What's The Difference Between Politicians And Cottage Cheese?
At 2 p.m. central standard time, halfway into another of his 18-hour, two-time-zone workdays, David Sawyer pushed through the glass doors and hurried into the lobby of Chicago's Merrill C. Meigs Field. The crowd inside the airport terminal numbered around three dozen. Most were young; most wore the gauzy, slightly evangelical look of the serious political field operative. A few toted TV cameras and microphones. Anticipating the main show -- the imminent arrival of Ohio Senator John Glenn -- they had splintered off into groups of five or six and were chatting animatedly. The underlying murmur was of campaign small talk: Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, the Iowa caucuses; polls, primaries, and "positive" press coverage. Outside, a cold winter wind blew across the tarmac. Not an airplane or a politician was in sight.
David Sawyer does not like waiting, not even for a client with designs on the Presidency of the United States. He is particularly not fond of loitering around public buildings in Chicago, a city where his work as a well-paid political adman, if not his face, is familiar to millions. So familiar is his work, in fact, that the last time he hung around town for very long -- as one of the masterminds of ex-Mayor Jane Byrne's losing bid for reelection, in 1983 -- Sawyer himself became a bona fide campaign issue, a development that displeased him. If Sawyer appreciates loitering little, he appreciates notoriety less -- especially when it gets wieided like a cudgel against the interests of his own client. And so, shoving his briefcase under a stairwell, he ambled off to a pay phone, calling out over his shoulder to a companion to watch his stuff while he avoided the prying eyes of the media. "They'd have a goddamn field day," was the way he phrased it.
None of the reporters took notice of his exit, although well they might have. To followers of electoral fortunes, Sawyer, head of the New York City firm of D. H. Sawyer & Associates Ltd., cuts almost as familiar a figure on the campaign trail as ex-astronaut Glenn does. DHS&A describes itself as "an international communications planning and political consulting firm, consisting of a core group of communications strategists and an exthe larger context in which Sawyer has positioned his young company. Having managed media campaigns for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Sen. Daniel patrick Moynihan, Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, Gov. Bruce E. Babbitt, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., Mayor Kevin H. White, and a host of other (mostly) Democratic office-seekers, national, statewide, and municipal, he is widely considered to be among the front ranks of political media consultants, a small clique comprising no more than a dozen or so experts of varying ideological bent.
Sawyer sits astride what is still an industry in its infancy. As recently as 20 years igo, party machinery (and fealty) was the dominant factor in choosing candidates for high elective office; outside advisers came mostly from the mastheads of top legal and public relations firms. But the breakdown of the party system, the rise of special interest groups, the sheer dollar volume spent on campaigning, and, particularly, the power of television to communicate images, not just words, have changed the rules of the game. The electorate is now a marketplace where products -- in this case, candidates and ideas -- are tested as rigorously as consumer goods. Like consumer goods, these products arouse certain sets of feelings and expectations. Feelings and expectations about politicians are not new phenomena. The methodology to explore and use them in the white heat of a high-stakes campaign, however, is very much a tool of the new technology.
This fundamental change in the landscape has in turn given birth to at least two generations of political consultants skilled at putting that technology to work. Their background is mainly politics and film-making, not product advertising and public relations. They know each others' work well, and they compete -- sometimes quietly, sometimes not -- for the same pool of "preferred" candidates, although seldom across party lines. Says Joseph Napolitan, one of the founding fathers of the industry,"When I started, you could put all their names on the back of a business card. Now you'd need the Lynn [Mass.] phone directory to list them all."
In fact, the American Association of Political Consultants tries to do just that. According to AAPC president Roy Pfautch, upwards of 3,000 consultants will ply their trade in Campaign '84. Some will be affiliated with the "200 or so stable firms" Pfautch identifies. Others will come and go with the political tides. All will take with them a hefty percentage of the estimated $1 billion (or more) being lavished on domestic political advertising this year. In Sawyer's case, he gets a flat fee from the Glenn camp ($15,000 a month), plus a percentage of all media time-buys. What does someone like Sawyer offer a client in return?
"I've worked with a lot of top consultants," says Jack Leslie, a refugee from Ted Kennedy's political staff who joined DHS&A last year. "People like David Garth, Charlie Guggenheim, Michael Kaye. Some of them are very good on the creative side but weak on research. Others are just the opposite: strong on numbers, weak on creativity. [Sawyer] does the best job I've seen at combining both."
"I used to think that guys like Sawyer were paid to give you packaged answers," adds Chris Hamel, former campaign director for Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt. "But politicians, especially incumbents, don't think they need much advice -- just like Arizonans don't think they need somebody from New York to tell them what the issues are. For us, David functioned as the bridge between the raw research and the political intuition every campaign thrives on. He's an interpreter, a focuser. He gets his point across with a minimum of hype."
Hype is something that is seldom minimized when media consultants are discussed. Because political commercials bypass other debate forums and appeal directly to the voters' senses, they arouse suspicion of deceit. In common parlance, Sawyer thus becomes an "image maker": a creator of glossy, telegenic political symbolism that may or may not bear close correlation to the true worth and integrity of a particular candidate. Sawyer, who began his career as a documentary filmmaker of such unglamorous subjects as mental hospitals and rural Maine, and who became fascinated with the research end of the business when he found no other way to measure the lasting social impact of his films, resists the darker connotations of that term.
"Image refiner" is perhaps more to his liking; for it is his contention that everyone in public life has an image, good or bad, strong or weak, and that it is the communication of that image in what he terms "the new political conversation" that is his special province. To Sawyer, this does not mean ad making (or image making) in its narrow sense. It means marketing in its broadest sense: defining a market, exploring its parameters, sizing up the competition, advancing a product you believe in, shaping the context in which it is received. Deceit, says Sawyer, would be self-defeating.
"I don't 'manipulate' voters, because I can't; they're too sophisticated." he says. "I'm much more interested in the nature of communication itself. How do you create a dialogue with the electorate? How do you control the dynamic of the campaign? Set the agenda for discussion? Answer an opponent's charges? Those are my issues. You have to get way inside a campaign before you can resolve them, too."
Way inside Jane Byrne's campaign is just where Sawyer got last year, and what happened in Chicago points up the perils as well as the promises of political management in the television age.
In 1982, at the time she hired DHS&A, incumbent Jane Byrne was 25 or 30 points behind in the polls and fading fast. Her chief opponent in the Democratic primary, Cook County State's Attorney Richard M. Daley Jr. (Rep. Harold Washington would enter later), held two significant advantages over the mayor: heredity (he is the son and namesake of Chicago's long-time political boss, the late Mayor Richard Daley), and the fact that Byrne had managed to alienate most of her original constituents without picking up new supporters. Internally, her administration was highly factionalized; externally, the situation was politics-as-usual in Chicago, which is to say, Byzantine.
Then the Sawyer team arrived. One member was Ned Kennan, an Israeli-born psychologist whose own firm, Kennan Research & Consulting Inc., is often subcontracted by DHS&A to do focus-group research for its clients. More than any single element, Sawyer credits Kennan's brand of interpretative research with revolutionizing media strategy and laying the basis for what he calls the "electronic dialogue" between candidate and constituents. Kennan describes his work this way:
"A public opinion poll gives you one picture of an issue at a particular point in time but has virtually no diagnostic usefulness. Say you do a poll, and 72% of the people say they like Ronald Reagan. Okay, but why? That's a totally superficial response. With focus groups, we put 10 or 12 people in a room and really take a look inside their heads. I mean, we probe them. Usually we start them talking in a wide context and gradually narrow it down, like going from discussing national issues to state issues, then city issues, and so on.
"Then we take the raw data back and conceptualize it. The key thing is, it's not so much what they say that interests us, but what they mean. Not their conclusions, in other words, but how they reach those conclusions that becomes useful. Why? Because political loyalties are highly illogical. They are illogical in much the way brand-name loyalties are. We eat things we know are bad for us. All the while, we pay attention to the advertising. Why? Because the advertising gives us the permission structures we need to behave in ways we know we shouldn't. Including voting for a politician we don't like."
In essence, Kennan found that Byrne didn't have a garbled dialogue going with Chicago voters; she had no dialogue. Worse, there was no strategy to coordinate action and rhetoric during the crunch of the campaign. And so, with the aid of colleagues Scott Miller, Joel McCleary, and Dana Herring, Sawyer set about creating one. As the centerpiece of their strategy, a series of TV spots were prepared. Some focused on issues like fiscal policy and education, others slammed Byrne's opponents. Even the Sawyer team quarreled over internal policy issues. But the cumulative effect of the ad campaign was eye opening. After six months and $1.5 million, Sawyer had taken the fiesty, rumpled, confrontational "Plain Jane" of City Hall and turned her -- in the eyes of many local network watchers, anyway -- into a demure, well-tailored conciliator.
Chicagoans, inured to machine politics and ward-level arm twisting, were amazed -- or appalled. Although Byrne narrowly lost the nomination (not to Daley but to Washington, a force badly underestimated by Sawyer's group, among others), such was the impact of her resurgence that many local commentators characterized it as "the Sawyerization of Jane Byrne," and hung her out to dry because of it. Wrote columnist Mike Royko, "Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm seeing Jane Byrne or the old Mrs. Miniver movie."
Had Sawyer changed Byrne, or merely the way people perceived Byrne? Was it her new dress that mattered, or new confidence in her power to run the city better than the other candidates? The answers, like Chicago politics generally, are not clear cut. Certainly Sawyer's research woke Byrne to her many weaknesses and had a major impact on the way City Hall was run during the latter stages of the campaign. Beyond that, Sawyer insists, he only muffled Byrne's obvious liabilities, not her personality. By reinforcing her campaign promises with policy -- something he couldn't have managed if his only job was to shoot ads for her -- Sawyer altered the whole context of the political dialogue. In fact, he likens the Byrne effort to a similar campaign he orchestrated for Boston's former mayor, Kevin White.
When White ran for reelection in 1979, says Kennan, "poll after poll showed how much the people of Boston hated him. Using focus groups, we looked deeper. We found that White was hated because he was feared, and that he was feared because he was arrogant, aloof, and all-powerful. Could we change that reality? No. So we turned that perception of the man into our main strategy. David and Scott made a series of brilliant commercials for White, the theme of which was, You probably hate me; I'm arrogant, aloof, and all-powerful. But I know how to make this city work. And he won, by a wide margin. How did he win? Voters hadn't found a 'new' Kevin White. What they found was a context in which they could reconcil their negative for him. And that context happened to be the truth: White was a scary guy who got things done. Once we discovered that, and could communicate it effectively, we broke down consumer resistance. On a certain conceptual level, there is absolutely no difference between Kevin White and cottage cheese."
It is worth taking note of Kennan's last observation, because one of the bricks commonly thrown at consultants like Sawyer is that they package and sell politicians like . . . well, like cottage cheese. Never mind that cottage cheese cannot negotiate nuclear arms limitation treaties. Or that a senatorial candidate cannot be pulled from the supermarket shelves and have a little pineapple added, just for flavor. This argument, when advanced, seems to presuppose that voters vote for candidates the way consumers buy dairy products. They don't. Normally, voters "buy" only once: on election day. Candidates do not grab a secondary market share; they win, or they lose.
Yet criticism does help focus how the media consulting industry has emerged. Last November, well after the unveiling of Sawyer's first national campaign spot for Glenn, a five-minute ad showing the Senator talking plainly (and rather innocuously) about America's need to lift its vision to the future, James Reston wrote a column in The New York Times in which he excoriated Glenn's "image-makers" for trying to wrap the candidate in phony tinsel. "The last thing [Glenn] needs," sneered Reston, "is a lot of P.R. types trying to make him clever rather than true."
His sentiments find sharp echoes in other quarters. In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, advertising guru David Ogilvy, otherwise a big fan of research-oriented campaigning, damns political spots as "totally uncontrolled and flagrantly dishonest" and says, "Perhaps the advertising people who have allowed their talents to be prostituted for this villainy are too naive to understand the complexity of the issues." As an example, he cites Jimmy Carter's TV ads of Campaign '76, in which Carter was portrayed as "an innocent newcomer to politics, with no political organization -- a poor farmer with no money."
Bored with what he calls "cheap-shot criticism," Sawyer is quick to counterpunch.
"First of all," he says, "the Reston piece is idiocy because it completely misses the point. We aren't trying to 'make' John Glenn into something he isn't. Glenn's been managing his own image for a long time, thank you, and it would be presumptuous of us to think we could change it overnight. Our job is to take what Glenn is -- a decent, intelligent, middle-of-the-road Democrat with a hero's past and a pretty good vision of the future -- and put that across to the public in the most effective way possible. If I didn't basically like Glenn and what he stands for, I wouldn't -- and couldn't -- work for him. That's what a lot of people outside the business don't understand. They think we approach clients like laundry products. I wish it were that simple, but it isn't.
"Second," he continues,"I think Ogilvy's stuff is absolute bullshit. It's no wonder politicians stopped using advertising firms to do their paid media. Their idea is, if one type of campaign fails you can always try another one next month. In reality, you've got one shot in this game. If you blow it, boom, you're finished. Carter's ads? I would argue exactly the opposite from Ogilvy. I think they were extraordinarily truthful. In fact, I think the entire Carter Presidency proved he was what they said he was: a political newcomer with no organization and no idea of how to operate in Washington."
Where Sawyer and Ogilvy part company is revealing. Ogilvy feels the "complexity of the issues" makes political advertising villainous and unreal. Sawyer argues that precisely because of those complexities, and the process by which they are unraveled, it is more real. Furthermore, he extends his view well beyond the political arena. Four years ago, he says, he talked to Warner Communications about pulling their marketing research efforts under one roof. "They were marketing their films over here, their video games over there," he says, "and dealing with a lot of products whose success relied on consumer attitudes. But they got totally out of touch with those consumers. They did not assemble any coordinated data bank or do demographic targets for media and promotional marketing -- the kind of things we do all the time in political campaigns. They got greedy and out of touch and lost $500 million on Atari."
Sawyer is adamant on the subject of two-way communication. "Corporations are social entities, just as politicians are," he says, "and like politicians, they have a number of constituencies to answer to. Business has never been so exposed to the harsh light of public view. Companies that wait for crisis situations to worry about their public image are already in trouble."
Scott Miller is one of the few stars in the political firmament to have made the leap from product advertising to selling candidates for office. When he was working on accounts at McCann-Erickson Worldwide in the late 1970s, Miller won fame for the work he did on several of the more memorable Lite beer and Coca-Cola commercials, including the Clio-winning vignette of Pittsburgh Steeler Mean Joe Greene handing the kid his football jersey in ex change for a Coke. It was, Miller says, the best job in all of advertising. In 1981, at age 36, McCann-Erickson made him creative director. And that, he avers, was the worst.
"It was pure crisis solving," he explains. "I went from making ads that were watched by 220 million people to deciding who got a potted plant in his office. I hated it. I hated the duplication, I hated the compartmentalization, and I hated the hierarchy. One thing I like about working with David is that ideas earn respect around here, not titles. Even David can't decide what to call himself." In 1982, Miller quit McCann and began splitting his time between DHS&A and consulting to an advertising agency in Boston.
Why political filmmaking? It was not the money; Sawyer guesses that Miller could make "six times as much doing Coke commercials." For Miller, it was the realization that there was more to be learned about mass communications than traditional advertising could ever teach him. Having written spots for Sawyer since 1975 ("it was a hobby I came home to after work, like bowling"), he was fascinated by the interconnectedness of research and product. In ad agencies, he says, the bulk of the research went into finding out whether an ad that had already been made was up to standard; creative people labored in the dark. In politics, according to Miller, there may be chaos, but there is soul.
"We're political junkies who deeply believe in the political process," he asserts. "If we weren't at least slightly romantic about what we do, we couldn't live with ourselves. I remember one candidate who was shopping around for a media consultant. He walked into this office and immediately started talking about how he was going to pull the wool over the voters' eyes. In three minutes, he completely screwed himself with us."
What Miller has found in the political arena is no less wondrous than what Ned Kennan discovered years ago. One of his first campaigns was New York Governor Hugh L. Carey's reelection bid in 1978. According to an early poll, says Kennan, 75% of the voters didn't like Carey, because of his stand on capital punishment.
"I read those figures like everyone else did," he says, "and there was a lot of talk around the office about repositioning Carey to respond to public opinion. Something about the numbers bothered me, though. So I ordered some more polling. You know what I found? Forty-nine percent of those 75% who faulted Carey for his stand on capital punishment didn't know whether he was for or against it. They had no idea what his stand was! And you know what that told me? At least half the ones who said they didn't like Carey felt that way, basically, because they simply didn't like Carey. They thought he was a schmuck. The only reason they tied those feelings to the capital-punishment issue was because some pollster had asked them. And because it sounds much more respectable to say, 'Sure, I don't like the guy's stand on the death penalty' than to say, 'I just don't like the son of a bitch!"
Like Kennan, Miller is a key part of the team concept that Sawyer started putting together in earnest after the 1978 elections. Prior to that, DHS&A had functioned more as a one-man operation, with personnel recruited as they were needed for specific campaigns. Too many campaigns and too few results in '78, however, convinced Sawyer that a more integrated "think tank" model was the way for him to go. He was not looking for soap sellers; he wanted seasoned political operatives who could function independently within the DHS&A umbrella and, when necessary, float from campaign to campaign.
Joel McCleary arrived at Sawyer's doorstep from the ashes of the 1980 Carter campaign. McCleary, now 35, had already been treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, White House deputy assistant for political affairs, and head of the Carter reelection campaign in New York State. Since joining DHS&A, he has been largely responsible for expanding the firm's international accounts. He, too, champions the expanded-team concept.
"Even if we're not involved in a particular project," says McCleary, "we're all constantly throwing ideas at one another. We try to keep the company structured so we can stay totally involved in the campaigns themselves -- not spend 15 minutes on one here and 15 minutes on another over there. These things move at incredible speed. Two weeks before an election we might be polling every day and cutting spots every other day. We can't always afford long analyses. If our client loses a point by Saturday night, we have to devise a strategy to get back two points Tuesday."
McCleary concedes that international waters can be trickier to navigate in. Unlike the domestic market, political ideology is not a big selling tool. What sells is experience, diplomacy, and persistence. Written contracts mean little ("It's like a Wall Street trading floor," he says. "You operate on trust, plus a lot of accounts receivable"); a firm might sink $50,000 to $100,000 into courting a client without success. For these reasons, few take the plunge: Besides Sawyer, the three most visibly doing so are Napolitan, Robert Squier, and David Garth.
Domestic races, in fact, occupy only about half of DHS&A's agenda. Overseas, Sawyer and his lieutenants have hired aboard campaigns in Israel, Venezuela, and Nigeria, among others. Controlling the dynamics of the political conversation in this kind of arena is not always so cut and dried. Witness: Last summer, DHS&A sent a team to the Federal Republic of Nigeria to consult and produce spots for the reelection effort of President Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Thanks in part to those spots, in which Shagari was praised as "liked by all Nigerians," their client won by 4.2 million votes. Following this victory, the Nigerian Ministry of Information asked Sawyer to design a program of on-going communications-management services.
Late in 1983, however, dominoes began to fall. Plagued by a steep decline in oil exports and $14 billion in foreign debt, Nigeria, an OPEC mainstay, looked vulnerable to political collapse. In November, "60 Minutes," arguably the most influential of American TV news programs, broadcast a scathing report on the squalor of Lagos, Nigeria's capital city. A few weeks later, amid charges of massive graft and election fraud, the Shagari government was toppled by military coup. Ron Ciccone, a Sawyer team member, spoke about the risk factor shortly thereafter.
"The fact that we carried out professional services [for Shagari] could be a negative factor," he conceded. "But that's a chance you take when you're working in a country where democracy is an experiment, not an institution.
"The question now," Ciccone continued, "is, given Nigeria's problems, how will [that country] regain the confidence of the world investment community? I believe -- perhaps naively -- that we're still in a good position to help them do that. They need to get the right story out now. They need a better feeling for the power of the international media. Detaining foreign correspondents at the Lagos airport is not smart policy. And they need to reach the right constituencies in the United States, which, without help, they'd be hopeless to even identify. I don't know if we'll be the ones to provide that help. I do know, however, that we didn't go in there like Garth does, film a bunch of TV commercials, and fly home."
Sawyer himself seemed warily optimistic. "Having people here like Ron and Jerry [Funk, a member of the National Security Council during the Carter Administration], who must have 25 years' experience apiece in African affairs, is what this firm is all about. We're known quantities there. I think we'll still have a role to play."
Given the inherent uncertainties of foreign affairs, Sawyer is hoping to lay off bets by recruiting more corporate clients back home. This thrust partly reflects the transitory needs (and uncertain means) of political clients. But it also rests on Sawyer's belief that the methodology of political media consulting has profound implications for other enterprises.
Sawyer is particularly proud of some commercials he made for the United States Olympic Committee. NBC, the network of the 1980 Olympics, had asked him to review some USOC fund-raising spots they were obliged to run as part of the Olympic package. In the words of Alan Baker, an NBC vice-president, these ads, whose theme was "let's beat the Russians," had "pulled appallingly." Sawyer did some digging. One of his findings was that presumed anti-Soviet sentiments were way overrated; Americans were far more interested in championing opportunity for all than they were in beating up on Communists. Another was that more than half the potential Olympics TV audience was made up of women. Since NBC had formulated its entire advertising strategy around male-oriented products like beer and razor blades, a change was clearly in order.
Sawyer shot several ads, including one of a mother watching her teenage daughter practicing figure skating at a deserted rink in the lonely hours of the early morning. The theme: Keep the team going strong, keep the dream going strong. Says Baker, "Because of the boycott, the ads didn't run for very long, so we never measured the real strength of the campaign. But David's was the first study to get at how people really felt about the Olympics. As far as I know, it's still being used."
Sawyer may have a thing for phone booths, but in this election year his form of dialogue with the American electorate is going to be right out there for all to see. Two DHS&A clients, Glenn and Hunt, are already hooked up in high-profile races that should severaly test Sawyer's ability to translate pulse-taking into political capital. In this win-or-lose game, neither is close to being a prohibitive favorite.
Hunt, a well-liked, two-term governor in North Carolina, is up against incumbent Senator Jesse Helms, the darling of the New Right. With a huge campaign war chest, Helms is also the best-funded candidate of anyone contending for Congress. Sawyer believes the Hunt-Helms struggle will be a paradigm of the New Politics. "If the election is fought on strictly political terms," he says, "Hunt should win. He is the moderate conciliator who gets things done. If, on the other hand, it's fought on religious terms, then Helms, the moralistic evangelist, will be very, very tough to beat. You will see all-out warfare down there. The one who controls the overall dynamic -- the context of the political dialogue -- will win. We'll have to be in a position to respond instantly to every development."
Of Glenn, Sawyer concedes that the Ohio senator "is probably a one-in-five shot at best" and that he has suffered from poor staff management and a reluctance to apply the political muscle that builds solid field organizations. In a crowded primary race, Glenn's ability to communicate his political vision through paid media spots may be about his best -- some might say only -- opportunity to dent the market. But the whims of the marketplace can change rapidly. On a certain conceptual level, he might even transcend cottage cheese.