Varnish Remover

The Warner Brothers

Lisa, produced by Trippi, McMahon, and Squier

Of course, they aren’t brothers, but two Warners–John and Mark, Republican and Democrat–are running against each other in Virginia for John’s Senate seat. On the surface, this 60-second ad for Mark is what political consultants call a “bio spot.” Underneath, however, it is an implicit “comparative” in which every favorable item about Mark is an unspoken (for the moment) push off against John. The spot attempts to define the race; it’s a road map to where Mark’s campaign intends to go.

John is older (69) and a career politician (31 years in public office, 18 of them in the Senate); Mark is 41 and a high-tech entrepreneur. The spot begins with Mark today, emphasizing that he’s created a multimillion dollar business. He’s trying, in effect, to give John a gold watch, to cast him as a senator for the past–a strategy often discussed in politics but seldom fully executed, as challengers usually turn to harder-edged negatives. Here Mark is graphically portrayed as the future; the spot tells us this visually, not only with his looks but with its look, right down to the cyberesque chyrons–the writing on screen–and the moving cursor.

Both John and Mark are wealthy. John is Virginia hunt country and the former husband of both a Mellon heiress and Elizabeth Taylor. Mark, the spot tells us, is different: first in his family to college, which was paid for with loans and part-time jobs. His wife Lisa vouches for his effort to keep that old car running and pay off the student loans (polls show that if you had them, you better have paid them). This “common man” theme is also a pre-emptive defense. Mark will spend millions of dollars of his own money against John, the odds-on favorite who also has the clear fund-raising advantage. But Mark wants voters to know that he earned every penny himself.

A skeptical electorate tends to resist claims made in political ads. So as this spot returns to the present, it relies on an increasingly standard technique: It invokes third-party verifiers–independent journalistic sources–to tell voters that Mark deserves credit for “building the information highway.” A second source is used to prop up this improbable claim, while a short-sleeved Mark casually reaches over a workstation in a postmodern office.

Now the spot moves from Mark the private-sector innovator to Mark the public-policy innovator in health care. The images convey a sense of compassion and inclusion: The young guy cares about the elderly and minorities. And again, the implicit comparison with John: Mark has new ideas–and even better for a Democrat, they’re not about big government, but about a “public-private partnership.”

Finally, the spot weaves together the “common man” theme (Mark himself replays it to camera), the “future” theme (watch the blinking cursor), and a visual and verbal appeal to “family” values. With this, Mark is fishing for stray conservative voters increasingly alienated from the twice-divorced, now unmarried John, who is pro-choice on abortion, voted against Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, and adamantly opposed Oliver North’s 1994 Senate bid.

Is that the subliminal message of the slogan: “The Right Warner for Virginia’s Future”? Just kidding–the operative word here is “Future.”

–Robert Shrum