Al Gore's wonder years

Was the vice president more interested in playing house with Tipper than in a career in politics? Ad experts deconstruct the latest campaign spots.

By Alicia Montgomery
Published August 24, 2000 6:07PM (EDT)

Both Al Gore and George W. Bush are moving toward the fall election season with something to prove. Gore wants voters to know that he's the hunky, fighting, populist pol of his convention video. Bush wants to reinforce the "compassionate conservative" image that he has carried since the primaries, with a renewed emphasis on his education credentials. Consequently, Americans have been "treated" to dueling multistate ad blitzes, pushing each candidate's favorite picture of himself. According to Salon's political advertising panel, those pictures are still a little blurry.

Al Gore, "1969"
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Steve Sandoz is a creative director at Wieden & Kennedy, the agency behind Nike's "Miss Jones" Olympic spots.

I'm underwhelmed as usual. I just find it so sad that we see the same clichis trotted out in election after election. It seems like they are just filling in the blanks with a new candidate's name.

That's especially true with Al Gore's ad, which just seems like a regular, old biographical ad, emphasizing the military connection very heavily. I guess it's an attempt to show that he's not opposed to that kind of thing, to counter that lingering suspicion that Democrats are kind of reluctant to pull the trigger.

Then there's this litany of issues where everything blends together and nothing really stands out. Another thing that struck me as a bit odd is the end line: "Married 30 years, father of four." What does that have to do with being a president? I'm guessing that's an attempt to say, "He's not going to do the Clinton thing. He's a good, solid, stand-up guy." I'm surprised they didn't mention that Tipper's responsible for those parent warning labels on albums.

Nancy Pendas-Smith is the president of Conill Advertising, a subsidiary of Saatchi & Saatchi.

There's nothing to really dislike about the ad. What bothered me was that it felt so contrived. Playing sappy music and showing vignettes of Al Gore's life with pictures from his family album? That's like a Hallmark or AT&T ad.

It does nothing to address the issues that concern people about Gore. It doesn't challenge what people already believe about him, and it doesn't show the man we want to know from a personal side, just Al Gore at a distance. You could probably substitute any family product for Gore and it would work fine. You could sell tissues or greeting cards with that ad.

Richard Blow is the former executive editor of George magazine, and is currently writing a book about John F. Kennedy Jr.

This is not a good ad. It's too long and too specific. It sends mixed messages, and I think it's confusing. They're trying to sell the image of Al Gore as an outsider and a hard-charging reformer. If they can get Americans to believe that, they'll have accomplished something really miraculous.

You don't associate Gore with being an outsider or a reformer, and he has never been seen as fighting for the people. That's not who Gore is. Al Gore is a smart, intellectual, slightly dorky guy who is not a populist warrior. Clearly, they're trying to build on this theme from the convention. And the ad is blatantly dishonest in some substantial ways. It says, "Al Gore graduates college." It doesn't say Harvard, and that's clearly not an accident. It says that he volunteered for Vietnam because it was his duty, and doesn't mention that it also helped his father's Senate race.

I love the way that line "Going into politics was the furthest thing from his mind" goes straight into "He started a family with Tipper." It's also playing off that kiss at the convention. He's a virile guy, but he's only nailing one woman. The message is, he didn't want to go into politics, he just wanted to stay home and shag Tipper.

Jon Koffler is a creative director at J. Walter Thompson in New York.

I'm surprised they didn't mention that Gore once helped an old lady across the street, too. This ad gives you about 20 different pieces of information. How is it possible to glean anything meaningful from it? If they had stuck with the military theme, and how that helped make him who he is and what he's about, this ad might have had some hope. I don't think a lot of people know about Gore's military career, so that probably wouldn't have been a bad way to go. But instead they tried to give a biography and explain his whole platform in 30 seconds.

George W. Bush, "Education Agenda"
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Sandoz: Bush's ads are more successful, especially "Education Agenda." It's wise to blend professionally shot footage of students in with footage from the convention. That was a good speech for him. He was focused, he was speaking to a crowd of rabid supporters, so he's got the cheering in the background. This is much better than the last education ad Bush did. That was so implausible.

Pendas-Smith: It's really sorry when you have to pull convention footage. They must've thought that that was really powerful, but campaigns need to be a little smarter.

I shouldn't say that it's horrible, because it did have some strong elements. First, he's not saying anything that people will disagree with. And the way he sets it up, it's in a negative light [in his remarks about education]. I did some checking, and it seems that all of the facts in that ad are correct. I didn't really believe it at first, and I thought he was exaggerating to make his solutions look better. I tend not to believe anything he says; he doesn't instill that confidence in me.

But the ad doesn't say anything, and that's what I don't like about it. It could have been effective three months ago, but now that the convention is past and people need to know what he's going to do to get us there, we need more solid political advertising.

Blow: This is much more heavily produced than Gore's [ad]. You notice this kind of soaring music. It is not trying to do everything; it is a single-issue ad. Some of the music is the same music that was played in his convention video -- and I think that's smart. It's not just politically and emotionally extending the themes from the convention.

It seems entirely unobjectionable, even if it doesn't say anything that people don't already know. It says to focus on reading in schools, as if schools don't do that now. The obvious point is, of course, that schools should be [held more] accountable. But it makes Bush likable; it makes him seem trustworthy. The simple message is that Bush wants to improve schools. He's telling voters that he has specifics. Don't think too much about them -- the important thing is that he has them.

Koffler: This ad is absolutely worthless. It tells us about the problems we all know about, and offers the nonspecific solutions we've all heard before. What is George W. Bush going to do differently? If this ad is any example, the answer is, nothing.

George W. Bush, "Hard Things"
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Sandoz: Just to cover their bases, they have this one of George W. talking straight to the camera. This is more intimate and more engaging than the Gore ad. He's trying to say he's a regular guy, just like you or me, and he cares about education. It's heart to heart. Still, I don't find him particularly credible. I don't know whether he believes in this stuff. I know that this is what his handlers want him to say.

Pendas-Smith: It's inherently a great message, but I don't think it rings true coming from Bush. I don't think he's capable of doing the hard thing. If you're talking about doing the hard thing, tell about when you've done it before, besides putting a lot of people to death, which is a hard thing. But I don't think he suffered when he did that.

Maybe George P. Bush [the candidate's nephew] is the one whom George W. should put in front of the education plan. I would believe it coming from him, because he was an educator.

Blow: Bush has stolen the message that Gore should be using, which is: "We've got this prosperity. Now we need to do the hard things." It's a strong ad.

I don't know why Bush thinks people want to hear the phrase "do the hard things." I think he should say, "Now is the time to do the important things," or "Now is the time to use your prosperity." I don't know that people will respond to an outright call for sacrifice. And if there's a message of sacrifice in there, it would clearly work better from someone who has sacrificed. You don't associate Bush with having done the hard things. The only hard things he has done, except for beating Ann Richards, he's failed at -- like his oil business.

Koffler: Once again this ad suffers from offering nothing specific and looking like a typical political ad. But I don't think the idea of doing the hard things is a bad one. True or untrue, the present administration doesn't have the reputation for being responsible or making the tough decisions. I think it's an angle that might resonate, and it's presented pretty cleanly. The copy is pointed and flows.

Overall, the Bush people have an easier job here because they're creating ads that are consistent with Bush's character, which is that he's a likable guy who does care. With Gore, they're trying to completely transform his image. It's much harder, and it isn't working as well.

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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