Varnish Remover

Fast Talk

Political commercials ring true when they create a nexus between who the candidate is and what the public is feeling–or what the public can be made to feel if the ads touch its deeper emotions. The best ads even convert weaknesses into strengths.

Faster Paced Paul, produced by Bill Hillsman of North Woods Advertising for the re-election campaign of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., strives to do just that. It’s a sequel of sorts to Hillsman’s humorous 1990 spots, in which the homely Wellstone proclaimed that despite his lack of PAC money, he would win, because “I’m better looking.” He wasn’t, but he did.

Wellstone’s new spot capitalizes on the charge that he’s too intense, too frenetic, by opening with him speed-talking directly into the camera. “We’ve gotten a lot done together over the past six years!” he says. “So I’m going to have to talk fast!”

He ducks out of the frame and reappears in front of a crowd of college students to take credit for beating back cuts in education. Message: The cheering students are there because Wellstone won the fight. The speed-talk conveys the impression that Wellstone is getting a lot done, and disposes of the charge that he’s ineffective. It also recasts the ideological loner as a team player who reached his goals “together” with the citizens.

Paradoxically, Wellstone’s fast talk makes us listen more closely than we might otherwise have done. The hammy performance also shows that the senator doesn’t take himself too seriously: His goofiness becomes a symbol of his achievements. He even dresses the part–the geeky short-sleeved shirt of an engineer’s workday, not the senatorial garb of the high and mighty. (We’ll see snooty suits a few scenes from now, but not on him.)

The Keystone Kops, quick-cut style continues. Wellstone’s next scene shows him with seniors, and takes advantage of the ingrained public belief that the Gingrich Congress has tried to cut Medicare and Social Security. Wellstone has to do little more than utter the words to convince viewers and earn a new round of applause.

But as Wellstone races on, there’s no applause from the cigar-smoking, well-suited, well-padded lobbyists and politicians gathered at a well-stocked table. They’re sitting; he’s standing and moving. Wellstone’s opponent this year, former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz whom he beat in 1990, is never mentioned. As the incumbent, Wellstone positions himself as a challenger running against the system–and for reform and term limits.

Wellstone’s next stop is outside a supermarket. When this shot was filmed, the minimum wage hadn’t yet passed the Senate, and Wellstone’s dialogue reflects that. Instead of re-shooting the segment, the filmmakers use a marquee to flash the news that Wellstone’s won the minimum-wage fight. This update reinforces the message that he makes things happen: Look at what he’s achieved just while the spot’s been in production.

As he hurriedly explains that he has more to do, Wellstone makes the campaign an extension of his fight “for working families.” He boards the old green school bus that he rode through his 1990 campaign, when he was the underfunded, insurgent college professor. This finish implies that he hasn’t changed, and inoculates him against Republicans who claim he’s now just another senator chasing a lot of campaign contributions.

The bus drives away from the scene and toward the voters, an American flag flapping–this liberal is patriotic. “He stands up for working families, but never stands still”–as the tag line sums up the images. Wellstone, the spot admits, is impatient, frantic, maybe too hot for the media age. And he’s cool because he’s uncool, the spot argues; and he’s effective and he’s intense, but for the right causes.