Remembering
The Selling
of the President


September 26, 2004
MADISON AVENUE ON KERRY

Quick. Change the Brand. In Five Weeks.


Seymour Chwast
By JOHN TIERNEY

WASHINGTON Senator John Kerry tried reintroducing himself last week with a new speech against the Iraq war, but he promptly ran into an old problem.

To Democrats, it was a fresh, tough speech that put him in good position to challenge President Bush in this week's debate.

To Republicans, it was a familiar opportunity. They gleefully labeled it Mr. Kerry's ninth different position on Iraq and put up a commercial showing him windsurfing to the strains of the "Blue Danube" waltz while a narrator dismissed his Iraq policies as going "whichever way the wind blows."

By sticking to their theme of Mr. Kerry as flip-flopper, Republicans have put him in a bind: he could use a new message to move up in the polls, but any new message leaves him vulnerable to accusations of inconsistency. How do you reposition a candidate whose commonly perceived weakness, fairly or not, is his penchant for repositioning? And how do you do it so late in the campaign?

Democrats say that a turnaround is still possible in five weeks, and so do some experts who may have a more realistic view of the job - advertising executives experienced in reviving troubled brands. But Madison Avenue's masters of image makeover say it will take a simple, emotionally appealing message, the kind that has eluded the Kerry campaign so far.

Mr. Kerry might take comfort from Bill Clinton's repositioning in 1992, after being battered by scandals and rivals during the primary season.

"Clinton reinvented himself as the boy from Hope, a political Horatio Alger," said Stephen Wayne, the author of the "The Road to the White House 2004" and a history professor at Georgetown University. "He was also helped by the fact, and this is important for Kerry, that the election was less about him and more on the incumbent's absence of leadership."

In the same way, Mr. Kerry's new combativeness on Iraq could reinvigorate his campaign and shift the debate away from his character to Mr. Bush's record.

"Kerry needs a laser-beam focus on Iraq and how he's got a better plan to end the war," said Linda Kaplan Thaler, who created the "Kodak moment" and the Aflac duck advertisements as well as spots for Mr. Clinton's 1992 campaign.

Ms. Kaplan Thaler, the co-author of "Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World," said the current dominance of Mr. Bush's message reminds her of the market strength of McDonald's, which she helped Burger King confront.

"McDonald's was defining the territory - the ambience and the world that they'd created with their restaurants," she said. "We decided we were going to talk instead about the burgers - theirs was fried, ours was grilled. Now that Bush has Kerry constantly in check with the flip-flop theme, Kerry has to say, 'I don't want to play in that playground. I'm going to talk about Iraq.' "

Democrats tried emphasizing Mr. Kerry's Vietnam record at their convention, then switched to another theme by attacking Mr. Bush's National Guard service. Meanwhile, the Republicans presented the same message month after month, and in speech after speech at their convention: Mr. Bush is a more dependable fighter against terrorism than the flip-flopping Mr. Kerry.

"If Kerry can make the election about the war in Iraq instead of the war on terrorism, he can win, but Bush's people are just way better at getting their message across than the Kerry team," said Bill Hillsman, the chief creative officer of North Woods Advertising and author of a new book on campaigning, "Run the Other Way." He has created commercials for Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, as well as ones for Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota, and the late Paul Wellstone, the senator from Minnesota.

"Right now, George Bush can tell you why to vote for him in a seven-word sentence: 'You and your kids will be safer,' " Mr. Hillsman said. "Bush is like Mercedes or Honda - you know what the brand stands for. Kerry is like Mazda, a brand that's had a terrible time because they've kept trying different messages."

Focusing on the problems in Iraq, besides giving Mr. Kerry a simple message, could also make him look more genuine - more consistent with the John Kerry who opposed the first Gulf War and the Vietnam War. An antiwar stance is risky for a Massachusetts liberal trying to appeal to Midwestern swing voters concerned about terrorism, but Mr. Kerry might assuage their doubts by appearing tough in other ways.

Donnie Deutsch, the president of the Deutsch advertising agency and host of "The Big Idea" on CNBC, suggests Mr. Kerry win over security moms and other swing voters by taking a cue from an old Exxon slogan: put a tiger in your tank.

"In the debates, John Kerry should do everything short of challenging George Bush to a fistfight," Mr. Deutsch said. "Physically, he's a much more imposing figure than Bush, and he needs to get strong, aggressive, almost swashbuckling. People are frightened and want to see strength. If Bush says you flip-flopped, say that's what strong leaders do, the way Reagan made nice with the Soviet Union."

But can a Boston Brahmin really out-tough a Texas rancher? Some Democrats worry that Mr. Kerry's "Thurston Howell problem" - his tendency to appear like the eccentric, clueless millionaire on "Gilligan's Island" - may turn off Midwestern swing voters while also depressing the turnout of the black Democratic base.

At the same time, Democrats are aware that trying to alter his Brahmin manner might create more problems. They need look no further than the "new Nixon" of 1960, the one who lost the presidential election to John Kennedy.

"In 1960, Nixon really wanted to seem mature and assure voters he was no longer Ike's hatchet man," said David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University and author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."

"He knew his reputation as 'Tricky Dick' was unpresidential," Professor Greenberg said. "But he was trying so hard to be different that it really cramped his campaigning, and he became this dead, uninspiring figure."

So how can the ever-patrician Mr. Kerry appeal to poor and working-class voters? Russell Simmons, the hip-hop music and fashion mogul, recommends that Mr. Kerry spend more time visiting inner-city neighborhoods, preferably accompanied by rap stars, while still remaining true to his class. Mr. Simmons points to his own success as a marketing consultant to Courvoisier, the cognac with a Thurston Howell image that became a staple of hip-hop culture.

"We brought in the hip-hop but we kept it exclusive and always protected the brand equity of Courvoisier," he said. "John Kerry can do that, too. He has to get out there with the grassroots and still dress the part. He's a better dresser than George Bush - that pink tie he's been wearing looks good with a dark suit. John Kerry has brand equity, and he needs to protect it. But he doesn't do that by windsurfing."


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