other voters.

HORSLEY: Other politicians are also using some creative techniques to harness Internet activism. Hillary Clinton invited supporters to help choose her theme song, and the Democratic Senatorial Committee is running a contest to design a new bumper sticker.

Republican Internet consultant Patrick Ruffini sees Romney's ad challenge as evidence the GOP, sometimes criticized for failing to connect on the Web, is starting to get serious about tapping its potential.

Mr. PATRICK RUFFINI (Republican New Media Consultant): The great thing is that not only where one winning ad make it on TV, but you'll have hundreds of ads that might not win being circulated around the Web, and it gets people to spread the message virally.

HORSLEY: At least that's the hope. Romney is also taking a page from commercial advertisers who've turned to customers for ideas. Some of the most popular commercials during this year's Super Bowl were dreamed up by consumers like Kristen Dehnert's ad for Doritos.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Woman #1: Blazin' Buffalo & Ranch? Giddy up!

Unidentified Woman #2: We're going to need a clean up on register six.

(Soundbite of crunching)

Professor BRUCE VANDEN BERGH (Advertising, Michigan State University): There's this feeling, I think, that if real people, so to speak, create these ads, they will be fresher, they - maybe they'll get lucky and they'll be more insightful. And they'll be from the audience's point of view, and that's always a big thing.

HORSLEY: Advertising professor Bruce Vanden Bergh of Michigan State University says, in fact, many of the winning Super Bowl spots, including Dehnert's, were created by aspiring ad directors and filmmakers. And in most cases they didn't look all that different than the professionals.

That's true of the early entries in the Romney contest as well. Some have trouble sticking to the 30 and 60-second time limits, but otherwise the amateur ads feature the usual mix of speeches, smiling babies and words like strength and leadership flashing on the screen.

Vanden Bergh says truly fresh and exciting ads are rare. But that doesn't stop candidates or voters from looking for them.

Prof. VANDEN BERGH: It's like "American Idol," "Last Comic Standing." We have a lot of that going on in our society now, where we think, you know, there's some hidden treasure out there under a rock, and if we just kind of make it kind of a democratic process, you know, we're hopeful that we'll find something.

HORSLEY: Vanden Bergh knows even when candidates or companies turn to the public for ideas, they still retain control over the final ad. For a really unfettered take on the candidates, he says, viewers have to turn to YouTube.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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