Mad Men: Madison Avenue’s Advice to the GOP

Posted April 7, 2013 at 6:01pm

Ask the modern day “Mad Men” on New York’s Madison Avenue about the GOP’s efforts to rebrand and they point to the recent episode involving Rep. Don Young’s use of the term “wetback” as a missed opportunity.

Speaker John A. Boehner quickly demanded that the Alaska Republican apologize, but in the following days, his spokesmen did not even respond to emailed questions about whether Young would face any concrete punishment for using the racially offensive term in a radio interview.

“When someone does something like that, it should have been a clear censure,” said Peter Hempel, CEO of DDB New York. “There has to be consequences because otherwise people don’t know what Boehner stands for.”

“You need a high-powered Republican to step forward, authoritatively, and say, ‘That is not me.’ And they really need to throw Don Young over the side. They need to throw him under the bus,” branding consultant Rob Frankel said. “He would be the representative of the old guard. That’s the beauty of this whole thing.”

The divide is emblematic of contrasting approaches between D.C.’s political consultant class and New York’s advertising industry. There’s no love lost between the two factions, with both sides tending to see the other as having no idea how to do its job.

“They assume it’s all about winning at all costs,” Hempel said about political consultants. “And I don’t think that voters are looking at their lives that way. Political consultants are just so polar in their approach. Good, bad. Right, wrong. And, you know, all of our issues should be debated, we’re a democracy. So it should be, trust, don’t trust, if you’re going to go polarity.”

D.C. Republicans say the advice from the ad men is often naive in its understanding of how the political process works. For example, party leaders have literally no control over who runs for office as a Republican. Anything a “Republican” candidate or officeholder does reflects on the party as a whole.

Mitt Romney’s campaign brought in some New York talent, including Jim Ferguson, who coined the “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” slogan, but then mostly ignored their advice, according to a person who worked on the campaign.

The Republican National Committee’s “Growth and Opportunity Report,” widely characterized as an “autopsy” of how the GOP lost the 2012 presidential election, is the quintessential product of D.C.’s consultant class, although a number of Republicans in advertising volunteered their insight to RNC officials as it was being prepared.

Ask advertising professionals what Republicans need to do to rehabilitate the party’s brand, and they can be surprisingly abstract.

“They’re trying so quickly to be on message, on point, they’re standing for almost nothing,” Hempel said. Republicans, like any brand in crisis, need to answer “critical questions like where am I from? What am I for? And what’s my fight?” he added.

Hempel’s firm DDB created the “Daisy” spot credited as a significant factor in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964, but it has stayed out of politics since, at least in the U.S.

Here is some more advice from the advertising pros:

  • The Steven Spielberg “Lincoln” movie, which came out during the presidential campaign, could have been leveraged by the GOP, Hempel said. “They missed it! They could have embraced Lincoln better. The movie was out, and, you know, he was a Republican. They should be the party of Lincoln.”
  • “When they do their convention, the audience should not be 95 percent white. Whatever it takes to transform this, it’s critical,” said Karen Post, another branding consultant.
  • The GOP needs some new faces to represent itself, Post added. “They need to identify a larger group of diversified leaders, rock stars for the party.”
  • Not surprisingly, brand experts cited the GOP’s socially conservative stances as a liability. But rather than give any specific stances individually, Hempel referenced a broader issue of looking antiquated. “As a brand consultant, I would say, you have a relevance problem,” he said. “It’s not necessarily any one issue, it’s a bigger issue.” If the GOP were a business, he might recommend becoming a niche brand, something that isn’t possible for a political party that is hoping to win the presidency.