With its close-ups of whirling tires, smash cuts to exotic locales, and rollicking soundtrack, you could easily mistake Valerie Plame’s new campaign ad, “Undercover,” for the trailer for a new spy thriller. That’s the point: The ad reminds viewers that Plame, who is running for Congress in New Mexico, has an action movie background as an undercover CIA officer with “a few scores to settle” with the men involved in leaking her identity. The climax of the 80-second spot is Plame, who has been driving in reverse at high speeds throughout (to show “we’re going backwards on national security, health care, and women’s rights”), pulling off a dramatic J-turn in a cloud of dust.
The ad comes from Putnam Partners, an agency that specializes in memorable political spots for Democrats, including attack ads on Mitt Romney over his “47 percent” comments, former Marine Amy McGrath’s 2017 campaign announcement in front of a fighter jet, and a quirky 2010 commercial for John Hickenlooper, in which the then–gubernatorial candidate takes a shower while still fully clothed. Slate spoke to founder Mark Putnam about the making of the Plame video and his philosophy for political advertising. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Slate: Where did the idea for Plame to drive backward come from?
Mark Putnam: We talked about what it was like to become a CIA agent. What is that whole process like? What is the training that she would go through? She talked about going to “the Farm,” which is the training facility for all CIA employees, and all the different skills that she learned. She jumped out of an airplane, did parachute jumps, obstacle courses, a lot of physical training. Then she also learned how to do evasive driving. I said, “Oh, so is that where you drive backward and do the big spin-around move? That would be a great thing to include in a video at some point.”
Why go with driving backward over jumping out of an airplane?
I thought that would be a great metaphor for where the country’s going and what she’s trying to do, which is turn the country around on a lot of these issues that she cares passionately about. I always try to find the metaphor that I think is going to best fit the candidate and the race that they’re in, because people understand metaphors.
Those metaphors often mean your candidates get very hands-on in their ads. You’ve had Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop swim in the Hudson River. Alaska’s former senator Mark Begich rode a snowmobile. And now, Valerie Plame drives a car backward.
I’ve had candidates do some pretty unusual things, but it’s always in service of trying to communicate their messages. We’re not trying to just make a flashy video for the sake of making a flashy video.
Tell me about the action-thriller aesthetic you chose for “Undercover.”
Basically, I wanted to do something that I thought was cool and that really fit the whole genre of being an undercover CIA operative. That’s where I started.
I wanted it to also feel very New Mexico because that was really important to Valerie. She didn’t want this to look like it was done someplace else. She wanted it to be really rooted in where she lives. That drove a lot of this. Where can we find a good location to do this particular—I don’t want to say stunt. It is a maneuver that she was taught and that she wanted to do accurately. We had to find the right place to do that safely. We found an airstrip in rural New Mexico that we were able to reserve for the day, and we were able to do multiple takes of it.
In terms of the overall look, I wanted aerial shots. I wanted low-to-the-ground shots. We spent all day shooting all the different angles that we would need to make a quick-cutting, high-action-drama visual of that car going down the dirt road and then doing the maneuver.
How did you get those aerial shots?
We had a drone, so we did a lot of drone shots. Anything that you see that’s up higher, that was all shot from the drone. Then we also mounted GoPro cameras on the car for different angles. We had our cameraman inside the car with Valerie so we could show her doing the maneuver from inside the car. It was really important that we showed viewers that she was actually doing this, that this was not a stunt person doing it for her.
The villains of this ad are Republicans—not just Donald Trump but various members of the Bush administration.
Well, a big part of this story were these figures who happened to be Republicans, who had outed her identity as a CIA operative and had really wrecked her career. She had her career taken away from her by people in the Bush administration just through political revenge against her husband. They were necessary elements in the story because it’s exactly what happened.
We want to show how she’s had to face Republican dirty tricks in the past and how she’s determined to go to Washington to really try to set the country on the right track again. Part of that is obviously President Trump as well. She disagrees with just about everything he’s done as president. The fact that he also pardoned Scooter Libby is an interesting part of the story and is just more motivation for her to come to Washington and to really try to set things right.
There’s been some pushback on the claim in the ad that Scooter Libby is the one who leaked Plame’s identity.
You can go to her website and they now have released a statement about this stuff. He absolutely was part of the leaking of her identity. I mean, there were at least six documented reporters who were reached out to by various people within the Bush administration, including Scooter Libby talking to the New York Times directly.
How would you describe your overall philosophy toward making campaign ads?
I have two goals with every ad. The first is to capture the candidate’s personality and their message as faithfully as possible, and then the second goal is to create something that people will want to watch. The trouble with most political advertising is people can’t stand it. They enter this conversation, so to speak, determined to ignore it because they have so much dislike for political communication.
One person who isn’t so fond of political advertising—at least negative political advertising—is John Hickenlooper. You made an unusual ad for him in 2010, where he’s showering with his clothes on.
That one came from a meeting I had with John Hickenlooper where we were talking about just the future ads that we were going to make. “Everybody tells me I have to ride a horse in a political ad,” was one thing that he said, because in the West everybody thinks that you’ve got to show the candidate on a horse. That was one thing I stored away.
He was really adamant about how much he disliked negative ads and was absolutely not going to run a negative ad in the campaign. I was determined to not do what I thought was the typical ad where you have the candidate watching the TV set and the negative ads playing and they hold up the remote and they pause it and they turn to the camera and they start decrying mudslinging. Then I just started thinking, well, how can we demonstrate how much he dislikes political negative attacks? The idea just ran through my head that, well, every time I see one, I feel like I need to take a shower.
From that moment, it took me about 15 minutes to write the script. Once the idea comes, then it’s easy. The hardest part is just coming up with the idea. Like in every ad, Gov. Hickenlooper weighed in on the script language, just like Valerie did on her ad and Jason Kander did when I had him build an assault weapon blindfolded. All of these things, all of these ads are collaborative in nature, but you’ve got to hope you get that thunderbolt from the sky that comes and gives you the idea.
What are your own pet peeves for political ads?
I think most political ads resort to the same usual clichés, the candidate in a hard hat at a construction site, the candidate reading a book to children in the classroom, the candidate talking with seniors at a picnic bench. Voters see these scenes over and over and over again and they just immediately tune out the ad because it looks like literally 10,000 ads they’ve probably seen before over the course of their lifetime. You have this medium where you can capture a personality, you can tell a story, you can move people emotionally. To me, it’s doing a disservice to a candidate if you’re not trying to use every tool at your disposal to make a convincing case for why your candidate is the best person running.
What’s an ad that does that successfully?
Among my favorite ads are for Ronald Reagan, the “Morning in America” ads from 1984. They were made by a now-deceased ad man named Hal Riney. It was the only political thing he ever did. He was much better known for Gallo wine and Saturn cars and airline ads. He had this beautiful writing style and he applied it to those ads. It’s a little bit of a more old-fashioned technique of a narrator, a voice of God narrating the ad, but the writing is beautiful and the imagery is beautiful.
You make ads for a lot of Democrats. Would you ever make an ad for a Republican?
I ultimately will only work for people that I really believe in. I’m a strong Democrat. I work for Democrats of all stripes. I don’t know how you can do this year after year if you don’t really believe in the people you’re working for.
Is there any ad out there for a Republican that you thought was well executed, even if you didn’t necessarily agree with it?
I liked an ad that they did, “Squeal,” for Joni Ernst’s Senate campaign, about pigs and making them squeal in Washington. It’s clever and humorous and a little bit shocking. And there’s a phenomenal ad for Gov. [Greg] Abbott in Texas that was done for his reelection. It was made by a firm called Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm. It’s an incredibly powerful story that had to do with his disability from being paralyzed and being an inspiration to younger people. Just phenomenal.