How Campaigns Work: Advertising : The NPR Politics Podcast In an ongoing series congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell looks under the hood at campaigns. From how they raise money to what they do once they have it.

This episode, Kelsey looks at political advertising. She talks with two of the most respected political ad makers in the business. One argues that the best ad is the one that goes viral; the other believes the best ad is the one with the clearest message.

This episode: campaign correspondent Asma Khalid and congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell

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How Campaigns Work: Advertising

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How Campaigns Work: Advertising

How Campaigns Work: Advertising

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And, Kelsey, you've been working on a series of special episodes that break down how political campaigns work. I know last time, you talked about different ways that campaigns raise money. In the past couple of weeks, we have seen this onslaught of cash that has been infused into the presidential campaigns. So today, we're going to focus on where that money goes.

SNELL: You know, and a lot of that money goes into political ads. And I wanted to figure out what ad makers are thinking about when they're going about putting together these commercials that we see running online and on TV. And I think what you'll not be too surprised to learn is that a lot of what they do and a lot of the choices that they make has everything to do with how much money they have.

KHALID: Money - I guess that should be expected. But what exactly do you mean?

SNELL: Well, let me introduce you to Isaac Baker. He works for the firm AKPD. They make ads for Democrats. And before that, he worked on ads for President Obama's reelection and other campaigns. We were talking about how much it would cost right now to run an ad in a city like Miami.

ISAAC BAKER: An ad in the Miami media market that will be fiercely contested in the presidential election - to fully, you know, burn in an ad, what we would call saturate one TV ad, could cost the campaigns around a million dollars for one ad.

SNELL: No matter what level - like, a congressional campaign, a presidential - a million dollars is what it takes to get a message across in Miami?

BAKER: Correct. And it's just staggering. It's a staggering amount of money that it costs.

KHALID: That is a lot of money. So to be clear, though, Kelsey, he's talking about a million dollars for multiple runs of this ad.

SNELL: For about a week. He says it's just to burn that into people's mind - yeah. And, you know, a big part of a political ad maker's job is to figure out how to make the best commercial to fit that budget. You know, Fred Davis is a GOP ad maker who's pretty famous in Republican circles for making the kinds of ads that people just don't forget. He spent 20 years making commercials for products before he realized that he could use those same techniques to sell politicians.

FRED DAVIS: My ads are either funny or they're emotional or they stand out or they're dumb. Whatever they are, there's a specific reason for that to get people to watch them, so - because politicians never have as much money as Bank of America or Ford Motor Company or anything, and yet you're on the same airwaves. And an ad for David Perdue might follow an ad for Ford Motor Company. It has to look as good, but it has to be done on a much lower budget.

SNELL: That name he mentioned, David Perdue, he is a sitting U.S. senator, Republican from Georgia. And I want you to keep that name in your mind, Perdue, 'cause we're going to be talking about another Perdue a little bit later.

And, you know, the reason I wanted to talk to Davis and Baker is because they really approach ad making in almost opposite ways. Davis wants to make ads that go viral, those things that, you know, you see on the Internet over and over and over again that you share in Slack or you text to a friend. He was really making things go big and viral before we were even using that word. And on the other side, Baker thinks the best political ad is the one that delivers a straightforward message that people will understand and connect with a candidate.

BAKER: What you really need to do is just deliver a basic set of facts, and you need to inform people because there are plenty of races where it's not the presidential, it's not a race that gets a lot of attention, but voters need to know certain facts and information about both candidates to make a choice, and you're helping them make that choice.

A beautiful ad that really can be memorable but doesn't leave you with a clear understanding of who this person is or what the choice is in this race hasn't done its job. An ad that's just memorable for the sake of being memorable but doesn't leave you with a core conviction about these candidates or this race hasn't been effective.


COLIN ALLRED: I can take a hit. I've got a plate and two screws in my neck to prove it.

SNELL: I think we need to kind of have an example of what he's talking about.


ALLRED: I believe that everyone should have the option to buy into the Medicare system.

SNELL: This is an ad for Colin Allred. He was running two years ago to challenge a longtime GOP House member, Pete Sessions, in Texas.


ALLRED: Pete Sessions wants to make deep cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security. These are earned benefits that people have paid throughout their lives, and they deserve to have that promise kept to them. I'm Colin Allred, and I approve this message.

KHALID: That was not a particularly riveting ad.


KHALID: But Colin Allred won that race, right?

SNELL: Yeah. So, like, this is not the kind of thing where you, like, are perking up and watching it and sharing it with a friend, but he won. He is a sitting member of Congress right now who defeated a Republican in Texas.

But all this kind of comes back to money. And for Davis, he thinks Baker's strategy works, but really only when you have a ton of cash on hand. And he's made a lot of these viral videos that have been pretty controversial.

DAVIS: If you have the most money, you can take a traditional, standard approach like that. But if you don't, you're going to have to do something differently.

SNELL: So that approach is not without controversy. Even some Republicans have, you know, have worried that this approach to making ads, you know, makes it - I've heard one Republican describe it as it makes it a cheaper political campaign. What do you think about that?

DAVIS: No, I don't - my job is to get somebody to win. To get somebody to win, I want eyeballs. I want people - not just Kelsey's seen it on TV and going, oh, I might like that person. I want it to be so different and unique that Kelsey goes to work the next day and is telling all her friends and sitting around the coffee pot or the watercooler, and everybody's talking about it.

KHALID: All right. Well, we're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, let's hear one of those viral ads that people just couldn't stop talking about.

And we're back. And, Kelsey, we've gone through the logic of how these two types of ads are made. But one thing I'm curious about is, you know, how involved the candidates are in this process. Like, does their personality influence this all?

SNELL: Yeah. I asked both Baker and Davis, and they said it kind of depends on the candidate. Some want to be really involved, and others kind of sign on and let the ad makers do their thing. But first, they have to pitch their ideas to the candidate, which Baker described as a loving relationship.

BAKER: It is almost like a first date. It's like, do I feel a connection with this person? Is this someone who kind of shares my values? Do we get along? Can I see texting with this person late at night over a big decision we have to make? And those are the kinds of things - you know, it's, I think, part head and part heart that candidates are looking for.

SNELL: That has to be complicated. And it also has to be complicated on your end because what if you don't jive with them? I mean...

BAKER: It happens. It happens.

SNELL: Yeah?

BAKER: There are times where you walk out of a meeting and you say, well, if we don't get this, I'll be relieved because that person seems like a jerk.

SNELL: (Laughter).

KHALID: Well, he's honest. So - OK, so the candidate and the ad maker - they make it past this first date that he's describing, and then they're working together. So how does the ad maker convince said candidate that a potentially kind of wacky idea is really the right one? And I'm actually, you know, more thinking of Davis here because I know he's the one who's known for making viral ads.

SNELL: All right, so he kind of took me on a journey back to 2002 and told me a story about the Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and how they created this kind of crazy ad that really got people talking.

So just a little bit of background - at the time, Perdue was running for governor, and he really wasn't getting anywhere. So one night over dinner, Davis pitches something kind of insane.

DAVIS: Sonny says, OK, Hollywood, how are we going to win this thing? And I had to stand up and present that we're going to win because of a 50-foot-tall rat rampaging the state. That is an idea that nobody wanted to hear. It was, like, the only idea I had. And after we went around the table and nobody really had a better idea, it got to Sonny, and he slammed his newspaper in his hand and he said, well, Hollywood, build me a rat. And 30 days later, he had a rat.

KHALID: OK, I feel like I need some additional explanation here. Is - like, are they talking about a physical rat being in this video?

SNELL: Yeah, a huge rat. And he made this, like, really long video. And it was - I mean, it's kind of crazy.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICEOVER: Georgia is more than a state. It's an icon.

SNELL: Basically - so it was basically a mini movie depicting the governor at the time, Roy Barnes, a Democrat, as a giant rat. He was, like, wearing a gold crown and a necklace, and they were calling him King Roy.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICEOVER: Where is today's political giant who let this happen? Who let our beloved state collapse by abusing his power to keep himself and his party in office? Who is this man who put politics ahead of the people? Many just call him King Roy.

SNELL: And he was, like, going through the streets of Atlanta and, like, touching the state Capitol and drinking wine and eating steak. And kind of - they were trying to frame him as, you know, this guy who was abusing his power.

DAVIS: The day after the premiere, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the front page ran this huge six-column picture of our rat kissing the Capitol dome. And nobody even knew who Sonny Perdue was. They didn't know his name. But this headline in giant type above the fold was, "Perdue Calls Governor Rat." So these are ideas, Kelsey.

Of course it worked, or I wouldn't be telling this story, and he did become governor. And we ended up spending through the general about $3.5 million versus $24 million, and we still won. So is that all because of the rat? No. The rat got things going. The rat got people wanting to know more about Sonny.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICEOVER: There's a new day dawning in Georgia. It's going to be sunny and bright.

SNELL: Now, that was 2002, and the advertising game has radically changed because of the online market, but also because of the coronavirus, so ad makers are having to completely rethink how they reach people.

BAKER: What we're finding on the advertising side is that people are consuming more media than ever before. They're watching more TV, particularly cable news, which has seen huge ratings increases, and they're watching more online video. And so those are like growth areas for us. When we say, all right, what's the best way for us to reach voters and compensate for the fact that we are not doing as much door-to-door campaigning, definitely pouring more of our money into advertising is effective.

And there are some interesting trends. Because of COVID, people are watching more TV, but there's fewer new programming because the big networks haven't been able to produce new programming 'cause of the virus. So what are we seeing? We're seeing a massive increase in viewership of live sports - so baseball. Football's just coming back. The basketball playoffs are doing incredible viewership numbers. And it's one of the few places that you can reach really big, broad mass audiences.

And so the networks are not dumb. And all of a sudden, they look at these ratings the same as we do. And now the ads for a Dallas Cowboys game, you know, in the Dallas market, they are - they want to charge us $50,000 for one 30-second ad. You'd think you were, you know, going on the Super Bowl.

SNELL: So there's a ton of money in this election, but it now costs a ton of money to try to catch people's eyeballs and hold them long enough to actually deliver a message. And that's become a real challenge for campaigns these last few months.

KHALID: So, Kelsey, this just sounds like gobs of money, but, you know, are, like, online videos cheaper? And I guess I ask that in part because I feel like I hear campaigns tout so much their online video, you know, ad presence this election cycle.

SNELL: Yeah, online videos are a really big part of what people are trying to do. The pricing is different, but the challenge is that people are really used to just skipping ads when it comes up on YouTube or on some other way that they're watching online. So that's a completely different challenge to try to surmount.

KHALID: Yeah, understandable. I tend to skip ads quite a bit myself online.

SNELL: (Laughter).

KHALID: All right, well, that is it for today. But, Kelsey, you have one more special episode coming up, right?

SNELL: Yeah. Next time, we're going to be talking about polling and how campaigns use it to inform their decisions.

KHALID: All right. Well, we will be back tomorrow in your feed at our regular time. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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