Monday, April 18, 2022

A Long Time Ago in a Congressional District Far, Far Away


Kentucky's 5th Congressional District

In my marketing career, I had only one experience as a professional political operative when the advertising agency I worked for was hired to make and place TV commercials for a candidate running in a primary.

The office in question was Representative for Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District. The 5th is in the southeastern corner of the state. Then and now, the district is rural and sparsely populated. In those days, leading up to the 1980 election, Kentucky was still mostly Democratic, but not the 5th. It was just as solidly Republican. This was a legacy, I was told, of Cassius Clay, the 19th century abolitionist who was a founder of the Republican Party. The mountainous region never had much slavery, I was told, so it had no Southern sympathies and had always voted Republican. 

It was my first taste of what Faulkner meant when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

The incumbent was Tim Lee Carter, who had decided to retire at age 70 after holding the job for 16 years. It was universally understood that the winner of the Republican primary would win the general and could hold the seat indefinitely. The 5th didn't change its representative unless the current one retired or died. That’s how it was done in the 5th. 

For ambitious Republican politicians in southeastern Kentucky, this primary was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When the dust settled, ten candidates made the ballot. 

My employer was a typical Louisville advertising agency, not a political specialist. I had worked there for about two years. I was their radio and TV guy. I was 28.

Our clients included a regional convenience store chain, a regional drug store chain, a distillery (it being Kentucky), a bank, a lunchmeat maker, the usual mix. We would create and place TV ads for the candidate. The campaign would do the rest, whatever ‘the rest’ was. 

The situation was unusual in that there were no television stations in the district. There was no cable, no streaming, all TV was over-the-air. The district was served by stations in Lexington and Knoxville. We explained that the cost-per-thousand would be insane but there was no other way to reach the district’s voters by television.

In terms of size, we were the #3 agency in the state, but our media buyer was highly regarded. I think her reputation is why we got the gig. The media buy would be tricky. 

I didn’t have a dog in the fight, it was just an assignment, but the project yielded a few memorable experiences. I recall one early meeting where we presented the project budget. When we revealed the total, the campaign manager made a few taps on his calculator and remarked, “for that I can buy every Republican in the district a pint of Jack Daniel’s.”

I am proud of my reply.

“Sir, if you can figure out how to do that, I think the money would be better spent.”

He laughed.

Another memory is from the shoot itself. It was outdoors, in the district. I remember a lot of driving to different locations, but I don’t remember where they were. The commercials were simple, just the candidate speaking to camera in some appropriate setting. It probably was my first trip to that part of the state, which is very hilly. For one scene we choose a nice spot for the candidate to stand, with rolling hills in the background, fading off in the distance, and I experienced vertigo because there was no level ground, no way to get my bearings, no matter where I looked.

I don’t remember who was on the crew, but I remember it was fun. I recall driving up and down all those southeastern Kentucky hills in a big, black Lincoln, as one does.

(Actually, we got the Lincoln because the trunk was big enough to hold the gear, it was more comfortable than a van, and the candidate was driving the same model, so it looked kind of cool. They thought it might create some buzz.)

Although we were not political specialists, we knew enough to take a baseline survey to figure out where the various candidates stood with voters before the campaign began. The retiring incumbent announced that he would not make an endorsement, and he didn't, but it was generally understood that his long-time chief-of-staff had the inside track. Sure enough, that guy finished first in the baseline. Our guy was a member of the state legislature who happened to be the frontrunner’s cousin, with the same last name. He ranked third in our baseline. 

Considering that this was the first competitive election for that office in 16 years, no one had any idea how it would go or what might move the needle of voter opinion. The campaign hadn’t even begun. It looked like maybe half the field would have enough money to do something, but that kind of election in that kind of district, who the hell knows what will happen? Surely people will do whatever they do before an election, to decide who they want, and the various campaign efforts will have an effect. Something will happen, right?

So, we all did our thing. We made and ran our commercials. Being a primary, it was pretty much one-and-done. There was no opportunity for mid-course corrections. There was no way to tell if our efforts were having any effect until the votes were cast and counted.

Our guy lost. 

His cousin, the incumbent’s chief-of-staff, won. 

What’s more, the election results corresponded almost exactly to the results of our original survey. The ranking was exactly the same and the vote shares were more-or-less the same. Everything we and all the other campaigns did, all the money we spent, had zero effect on voters. None. I kept thinking, if only we could have done that pints-of-Jack thing.

This memory came up today because Don Young died last month. Young held Alaska’s only House seat for 49 years, which made him the House’s longest-serving member, its ‘dean.’ Upon Young’s death the new dean became Hal Rogers, the man who won that primary 42 years ago. He still represents Kentucky’s 5th and is now Dean of the United States House of Representatives. 

John Wanamaker, of the famous Philadelphia department store, is reputed to have said, “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half.” This one time, I knew.


t ball said...

Hmm, I kinda feel like Don Young would have chosen the JD option. But then went ahead and bought ads anyway publicizing that choice, perhaps while drinking his own personal bottle.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Great story.

I'm still trying to figure out whether giving a Tennessee whiskey to Kentuckians is a good thing, or insulting. Or both!