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Penny Wise, Production Foolish

By Michael R. Shannon

I have yet to work with a candidate who did not believe in the value of a good first impression while on the campaign trail. I would venture to say that eight out of ten times the candidate dresses better than the audience. (Note to Obama: Lose the tie the next time you go bowling.)

However, many of these same individuals, who would not make a speech with a soup spot on their tie, think nothing of using cut–rate production for the TV spots. A TV spot will introduce them to far more people than will ever encounter them in person. This is the equivalent of making a speech with the soup bowl on your head.

The amazing thing is many candidates, particularly beginners or first–time–on–TV candidates, continue to repeat this mistake. I remember a statewide candidate in Arkansas who told me he didn’t need to hire a media consultant because his campaign manager owned a video store and was an expert on TV commercials.

Mr. Video Store produced a commercial that made this distinguished man (before the commercial was aired) a laughingstock shortly after airing the piece.

Voters expect a candidate to project a certain image on television. It’s the media consultant’s job to make sure his client lives up to that mental voter image. Slap-dash, my–brother–in–law–can–get–it–for–you–wholesale production will not project the proper image and will in all likelihood cost you the election.

That’s because a candidate’s broadcast campaign does not operate in a vacuum. Your commercial is not part of a sheltered political workshop where people use simple video techniques and speak with soothing voices.  Your spot is compared with that of every other advertiser on television, including Coke, General Motors, and the rest of the national advertisers. Those companies do not do special, low–budget ads just for your market.

Viewers in your market are exposed to the very best, as are the rest of the country. Commercial advertisers set the standard for quality and if your ads do not measure up, viewers will not give you a bye simply because it is for a political race.

Simply put, if your commercials look cheap compared to others, it will hurt you in the eyes of the media, decision–makers, and voters. Cheap–looking television will cheapen your message and in effect cheapen you. As well, there is a very real possibility that starting your broadcast efforts with discount production will harm fund raising efforts, in addition to the damage that it does to your image among voters, the media, and other election observers.

Amateurish television commercials can also hurt you in the pocketbook, which is ironic, since saving money is why many campaigns go cheap in the first place.

Those who may be on board before your sub–standard production is aired will be very reluctant to continue their support of your efforts and may actively distance themselves from you and your cheapened direction. In addition, by cutting corners on your public face, people who are undecided about you and the campaign will have all their doubts reinforced and their positive impressions undermined.  The final result will be a loss of your support base and a movement of the undecided to your opponents.

I speak from an unfortunate experience. The president of an insurance company in Houston hired me to handle his media in a race for the state senate. He wanted to be on TV, but he wanted to cut corners on production. I had only been in business two years at that time and didn’t want to risk the account by arguing with this captain of industry. As a result we did a very cheap ¾ inch videotape production, spent nothing on lighting and made a very large commitment to TV time to broadcast the spot.

It was the revenge of the budget cutters. We wound up making a pathetic spot that everyone in Houston saw.

Of course it got results. His phone rang off the hook. Friends, peers, and contributors called to ask why he was running that awful TV spot. He fired me — so much for not insisting on higher quality production — and put another spot on the air, presumably a lot more expensive. But the tycoon’s campaign never recovered.

In media production, as in everything else, there are differing standards of quality, but do not buy advertising by the pound. In my time in this business, I have heard every objection to production costs at least twice and maybe three times for some of them. My answer to all remains the same: there is a certain level of production quality that television demands. To reach that level requires a certain amount of money.

There is an ironclad rule of thumb for production cost and that is the longer it takes to produce the spot, the more it’s going to cost.

The least expensive television spots are those that simply feature the candidate glued to a chair and talking to the camera. If you are charisma–challenged these spots won’t help much, if any.

Spots with a variety of locations, interior shots, and other examples of production value add visual interest but also add to the final cost. You can spend wisely by ganging your production and shooting a number of spots during the same time period. And you can stretch your dollar by re–editing existing footage to make new spots later in the campaign.

You can also front load production by introducing the candidate with high–quality location spots in the beginning and then going to less expensive studio spots after your image stabilizes.

However, the first impression of you in your race will be the perception that voters will carry throughout the entire election. Most candidates don’t have enough money to undo the damage to your campaign that substandard production will cause.

Presumably you hired your media consultant after looking at the dazzling spots on his demo reel. Don’t hamstring your consultant by insisting on a production budget that strangles the campaign from the beginning.
Michael R. Shannon is president of MANDATE: Message, Media &
Public Relations. He has worked with candidates and
tycoons across the United States and the Caribbean.
He can be reached at 703-583-6277 or Click here to contact this Author.

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