Game Changer: Creating Simple, Effective Ads for Joe Biden

Creating Simple, Effective Ads for Joe Biden

As a branding professional, I am fascinated by politicians. The worst and occasionally best of actors, they do their work in heavy stage makeup, under harsh public spotlights. Changing shades like chameleons, sculpting lines like comedians, they practice stagecraft that ranges from anxious improv to self-righteous kabuki. It’s performance art which succeeds by subtraction (and often, too, cynics might say, by distraction). Smart politicians streamline their contours for optimal performance, reshaping themselves into characters with well-defined features, at once familiar and fresh.

This election season has many of us thinking about Joe Biden. At times cantankerously complaining and at others drearily discursive, he often sounds like he’s brought a stack of dusty Cliff’s Notes pages to a knife fight. As the words tumble out of him we wait and watch, hoping to see the Joe we know. When he challenges a heckler to a push-up contest, it rings untrue: it’s just an old guy acting feisty, telling us he’s got game. But he’s only talking it, not walking it.

Many recall the carefully curated debut of George W. Bush the presidential candidate, two decades ago. As a field of potentials jostled, the former Texas governor was rumored to join the presidential race soon. Suspense mounted. There were whispers of his privileged pedigree and his party-hardy college career. But all doubts were stifled by a highly stylized branding campaign repositioning Bush as the quintessential frontiersman, a John Wayne on horseback at his ranch, Stetson tilted just so against the late afternoon sun. Here was George Bush the cowboy, doing honest work, clearing brush.

What about Biden? As talk of his age and his son swirl around, Biden’s ads do little to change the subject. Meanwhile, his campaign website boasts the questionably phrased slogan, “Our best days still lie ahead.” “Lie”? Really? It may be time for a reboot.

I get tired of waiting for salespeople to get a clue about what their audiences need to see and hear. So I wrote Joe Biden an ad. Like the man himself, it’s nothing tricky.

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Joe Biden is playing tennis. His game face on, he’s the picture of concentration. This is the Joe we know, the Joe we’ve been waiting to see. He’s as lean and focused and sturdily wholesome as ever. His polo shirt and white shorts are of similar trusty stock: well worn but still crisp and serviceable. He has just enough of a tan to let us know that he came by it incidentally and honestly.

There is a durability, an integrity, and a consistency to this man – from the way his shoes fit him to the hair on his head, all perfectly natural and very nearly as winning as his smile. He simply belongs here; he belongs, in fact, anywhere he is. He is the best of us, utterly guileless and at ease with himself. This is Joe Biden the genuine article, indelibly authentic and eternal. He’s not just the American icon we’ve always believed him to be; he’s the American Dream we’ve wanted, needed and expected him to be. He’s the ideal specimen grown up from a seed in hardscrabble Scranton. Early on, he learned how to find his way around a wood shop with his father; and soon enough around a woodshed with any neighborhood bully. From a boyhood Tom Sawyer painting every square inch of picket fence white to the successful young senator flashing teeth every bit as brilliant, he leapt aboard that Amtrak train every morning for decades, bringing his earnest New England intentions to Washington. There’s a steadiness to this man, who has been a brand since long before we ever routinely spoke about branding.

And now here is Joe – the Joe we all know – playing tennis. He loves the game, and it loves him back.

And now we hear the voiceover, as court play continues. It’s a familiar voice we know we can trust. It’s the voice of a man of a certain age, a bit scratched and weathered but still here, still seaworthy. It’s the voice of Joe Biden, of course, and it tells us just the sort of inspirational story we expect to hear: of a man who’s always worked hard for our nation, thinking about the important issues facing us and eagerly reaching across the aisle – “meeting people more than halfway, because that’s just what we Americans have always done” – to pass groundbreaking legislation that has made our lives better. He tells us how proud he is of this great nation, of how far we’ve come by working together. How he’s been around long enough to grow and change with America, and how lucky and grateful he’s been to live in a country where that’s possible; in a country, in fact, where anything is possible. “We can dream big dreams here,” Joe Biden tells us, “and we can still make them come true.”

The voiceover continues: “I’m running for president because of you, all of you, all of us – and because of what we all have in common: we love our families, our country and our world, and we want everyone to be treated fairly. We want healthcare and education that are affordable, public spaces that are safe, and air we can breathe. Water we can drink. People paying their fair share, not gaming the system. We want a government that’s accountable, from top to bottom, and friends we can count on. We want policies that make sense, and smart people watching our dollars and cents. Those are good things to want, and I know we can work together to have them again. We want to agree on some things, be civil when we can’t, and just get along and see the best in each other, as we always have. We want to hope, and we want to dream with enough practicality to make those dreams come true.

“But there’s a problem now. People finding more to fight about than to agree on. Partisan politics has made everything into a game.”

This is the big moment in the ad. After we’ve watched him running easily around the court, volleying comfortably and smoothly, Joe tosses his tennis racket down. We see it clatter in slow motion. And then Joe Biden faces the camera, no longer speaking in voiceover. “This is no game, folks. There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, but there’s a time to be serious and get things right like we’ve always done. Because our families and our future are depending on it. That’s why I’m here, asking for your vote. Let’s make a change for a better country…together. Let’s put America back together.”

And with that, Joe Biden jogs across the court and out of focus to shake hands with his opponent. He hasn’t spoken about his age or his health, but he doesn’t have to now: he has just dispelled any concern about either, while confirming our image of the Joe Biden we all know – a no-nonsense man of the people who likes everyone, and speaks clearly to everyone. Whether it’s called “straight talk” or “no malarkey,” it’s the same rhetoric that every politician or salesman wants us to believe, even if it isn’t often convincing: trust me, I will tell you the truth. I will do right by you.

To be clear, there’s nothing scintillating about Joe Biden’s speeches. This is not great oratory, and there are no grand flourishes. This is meat-and-potatoes stuff. It’s boilerplate, with no sharp elbows. Working Class Joe’s appeal has always been about kitchen table issues, and it’s likely that’s what terrifies other, richer pretenders to the populist mantle. Joe is the kind of guy who will stop to talk with you on the street, and clap you on the back and say, “Let’s go,” when you invite him home to supper. No need to ask about any dietary restrictions: Joe will be glad to have a bit of everything. Flashing that trademark heartland grin, he’ll apologize for his boardinghouse reach as he goes for the butter or passes the relish. He’ll talk and he’ll listen, he’ll help clear the table, and he’ll have that cup of coffee. He’s in no hurry. And as for that slice of pie? You know he won’t care if it’s homemade or Mrs. Smith’s. He’ll be sincerely grateful for it, and for “the good conversation with you good people, who let a guy like me take up their time and eat all their food.” Humble, self-effacing and gracious, Joe Biden will excuse himself just like that, leaving behind Norman Rockwell memories of a regular Joe, “just like me and you.”

That’s our impression of Joe Biden, anyway. And seeing this aw-shucks, unpretentious guy breaking bread and bantering easily across a just-big-enough table in a cozy, unpretentious kitchen? Well, that could be another voiceover ad which would bolster Biden’s blue collar image. At some point, maybe as Joe, his shirtsleeves casually rolled up, heads to the kitchen with a plate, he turns to the camera again: “Tell me something. Isn’t this just about the best thing you can think of? Just having dinner with friends and family, and not worrying about what someone might say. Respecting each other. Because we’re all in this together. Because we have so much in common. Anyway, that’s how it should be: everybody at the table. Folks, this is what really matters. And I’m asking for your vote to help us get there. Let’s put America back together.”

Successful ads provide clear contrast with any competitors. They demonstrate conviction, and inspire confidence. They find common ground with the consumer. In these ads, there is a necessary recognition of schisms and fractures, but a reassertion of community and commonality of purpose. Ultimately, they point to positivity, and promote agreement over argument.

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We live in a world of advertising. We all have something to sell, and the sale begins with the image we project. Among the fields of candidates in any presidential election, the one that stands out – the one that wins, most often – is the one we think we’ve gotten to know, the one who has the clearest and most consistent image. “Someone I want to have a beer with,” we might say, or “someone who may not be like me, but who likes me.” Someone we think we understand.

If a public image is not clear or kept up – if it should become more tarnished than burnished – then the politician may be in real trouble. It can happen so quickly, too: a whiff of hypocrisy that’s suddenly a house fire. Think of George H.W. Bush checking his watch at a debate, looking like an elitist with better places to be. Or Governor Chris Christie, the miserable miser who closed a beach so he could plant himself there in pathetic triumph, wedged uncomfortably into a chair. The impression Hillary Clinton ultimately made was more verbal than visual: that “basket of deplorables” line haunts us all with its ugly overtones of class warfare. Over time we may forget what adulterous governor claimed to be “hiking the Appalachians,” but Senator Clinton will always have her basket.

One very false move can confirm our worst suspicions, and reduce the most charismatic of characters to a mere caricature. And while that’s a terrible fate for any politician, being indistinct and unmemorable is a lousy fate, too.

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether the Joe Biden in our minds lines up with the Joe Biden we see and hear now. Nevertheless, here are these ads I thought up. They’re about a good, honest guy who’s still got plenty of game.

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