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Backstory: Reducing the campaign snooze factor

By Alexandra StarrCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 2006


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.

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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."