A political advertising contest reveals more about our creative department than its politics.

October 16, 2008

Have you ever had to sell something you didn’t use, wouldn’t use, or, the product being so foul, you couldn’t get behind for love or money? I ask because a provocative contest has tested my creative department’s resolve.

By draw from a hat, participating agencies in Chicago were asked to create propaganda for either Barack Obama or John McCain. The Sun Times would then publish the ads and have an online vote. As fate would have it, Euro RSCG drew the Republican nominee. Relishing a good challenge, I briefed our entire creative department –some 60 souls- beseeching them to “let out their inner Republicans.” I knew few here supported the man for President, but I didn’t think that would stop most of them from participating in the contest.

Based on the turnout, I’m now certain Euro RSCG is not a Republican stronghold. Including me, a grand total of six employees made ads for John McCain.

Working at Leo Burnett, I got briefed to write copy for Phillip Morris. I believe the product was Benson & Hedges. I can’t recall if I still smoked but I knew, as we all did, that smoking cigarettes could kill you. I remember a slight disturbance from my conscience but nothing that prevented me from copywriting. If anything, I was more put off by the unlikelihood of creating good work. For starters, whatever we did was going to have a big honking warning from the Surgeon General (“cancer box”) plastered across it. In the end, we produced a handful of print ads, mostly bad.

But was the act of creating them bad? Should I have refrained from working on a delivery system for nicotine? Should my agency have done the same?

In an interview, Alex Bogusky recently claimed to be a mercenary. Despite using Apple, his agency took on Microsoft as a client. For reasons known only to him, Alex also penned a diet book, even though one of his biggest clients is Burger King. Moral conflict? That’s for pussies. Mercenaries follow the money. Yet, I wonder, would Crispin, Porter & Bogusky (co-creators of the much-ballyhooed anti-smoking “truth” campaign), be caught dead selling cigarettes?

What about Senator John McCain? You see the propaganda I made for him up top, a snide response to Obama’s global appeal. One of my writers called it despicable and offensive. I told her it was only a contest. Of course she’s right; the ad is offensive. Propaganda often is. For what it’s worth, I’m not likely to vote for Senator McCain. I think brand USA needs a more enlightened persona. But does doing the despicable poster make me a mercenary?

Below is the actual ad we submitted to the Chicago Sun Times. Credits: Regan Kline, Jason Tisser


19 Responses to “A political advertising contest reveals more about our creative department than its politics.”

  1. The actual ad you submitted is great. I hope to God the McCain campaign doesn’t get hold of it.

    But yeah, the top ad makes no one a mercenary — it’s just despicable ignorance that I’d actually expect from McCain supporters (caveat: I realize you made it for just that reason, and with full knowledge of the fact).

  2. Jason Fox said

    Dig the ad you submitted. Quite prescient of Ronan’s comment.

    My former ECD’s agency, The Escape Pod, drew Obama. He sent me their preliminary idea knowing full well my conservative leanings. Why? Because he knew I’d give him feedback that would make his work stronger. That’s what you do for a friend. Haven’t seen the finished piece though — I’ll have to search online.

    As far as being a mercenary, I’ve avoided that route. I’ve turned down work and withdrawn myself from consideration for full-time gigs based on an agency’s client list. But that’s me. I don’t harass others for going a different route. Granted, to me, being a mercenary means taking on a client you find morally questionable. It’s not like shopping at Target while doing work for Wal-Mart. Which I did.

    Finally bought your book. I’ll let you know when the review is up on AdHole. Because I know you’ve been waiting anxiously.

  3. SRP said

    Great opinions, guys.
    Frankly, I’m surprised my terrorist ad hasn’t sparked reactions. Late October. I think we’re all a bit jaded. Fox- You’re damn right; I am looking forward to your Adhole review. If you check the book’s website, you’ll see I’m posting reviews, including yours.
    As always, thanks for your readership and comments.

  4. Sandra said

    The ad you submitted is great! IMHO it has just one “flaw”: with a very small “change” could also be an ad for Obama… 😉

    About your thoughts of being a mercenary: many years ago being a copywriter (and looking for a job) I got a very good offer to work for the political campaign of someone I despised (and later became the president of my country for many years, Mr. Carlos Menem). I passed on the offer. A colleague told me that “you should be more mercenary, at the end of the day is a product like any other”.

    I never agreed with that vision. I did work for cigarettes before and never had a problem, maybe because I am a smoker but more probably because I think that smoking is a personal choice. But, hey, I am for euthanasia too so “live and let die” is my motto.

    Anyway the point here is when are you a mercenary. I never felt that using a brand and working for the competitor was being “a mercenary”. If I do have strong feelings against a brand I surely try to avoid working for it (if possible) just because I think my work may be blindsided. That’s all. But we are talking brands. You may like Apple but you know there are some good reasons to buy Microsoft.

    Now, working to get someone elected that you don’t think is a good candidate, that is mercenary. It’s not a brand, is a way of thinking and acting that will affect everyone, the ones that vote for him and the ones that didn’t.

    Now, your ad doesn’t make you a mercenary. It’s just a contest, and the very first ad is just a bad one… :)) The second -again- is so good that could be signed by the “competition” and it also says a lot about you: in fact it says that you are not a McCain follower!

    Now make all of us a favor, add a little “change” to it and post both options in your site. I would gladly digg the second version!

  5. Personally, I think the terrorist ad is not something that would ever come from an actual campaign, and the fact that you came up with that communicates to me your opinion of Republicans, and nothing about the candidate. McCain has enough of a record so the “anyone-but-my-opponent” strategy is unnecessarily weak. Now and then I’ll see something along those lines in some chain email, but I dismiss it immediately. The second ad actually reveals a real and legitimate reason to vote for McCain, his willingness to cross the aisle. Applying this to the mercenary question, I think if we choose to undertake creating advertisng for a product, service or cause in which we don’t believe, we should take care to work outside our biases.

  6. Bernasri said

    Well said, Chuck.
    The top ad is so mean it really could only come from the extreme right, though we seem to be seeing more of them in October.

  7. Brand Obama is too strong for the mean-spirited right to defeat. Barring a shocking event, he will be the next President. But -and this is the point of my post- if McCain solicited our agency for a paid campaign would we take it on? I think yes. I’m also fairly certain most big agencies would do so as well. Business is business. It would be really interesting to see if an African-American agency like Burrell would accept McCain as a client. Or, for that matter, any agency not run by old, rich, white men. Thoughts?

  8. Jason Fox said

    You know, if the Republican base were really just a bunch of old, rich, white men, they’d never win an election. Generally speaking, it’s the old, rich, white men of the party that annoy the real conservatives the most.

  9. mexi said

    The mean-spirited right? By that do you mean the entire republican base? Or that mean-spiritedness can only come from the right and not the left? I certainly hope not. As one of a handful of folks at the office who chooses not to drink of the Obama Kool-Aid, I encounter my daily dose of mean spirits from the extremely vocal left. And I have to say, that for a group that preaches intolerance, the lefties are anything but. They talk about free speech as long as you agree with them.

    I am actually amazed that as advertisers, we have fallen for the Obama brand. I see it as nothing more than a well-packaged, well marketed campaign. People have taken him at face value and have relinquished their ability to discern and scrutinize—having been so mesmerized by his smooth rhetoric. It certainly has not hurt him to have the entire MSM on his side constantly extolling his greatness. Talk about a loss of journalistic integrity.

    I see an interesting connection between Obama’s campaign and your book. In your book, God looks for an agency. In his campaign, Obama borrows from Messianic cues to essentially market himself as God. He is the Hope and Change we have been waiting for. )Remember Christ refers to Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Farrakhan has even referred to Obama as the Messiah. Can you imagine the uproar if any Republican candidate was ever referred to as a Messiah by some evangelical preacher?

    To answer your original question, had we been selected to promote Obama I would have worked on it, given that it was just a contest. But I would definitely ask off a real client’s business if it conflicted with my personal morality. And I would hope that it would have no professional repercussion.

  10. SRP said

    You make good points and a solid case for the pernicious moral high ground that the left is taking in this election. I don’t mind looking at Obama as “Hope” (PS: you’re right -God forbit we were talking about a “Great White Hope,”) but when folks refer to him as a Messiah I get worried and annoyed.

  11. Ben Berzai said

    Wouldn’t this work better for McCain?

  12. Ben Berzai said


  13. Jason Fox said

    Mexi – Well said. I’ve been in your shoes before. And hope to be again.

  14. theescapepod said


    we drew obama. arguably an easier sell. winking smiley face!

    still no word on when it’s going to run. getting a bit worried at this point to be honest. we got plates to sell!




  15. Andy Webb said

    Another fan of Mexi’s comments here. Although Obama has moved somewhat to the center, I fear a Democratically controlled Congress and White House will usher in a new period of socialism or feudalism, however you want to look at it. If you work hard for a living, hang on to your wallets.

  16. SRP said

    Love the plates, Vinny. McCain can use them to eat Crow when he loses.
    I wanted so bad for the republicans to put something formidable together because I agree with your comments. I don’t like Big Government. I don’t like the “evening the playing field” pseudo-socialist policies of Obama. The problem is I don’t like McCain/Palin even more.

  17. Mexi said

    Snfrew and Jason I feel Better knowing that there are more politically sensible folks out there in the Industry. Steffan you too can do it. Cmon!! Since you especially have much for pbama and friends to spread.

  18. mexi said

    I apologize for the blackberry induced typos above. I meant:

    Andy and Jason, in first line and Obama in the last line.

    Have you seen how AdAge has named Obama Marketer of the Year? No surprise there. Style over substance.

  19. Andy Webb said


    That’s cool. I answer to either Andrew or Snfrew.

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