The GOP's triumph of style

Election 2004

September 03, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Madison Avenue, meet Madison Square Garden.

In a city that elevates advertising to an art form, it was easy to view this week's Republican National Convention as the equivalent of a mega ad campaign - complete with slogans, testimonials, branding and theme music.

Last night there was even some new packaging as President Bush addressed the convention from a specially constructed round platform in the center of the crowd - conveying an image of a man deep inside the embrace of his supporters. The platform, covered with a presidential-seal carpet that mimics the one in the Oval Office, made George W. Bush appear closer to the audience than any speaker all week.

"The theater-in-the-round turns Madison Square Garden into a town hall," said Tom Julian, trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide, a New York ad agency. "It creates a pretty solid backdrop and works very well."

Liberal New York may have shown little curiosity about the goings-on inside Madison Square Garden this week, but many in the city's battalion of advertising executives watched with professional interest.

To some ad executives, the convention could have played on mute: This week, they argued, was as much about the power of the packaging as the content of the speeches. Some echoed news stories that pointed out a wood-block pattern on the lectern that seemed to form the shape of a cross - an assertion repeated in Democratic news releases yesterday - and others observed that the area surrounding the lectern was reminiscent of a pulpit.

Color-coordinated

They analyzed the slogans - debating the GOP's choice to change its banners each night of the week. They noted the bold red, white and blue color scheme in the convention hall, repeated even in the clothes worn by speakers like first lady Laura Bush (blue) and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (red), and they parsed the meaning of the musical interludes.

"The music and colors are trying to be young and at the same time nationalistic - they appeal to all groups and there's a kind of assumptiveness to them," said Frank Ginsberg, founder and chief creative director of Avrett Free & Ginsberg, a New York ad agency. "Assumptive leadership is always a good approach in an ad campaign or in a presidential campaign - being assumptive about your leadership, the idea that you're winning, that's the strategy."

The same elements were at work at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, which put the same emphasis on style and aesthetics to convey a different message; at the time, John Kerry's campaign argued it was trying to use colors and a stage set that demonstrated an image of change with underlying stability.

The Republicans have tried to add their own crowd-friendly twists to this convention, putting "CJs" - convention jockeys, like disc jockeys - on the floor to do happy Q&A's with delegates. They showed a goofy video - campaign strategist Karl Rove and White House chief of staff Andrew Card getting the first family's dog, Barney, to stump for the president. And they rigged a separate round stage that rose from the floor during musical numbers.

Part of effective marketing requires not just smart packaging, but an audience. And some advertising experts argue that much of the stagecraft of this convention has been largely lost on the TV viewing public. When much of this "infotainment" was going on, the networks were airing regular programming. When these lighter notes happened during prime time, analysts usually were using the time for analysis.

"The problem is, how many people are seeing what's taking place here?" asked Ira Teinowitz, Washington bureau chief for Advertising Age. "There's some really interesting stuff going on at this convention. They're trying to make the party look younger, more modern - from the CJs to the music selections with a lot more rock and Texas country - but how much of it gets across depends on how much people are watching. If you're watching CNN, Fox or MSNBC, you're watching speeches followed by analysis, and a lot of the other stuff is not coming through."

Broadway-quality

Other ad execs were impressed by the Bush campaign's ability to play to its swing-vote audience with a string of rehearsed performances that took few risks in tone and delivery.

"It's right up to the standards of a Broadway show," said Linda Kaplan Thaler, author of the best seller Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World. The ad executive, who helped produce advertising for the 1992 Clinton campaign but is not involved in the election this year, said she was impressed by the convention's aesthetics. "It seems to have really flawless production values. The cues are amazing and the choreography of the audience is really excellent - the raising of the appropriate placards and the slogans going up right on cue."

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