As someone who’s hoping that Al Gore will win, I’m distressed that an old college friend of mine has joined the opposition. No, I didn’t go to Yale with Dick Cheney. But I did go to Carleton with Bill Hillsman. Two weeks ago Hillsman took over the Nader for President media shop. Who is Bill Hillsman? He is the greatest political adman who ever lived. It was Hillsman’s ad campaigns that turned an obscure college professor named Paul Wellstone into a U.S. senator and helped professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura become a governor. Now, even Hillsman can’t make Ralph Nader president. But he has exactly the skills necessary to turn Nader from a campaign curiosity into a candidate formidable enough to elect George W. Bush.
Nader is currently polling nearly 10 percent of the vote in California. That’s almost enough to take the biggest state out of Gore’s Sure Thing column. And according to a recent piece in the New Republic, if Nader gets just 3 percent to 5 percent in a handful of other states—Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—Gore loses.
Hillsman has twice demonstrated the ability to use 30-second TV spots and 15-second radio spots to totally erase the advantages of incumbency, money, track record, and organization. And he can do this quickly. He came aboard the Ventura campaign only one month before Election Day. Hillsman’s ads are so good that they take on a life of their own in the media and around the water cooler. That means his candidate’s ad dollars go much further than they’re supposed to. Hillsman’s ads also create unprecedented interest in his candidates among infrequent and first-time voters. These politically unengaged people may see an ad and then go hear Nader speak. And a Nader speech can be very compelling—the first time you hear it. Hillsman’s Ventura campaign generated the highest turnout in the nation in 1998. I wouldn’t bet against him doing the same for Nader in those aforementioned key states.
Hillsman’s ads succeed because they don’t look like everybody else’s political ads, and in fact don’t look like political ads at all. Turn down the sound on “Looking for Rudy,” the celebrated spot in which Wellstone searched Minnesota in vain for his ostensibly Washington-enmeshed incumbent opponent, and you could be watching Roger and Me. Do that with his hilarious Ventura “action figure” ad in which a little boy with a plastic 6-inch Jesse toy defeats a like-sized Special Interest Man, and you could be watching a Saturday morning Mattel spot.
Although it’s not as famous as these ads, there’s another spot Hillsman crafted for Ventura that Nader probably has already gone to school on. Early in his work for Ventura, Hillsman decided it was essential to counter the argument that Ventura couldn’t win, so why vote for him? Hillsman’s radio spot had Ventura saying in his trademark gravel voice, “Once upon a time in America, there was a third party candidate running for major office. He was a big man. Six feet 4 inches tall. He used to wrestle in his younger days. And the people voted for him because they believed in what he stood for. So in 1860, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. …”
If you’re a Gore supporter and you want something more to worry about, it’s this. Bill Hillsman’s previous political smash successes have come in Minnesota. An unassuming guy, he has been content until now (except for one brief stint as a Perot consultant) to stay with local and regional politicians and leave the national Svengali stuff to the Carvilles and the Morrises. And in fact, he’s viewed by these East Coast heavies as a bit of a rube. (Carville is not a rube, but he plays one on TV.) Wellstone even replaced Hillsman with a D.C. pro, Mandy Grunwald, for his 1996 re-election bid. So I think Hillsman is motivated now to show that he can play with the big kids. He will work extra hard to show up Al Gore’s old ad hand, Bob Shrum, on the national stage.
What’s special about Hillsman campaigns is that they infuse something into the relationship between government and the governed that every healthy relationship needs—honest fun. Gore’s people can hope that this will be a hopeless challenge in the case of Ralph Nader, who is not perceived as a fun kinda guy. But the Gore folks shouldn’t count on that—after all, Wellstone isn’t a lot of fun either. And if Hillsman manages to turn Ralph Nader into a fun guy, that will leave poker-faced Al as nothing but a figure of fun—which is very different.