Bill Hillsman's funny, quirky ads in two Minnesota political races -- Paul Wellstone's surprise Senate victory in 1990, and Jesse Ventura's upset in the 1998 governor's race -- made him politics' outside image-maker who seemed to know something the Beltway boys didnt. It's tough to imagine, say, the ad of the Ventura action figure, dressed in a suit, rejecting a dime from "Evil Special Interest Man" coming from a Washington pro.
Hillsman won't yet say how he would pitch the earnest consumer advocate to the public. But it will be in a way that's far more Madison Avenue than K Street; more Abercrombie and Fitch than Harry and Louise. "Voters are consumers," Hillsman likes to say, and he draws upon his experience in commercial marketing (the Mall of America is a client). A critic of the heavy-handed, saturation-bombing approach advocated by many media consultants, Hillsman asserts that "most political consultants don't understand media. They could not make a living in marketing and communications if they had to."
Other Hillsman clients this year include Minnesotans Michael Ciresi, who is vying for the Democratic endorsement to unseat Republican Sen. Rod Grams, and Chris Coleman, a Democrat who hopes to succeed Rep. Bruce Vento in Minnesota's 4th District, as well as independent Senate candidate Willie Logan in Florida. Hillsman even met with Warren Beatty when the actor was flirting with a presidential bid. Hillsman says he's hoping to reach an agreement with the Nader campaign soon.
In both races you ran before, you really ran on an iconoclastic, against-the-system angle, and you had strong personalities to base those things off. Do you plan to use the same approach with Nader and Willie Logan?
Certainly with Willie Logan were doing it. With Nader, I dont know. Its premature to speculate.
How important is it for voters to feel a personal connection with a candidate?
Voters aren't really interested in what candidates have to say about the issues until they've come to grips with who the candidate is as a person. I think most of the Washington guys who move right into issue advertising don't really understand the dynamics of how people make a "purchase decision."
Why is it important to know the candidate first?
Because it doesn't matter what you say on Social Security or on education, or on health care or on anything else if people don't trust that you're going to follow through with it. Most politicians go into races with pretty big credibility gaps.
In Ventura's case we had the unique opportunity to start with somebody who didn't have a credibility gap, as opposed to most politicians who had been politicians all their lives or had been in office before. Sometimes the first thing you have to do with those candidates is get them up to zero on the truth meter and sort of build up from there.
You say you didn't have a credibility gap with Ventura, but you certainly had a take-him-seriously gap. Is that easier to overcome?
It's a different kind of credibility; it's a legitimacy issue more than anything else.
The way to overcome that is to just get your candidate in front of the public?
Yeah, I think so. With Nader the legitimacy gap has nothing to do with Nader as a person, or whether voters will trust what he has to say. I think voters will find him to be extremely credible, but I think the type of campaign he ran in 1996 is the question mark there, from a legitimacy standpoint. Are they really in it, or not?
Well, Nader wasnt really in it in 96. He threw his hat in the ring, but he spent less than $5,000 and didnt spend much time campaigning.
I think they burned a big bridge with the press in '96. You can't exactly go to the press as Nader 2000 and say, "No, this time we're really doing it." You can say, "Well look, he's driving all over the country, and he never got out from behind his desk in '96, so that's good." But they won't necessarily consider that to be demonstrative evidence.
You say there's a credibility gap among most candidates. Is that because people are cynical when it comes to politics?
Do you think that's a bad thing?
No. People aren't stupid. If they buy a product the first time and it doesn't work or do what it's supposed to do, they don't go back and buy it a second time.
Are you attracted to long-shot candidates because they're long-shot candidates, or is it because your personal political beliefs line up with these guys?
The reality of the situation is they are less risk-averse, and they are more willing to listen.
So they give you more opportunity for professional fulfillment?
I don't think it's professional fulfillment. I think we know what we're doing in this industry, and we've proven that time and time again. But we are still practicing political communications in an extremely different manner from the way it's practiced by most people in Washington. Consequently, if you're talking to an incumbent candidate, why would he want me to go work for him or her when the old system's worked just fine? [But] if I thought they were the types of hopeless long shots that the press usually thinks they are, I probably wouldn't go work for them.
Nader himself has admitted he doesn't expect to win; he only hopes to get 5 percent so the Green Party can qualify for federal matching funds in the next election. So would it be strange working for a candidate who doesn't expect to win?
It's a lot more doable [than people think]. Look at the opportunities here: There's not an incumbent president. There's two guys who are relatively equal that don't seem to ... they don't generate a lot of enthusiasm, let's put it that way, certainly not among the public at large, and you've got another presence in the race that's going to help fracture the vote. All of a sudden you're looking at the potential of being competitive with poll numbers in the lower 20s. So I think there's a lot of possibility.
So what would your plan be?
I think the Nader campaign has a job to do before it gets to square one, and that's [to] be a legitimate candidate. First of all, very few people in America know that he's running, which is quite a problem. They know the name but they don't remember what he's done, or all the things that he's done. And you've got to legitimize it somehow with the press.
The Green Party had only raised about $200,000 at the beginning of May. Is that enough money to run a national advertising campaign?
No, it's not enough to run a campaign on, but given the first two things we talked about it would be silly to believe that he would have a lot of money at this point.
You've worked with both Democrats and independents in the past. What attracts you to Nader?
I think he's the only real candidate if you're in favor of reform. I also believe that consumers are voters, and there's probably not a person in America who's done more for consumers in terms of product safety reform than Ralph Nader.
A reform message -- both campaign finance reform and disgust with the system in general -- worked for Ventura in 1998, and almost worked for McCain as well this year. Can it work for Nader?
Oh yeah. We know that that voting population exists. I don't think George [W.] Bush has those voters. I don't think he has those voters when John McCain comes out and says, "Vote for George Bush"; that's not the kind voters they are. I don't think Al Gore has those voters. I don't think Pat Buchanan has those voters.
I think there are two things that worked in the McCain phenomenon. One was personal integrity and character, and the other was reform. And reform, if we were having this discussion in August back in Washington last year, everybody would tell you that reform is not an issue, nothing turns on it, voters don't really care about it.
So why do voters care about it? Relatively speaking, things are pretty good right now.
We've got a system that doesn't work so well for the candidates, and it doesn't work for the voters. So why do we have this system? It works for two groups: It works for the two major political parties really well, and it works for the political-industrial complex. It works for all the businesses in Washington that rely on campaigns, and that's the pollsters, the fundraisers, the direct mail groups, the media consultants, all those people. There's entire industries that rely on this. And they're not very good at what they do, but because there's all this back-scratching and circle-jerking going on, it's very difficult if you're on either end of the spectrum to reform that system. It's hard for candidates to reform that system.
So you've got an increasing number of people who are disgusted with both parties because they're perceived as corrupt. How do you reach this audience?
Nobody really looks at the lapsed voter market. By definition, all the Washington people think, "They don't vote, so why bother?" One of the things I'm always saying is, look, let's assume that there are going to be 40 or 50 percent of people who vote, and another 60, 50 percent who stay home. Well I know that everybody else is going to be concentrating on that 40 percent.
If I'm a marketing guy and I've got severely limited resources, why wouldn't I go talk to that 60 percent and see if I can get them to vote? I don't have any competition over there. To some degree that's what we did with Ventura's case.
But isn't this a risky strategy, targeting people who are so turned off that no matter what you say, they won't show up at the polls?
How is anything risky when you're dealing with these types of candidates? They're long shots at best, so I don't really see where the risk would be in adopting that type of strategy. To me, it comes down to: How are you going to make the most progress with the limited resources you have? Why would I want to go into a battlefield where everybody is competing with way more resources than I have, when I could go someplace else and have the stage to myself?
How do independent voters differ from active Democrats or Republicans?
Independent voters do not believe what politicians have to say. They do not believe what political parties have to say. And quite frankly, they don't believe what the media has to say. So what are they doing to get their information? What they're doing is they're going to the Internet. And they understand that any Internet site they might visit has some type of bias.
But there are two things that they're working. The first thing they're working is they feel like they're in charge. They're not just getting that information from a campaign or from a candidate, or from the media. They're in control. And they are selecting what they consider to be the spectrum of viewpoints that they want to make that decision. So they are the ones setting up the point-counterpoint -- they're not getting it from CNN, Michael Kinsley and Pat Buchanan arguing with each other. They are doing their own research; they are in control. And that's going to have a tremendous, tremendous effect on politics.
The Internet played a big role in McCain's and Ventura's campaign. Was it a big help in reaching independent voters?
Our entire field organization [for Ventura], for what it was, was organized on the Internet. Because when you have independent voters you're not going to get a lot of troops en masse to volunteer at a campaign headquarters or something. Independent voters by definition are not those types of people. But you can get them to turn out if you know how to go about doing that.
You also targeted young people in the Ventura campaign. Can you do the same with Nader?
Oh yeah. That's a constituency that's already there. If you look at who comes out to Green Party events or who comes out to see Ralph Nader speak, it's a young crowd.
Both Ventura and Wellstone, who are quite different politically, were able to tap into this disaffected audience, and your TV and radio ads were instrumental in winning them over. Why were the ads so effective when you didn't run them very often?
I think the two major parties have sort of sold people a bill of goods when they say you've got to raise a lot of money and put a lot of stuff on TV. I explain straight up to candidates what's going on out there: "You know, your media firm is probably going to take 15 percent of the buy. Which is why they're going to recommend to you to spend more money on commercials whether you need to or not." There's an inherent bias in that system.
But the media firms don't get a commission on the cost of the ad itself, right?
That's why political commercials suck so bad, because most of the time they're not spending any money on the commercials themselves; the production values are no good. They don't get a commission. They'd rather do a commercial for $3,000 and run it for $3 million than spend any amount of money on a commercial. If you're going to spend 3, 4, 5, 6 million dollars of your money running a particular commercial, don't you want it to get the audience's attention? Don't you think that's kind of a good idea?
The average cost for a 30-second commercial is between $150,000 and $200,000 these days. Pepsi spends $800,000 on a spot. And those are the commercials that you have to compete with on the air. Political spots, it's like pulling teeth to get someone to allow you to make a spot for $20,000. These people from Washington, the campaign managers, the pollsters, the consultants, they just go ape shit: "You can't spend that money, you can do five commercials for that!" Well yeah, you can, and that's why political commercials are so bad.
So you've got cheesy ads, running all the time. Do you think this has anything to do with declining voter turnout?
Oh yeah. The prevailing notion in politics is you can somehow annoy these people into voting for you, but you can't -- all you do is annoy them.
Earlier you said consumers are voters, and you've also said that you view voters as consumers. What lessons have you learned from your work in commercial marketing that you can apply to the political arena?
The Ventura '98 campaign was akin to working in a marketing field where you would have three strong brands, and brand preference might shift from one to another. The big difference, and this is what the Washington people say all the time, is you can't compare politics to consumer marketing because the store is only open one day a year. You can only buy on a particular day through these particular hours. And that's true, but it's not really that different. All that says is you've got to orchestrate a campaign in such a way that you get the purchase decision within a particular time frame.
To me it's not that big a difference, but they think it's a tremendous difference, and that's what leads them to do what are incredibly stupid things, like pack an incredible number of advertisements into a short period of time.
Your ads relied heavily on humor to get the message across. How important is humor in your approach?
It's overrated. We use humor where it's appropriate. Humor I think helps in politics because so few people do it, and they do it badly. After the Wellstone '90 race, we saw a bunch of people attempt to imitate it, and God, it was so bad. If you're going the funny route you better damn sure make sure that it's funny. You can't come close -- it's either funny or it isn't, and that's something the consultants in Washington haven't figured out yet.