Varnish Remover

Go Ahead, Give Your Opponent the Finger

No. 1, produced by the team of Message & Media and Struble, Oppel, and Donovan Communications for Jim McGreevey for Governor.

This is a great political spot: It’s creative, it’s fun, and it’s effective–or at least, the first half of it is. No. 1, produced by the team of Message & Media and Struble, Oppel, and Donovan Communications, goes full tilt at New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who’s heavily favored to win re-election.

This isn’t a frontal attack, if you’re being literal–the spot shows only the back of her (look-alike’s) head. No. 1 turns Whitman’s instant-recognition advantage against her: One look at the distinctive do and tony threads and New Jersey voters are bound to think they’ve pinned the tail on the right donkey. The spot also plays off Whitman’s relentless cheerleading and ad nauseam bragging about being No. 1: She brandishes a Styrofoam hand emblazoned with “#1” and a New Jersey map. Index finger proudly raised, the hand’s relentless bobbing is meant to grate and does a fine job of it.

Effectively asking if Whitman’s satisfaction translates to yours, the ad emphasizes the separation between this patrician politician and the voter. Her voice is annoyingly WASPish, and she seems to be standing on a stage, one level above the hoi polloi. No. 1 reiterates what people already know–Whitman’s family’s been privileged for generations; simply put, she’s out of touch, and her No. 1 and your No. 1 aren’t the same thing. She doesn’t know what her opponent’s polling obviously shows–that voters think New Jersey is on the wrong track. How can this be, with the economy on the upswing and the Whitman income-tax cut, her centerpiece promise four years ago, now fully in place? As the narrator points out, unsourced headlines and a sharp fade to sepia stressing the point, the tax cut came with a price tag: “We’re No. 1 in property taxes” (which rose when income-tax rates dipped); No. 1 in “pension-bond debt” (there was a firestorm of criticism when Whitman borrowed from pension reserves to pay for the tax cut); and finally, No. 1 in car-insurance rates, the sleeper issue of the ‘97 Jersey race–Whitman was late in responding to it, and it’s eroded her lead.

The spot now becomes abruptly conventional, showing the Democratic nominee Jim McGreevey backdropped by the U.S. flag in what appears to be an official setting. Even so, the visual contrasts continue. McGreevey’s in his shirtsleeves, not in Armani; he’s looking us in the eye, not giving us the back of his head (and his policy) while playing to the crowd; he speaks our language–even if it sounds formulaic (“we need to change our priorities”), it isn’t Whitman’s mechanical palaver. His denunciation of gimmicks notwithstanding, the spot offers one of its own–a distracting back-and-forth between color and black-and-white that’s pure ploy. His issues–“cut waste … improve our schools … take on the insurance companies”–tested well in polls and, wiser for his predecessors’ experiences, he is careful to avoid specifics.

McGreevey here is the un-Whitman: He doesn’t reek of old money, and he isn’t a snob. He’s a protest candidate who–and perhaps this is why the second half of the ad is so ho-hum–is safely bland. If viewers don’t forget the first half, this sassy spot might actually cut through the New Jersey market, where it’s notoriously difficult to convert viewers into engaged and interested voters. Whitman is still the favorite, but if No. 1 has its way, voters will see her as too much of a good thing.

–Robert Shrum