Kaine's Ads Tread on Perilous Ground
Friday, April 22, 2005 :::
Jeff Schapiro writes-up the latest Tim Kaine radio ad (another 60 second monster) in this morning's TD.
Jeff may or may not realize it, but he is on the trail of a truly interesting story, a narrative that speaks volumes on the content of our campaigns and the people who design them. In other words, Schapiro is headed to the "good copy" promised land.
In today's installment, Schapiro informs us that Kaine is taking center stage in his ads, and delivering what is, for ad people like me, at least, a very interesting message:
The 60-second commercial also includes apparent references to Kilgore advertisements and notes that none features the voice of the candidate himself. Kilgore's distinctive Southwest Virginia accent is heard only in brief, compulsory statements that precede or follow his ads.
"If I have something to say, I'm not afraid to say it myself," Kaine says. "But Jerry Kilgore has been making things up about me and letting slick radio announcers do his dirty work. Virginia deserves a leader who says what he believes -- himself."
Kaine also says, "Leaders lead, but Jerry Kilgore ducks problems and divides people. Virginia needs a governor who will be straight with people and who can speak for himself."
It is somewhat rare for a candidate for high office to take such a direct, personal approach. But in advertising, even political advertising, nothing is done unintentionally. What we are "hearing" through the pages of the TD is Kaine making a personal, though indirect, reference to Jerry Kilgore's voice -- a topic that received some early notice from members on the left side of the Virginia blogging community.
Take those arguments for what you will. But the messaging subtext is quite clear: Tim Kaine is hurling a classic "locker room taunt" at Jerry Kilgore, and doing it very intentionally through his choice of medium (radio) and target audience (rural, religious conservatives).
This same sort of taunt is issued through this new Kaine attack site. Here, as in the radio ads, Jerry Kilgore's voice is featured as something odd and even laughable. We're seeing a pattern here.
Naturally, the Kaine people deny there are goading Kilgore, or making fun of his speech:
Kaine press secretary Delacey Skinner said the latest commercial has "absolutely nothing to do with Jerry Kilgore's accent -- absolutely nothing." She also said, "We think it indicates something about his character that he is not speaking for himself."
This is palpably untrue. There is every intention to make the sound of Kilgore's voice an issue. But there is more subtext in the ads than just a locker room taunt. In the Schapiro piece, he quotes the omnipresent Larry Sabato as saying;
One of the state's top political analysts, Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia, said the Kaine commercial is an apparent attempt to demean Kilgore, particularly to suburban voters who dominate Virginia politics.
"This relates to the Southwest Virginia accent," said Sabato. "It shouldn't be a handicap, but it is. There is a prejudice about it. The implication of the accent, as it hits the ear of supposedly sophisticated suburbanites, is that it belongs to a country hick."
For once, the learned professor and I agree. This is exactly the intention of Kaine's ads. But what it also shows is that Kaine is walking a very perilous path with this strategy.
On the one hand, his radio ads, targeted as they are, and making the locker room taunt, run the very real risk of alienating the people Kaine hopes to draw to his side. After all, many of the people who might hear these ads will have the same speech patterns as Kilgore. Many, too, will wonder why this Richmond politician is spending so much time bashing a man who comes from their region, who sounds like them, and who, generally, shares their values. The potential for a backlash is there and it is real.
To pick up on Sabato's other point, Kaine's attempt to make Kilgore's voice an issue for the supposedly sophisticated suburbanites, could have a downside as well. Sabato is absolutely correct when he says there is a latent bias against Southern accents (and for that matter, people who have distinctly Long Island accents, or Boston accents, or even Minnesota accents). Speakers of "Southernese" are often considered country bumpkins. Deeply unfair, and deeply shallow, but it's real.
However, the downside to this is that suburbanites have no more claim to sophistication than anyone else. As an example, consider this article, which appeared on page 1, above the fold in today's TD. A tony Richmond neighborhood is riven by the appearance of a black, chain link fence. Politicians are called in, protests are made. Neither Shad Plankings, petition signatures or even the tone of a candidate's voice gets the suburban heart pounding harder than an unsightly fence.
So much for their sophistication.
Right now, Kaine is employing a two-edged ad strategy. One side attempts to make Kilgore seem like a coward, or worse, to people in the rural regions of the state. The other attempts to show that Kilgore is little more than a rube, not to be trusted with the intricacies of government. It is an attack strategy that could backfire on Kaine with enormous force.
And even if he plays it very carefully, it could still be seen as a deeply personal attack on his opponent. And as we are often told, folks in the leafy suburbs, and elsewhere, dislike such personal attacks.
As an adman, I know from experience that every ad theme, and every word used to deliver it, is done with deliberation and precision. We have no choice. These words cost money. They time constraints, even in a ponderous 60 second ad, force us to choose our words carefully. Kaine's ad team has made the conscious decision to hurl a taunt that will stir-up latent animosities and fears. All's fair in politics. But they have taken a messaging approach that is far better suited to the 1950s than it is to today.
It's only mid-April, and this is the level to which the campaign ads have sunk. By mid-May, we could be looking back on the stories about sign wars and petition signatures as the days when the debate was deep and meaningful.
I can only imagine how low we will sink come November...hairstyles, perhaps? Choices in outerwear? The mind boggles in such a shallow pool of irrelevance.
::: posted by Norman Leahy at 4/22/2005