MINNEAPOLIS — If you own a television, you probably think of the nonstop barrage of political advertising during election years as the equivalent of taxes: It's the price you pay for living in a robust democracy. But Bill Hillsman, a Minneapolis-based advertising executive, has shown that election commercials can be more entertaining than the sitcoms they interrupt. Over the past 15 years he's crafted some of the most unusual and attention-getting commercials in politics, transforming former Gov. Jesse Ventura into a Rodin sculpture and turning current Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman into an action figure.
He's already enlivened the Connecticut Democratic senate primary with one of the first ads he cut for businessman Ned Lamont, who is mounting a strong primary challenge to Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
While the ad begins conventionally with the candidate sitting in his living room explaining his position on healthcare, through the window a crowd can be seen growing outside, led by the liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos.
Suddenly, Mr. Moulitsas bursts through the door, exclaiming: "We saw the commercial and we love it!" Mr. Lamont protests that he's still taping the ad; Moulitsas retorts that "everyone is here, ready to go. So hurry it up!" The candidate, bewildered, gives the traditional "I'm Ned Lamont, and I approve this message" – but it's punctuated with the crowd yelling, "And so do we!"
Mr. Hillsman hit the scene in 1990, when he designed ads that helped an obscure college professor – Paul Wellstone – defeat a sitting Republican senator, despite being outspent seven-to-one.
His humorous riffs on Jesse Ventura's image in 1998 helped stage one of the most stunning upsets in American politics. The former prowrestler and radio talk-show host managed to defeat two of the gopher state's most established politicians and win the governorship as an independent. And in the 2000 presidential race, Hillsman helped portray Ralph Nader as the candidate of the people – versus the monied special-interest class – in a parody of the MasterCard "Priceless" ads. (Promises to special interest groups? $10 billion. Finding out the truth? Priceless." The "priceless" image showed Nader working over a pile of documents.)
This campaign season, in addition to Lamont and Mr. Friedman, the former "Texas Jewboys" lead singer, he's working for Christy Mihos, a wealthy businessman who bolted the Massachusetts GOP this year to run for governor as an independent.
Underdogs are his speciality. Candidates with little name recognition or money often have to take risks to get elected, and that makes them a natural fit for Hillsman's whimsy. A sign in his airy, spacious offices here says "the only safe thing to take is a chance." It's a directive he takes seriously. "When you work with [the kind of] candidates I generally do, who oftentimes don't have a lot of resources, you have to do something distinctive," he explains. "If you're doing the same thing as everyone else, it's just not going to be effective."
While mainstream political consultants bristle at what they consider Hillsman's arrogant swipes, no one denies his effectiveness.
"He can work really well with unorthodox candidates," says Steven Schier, a Carleton College political scientist. "The Wellstone and Ventura races were very close, and Hillsman's advertisements cut through the media clutter and garnered attention."
Hillsman's ads generate chatter because they're so unlike typical campaign fare. Consider Hillsman's so-called "Thinker" ad: a body double for Jesse Ventura posed as the Rodin sculpture as the aria "Casta Diva" played in the background. A voice-over bestowed the candidate – known by the wrestling nickname "The Body" – with a new moniker: "The Mind."
Regardless of whether voters believed the metamorphosis (they probably didn't) – the ad was so quirky that TV stations played it during their news reports, generating free publicity the underfunded campaign desperately needed.
A similar dynamic emerged around the "Looking for Rudy" spot that Hillsman did for the late Senator Wellstone. The ad – a spoof on Michael Moore's film "Roger and Me" – was voted the most effective political advertisement in history by the readers of Campaign magazine. Designed to pressure Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz into debating Wellstone, the ad had portrayed the challenger barging into Senator Boschwitz's campaign office trying to find his competitor. Hillsman says the campaign paid to run the ad once, but it was replayed so often in the media that Boschwitz debated him.
Part of the reason Hillsman's ads are so different from the traditional campaign spot is that he's spent most of his career working for businesses such as the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team and the Mall of America, the nation's largest indoor shopping mall. "What I've done is bring modern communication to political campaigns," he says, deriding mainstream political advertisements as "stuck in the 1970s."
His commercial background aside, it's hard to imagine a personality like Hillsman doing paint-by-numbers ads. Despite thinning brown hair growing gray at the temples, he has a buoyant, childlike enthusiasm.
He greets a visitor with a wave through his SUV's sunroof. That's not his preferred mode of transport: This summer he hopes to commute by motorcycle between campaigns in Connecticut and Massachusetts – consolation for missing the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, he says.
While Hillsman has received accolades – he won the prestigious American Marketing Association's EFFIE awards for both the Wellstone and Ventura campaigns – some of the industry's mandarins say it'll never become the norm.
"He's been lecturing everyone for 10 years about the secret of his success," says David Axelrod, a Chicago-based consultant who counts Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois among his clients. "I think he's a creative guy. But his style wouldn't work with everyone."
Hillsman bristles at the suggestion that he can only design ads for oddballs: "I haven't had the opportunity to work on many incumbent races, but we would use a different strategy in that case."
Still, the client he seems most excited about this year is the very unconventional Friedman, who in addition to a country western music career (one of his standards: "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed") has published a couple dozen books, among them a number of mystery novels. As he did with Ventura, Hillsman has made advertisements with Friedman as an action figure, fielding questions from reporters in a news conference. The rationale for his candidacy? "I can't do any worse than the guys already in there."
Hillsman makes a similar pitch for his own services: In a world of sepia-toned political ads, his work is simply more fun and effective. "Political advertisers act like popular culture doesn't exist," he says. "That's a big reason why our ads stand out."
Hillsman won't work for just anyone. He favors progressive politicians and will only take on a race if it advances an agenda he agrees with and if he sees a way for his candidate to win. (The exception was the 2000 Nader race: He says his aim was to help the candidate get the 5 percent of votes needed to qualify for public funding in the 2004 race.)
Hillsman has pulled out wins under some very inauspicious conditions, but it's safe to speculate that even if he doesn't help stage another Ventura-type victory, many TV watchers will be charmed enough to sit through his ads, rather than lunge for the remote control.