Making ads people actually watch, with Mark Putnam (transcript)

Gun Rights

Our guest this week is Democratic ad-maker Mark Putnam, who is responsible for some of the most compelling ads that you will ever see in politics. He is going to be talking with us about the nitty-gritty of how these ads actually come together and how to make an ad that doesn’t suck. We have a very interesting and exciting episode for you, so let’s get rolling. Beard, I have to say I’m kind of surprised. We have said this so many times: It’s an odd-numbered year, and yet we have elections to talk about. I’m actually delighted because I definitely was wondering what things would be like in the off year for “The Downballot” podcast, but we’ve really had no shortage of elections to talk about.

Beard: Yeah, I think we mentioned this last week. We probably have too many elections at too many different times in America. Bad for America, very good for our podcast because we always have something to talk about.

Nir: Yes, absolutely. The permanent campaign is the reason why people like us have jobs.

Beard: So we’ll start with a couple of states that are having elections next Tuesday. In Kentucky, we’re going to have a primary for the GOP governor nominee to see who’s going to run against Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear. The leading contenders are Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, Kelly Craft. Now, Cameron has Trump’s endorsement but Craft has a ton of money, which as we’ve seen sometimes is enough to get you over the edge. They’ve been going at each other for months with negative advertising. And a third candidate, Ryan Quarles, who’s the commissioner of Agriculture, is trying to sort of run through the middle of those two as they hit each other. He’s running mostly a positive campaign into crime and negative ads from his opponents, and he is hoping to sort of sneak through as they raise up each other’s negatives. Polling has shown Cameron up, but it’s really sparse. And Craft is certainly close enough for an upset. And even Quarles could potentially pull an upset, so it’s definitely going to be an election to watch on Tuesday night.

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Now, Craft has gone with the classic “being an awful human being” in a Republican primary and hope that voters reward you for it. She most recently said, quote, “We will not have transgenders in our school system,” unquote, which a) it’s not how you refer to trans people, but b) trans kids exist. That’s just a fact. And so by saying that you’re not going to have them in our school system, it seems to be that you’re implying that you’re going to kick them out of school just for being trans, or I don’t know, arrest them, take them out of their homes. I don’t even know what she means by this. Children have a right to go to school. But it’s just more of this horrific anti-trans rhetoric that we’re seeing from any number of Republican politicians who want to get a good highlight on some conservative website and are trying to win a primary by going as far right as possible.

So we’ll see if that works for her or if Cameron’s relatively less crazy campaign–and I say that only in the mildest sense, relatively less crazy–keeps him as the frontrunner and the nominee.

Nir: Yeah, and I wonder if Craft does wind up being the nominee, if she’ll be made to pay a price for that kind of unhinged rhetoric by Beshear. I mean there is a reason why Beshear managed to beat Mike Bevin. It was a massive upset in 2019, but we saw that just tons and tons of suburban voters, Republican-leaning voters, decided that they’d had enough of the crazy. And Craft reminds me of Bevin in a lot of ways in that regard. I don’t know who the Beshear campaign is rooting for. And unlike a lot of other races, we haven’t seen Democrats come in with outside money to try to push a preferred candidate over the line. It may just be that Craft is spending so much of her personal fortune, it wouldn’t make a difference. Or maybe Democrats don’t really have a preference between the two of them, or even Quarles. But man, I would not really want Kelly Craft as my standard-bearer in the general election if I were the GOP, just given recent history in Kentucky.

Beard: Yeah. Now, obviously Kentucky is one of the most conservative states in the nation, but there are still tons of suburban voters outside Louisville, outside Cincinnati, in and around Lexington, and in some other smaller cities in Kentucky that are up for grabs and that certainly Beshear could go after no matter what, but certainly against Craft who doesn’t quite have that way of being far-right, but coming across normal. She says things that are far-right and then seems like a far-right person, whereas other Republican candidates are a lot better at seeming more reasonable with their far-right rhetoric.

Nir: So let’s talk about the other big state which has primaries on Tuesday, and that is Pennsylvania. There are races across the state, a lot of local primaries. There are also some statewide primaries, particularly for the state Supreme Court. But there are also a couple of special elections that are really, really crucial. And I can’t believe I’m going to say this again because we’ve talked about this topic a bunch of times on the show this year, but it’s possible that the Pennsylvania state House will once again be up for grabs on Tuesday.

This feels like the millionth time that we’ve said this since November when Democrats unexpectedly won a bare 102 to 101 majority. Right now, there are two vacant seats: one Republican seat in central Pennsylvania, one Democratic seat in the Pennsylvania suburbs. So Democrats still have a 101-100 edge, but both of those vacancies are going to be filled by specials on Tuesday, and the Republican seat is safely red. So we can hand that to the GOP. There’s no indication that Democrats are trying to contest that one.

The Democratic seat looks like it should be solidly blue. Biden won it 62-37. It’s in the Philadelphia suburbs in an area where Democrats have been improving in recent years. But it might look good on paper–we don’t run elections on paper. We know that Democrats are concerned about this race despite these top lines because they’ve already spent about $1 million on the election and probably are going to wind up spending a lot more. And on top of that, they also brought out their biggest gun, Gov. Josh Shapiro, who recorded an ad for a Democrat, Heather Boyd, slamming her Republican opponent Katie Ford on what else? Abortion.

Now, why has this race become so competitive? It’s always hard to say with these kinds of local contests, but in the past few years, a number of high-profile Democrats in the area have been plagued by scandal. The reason why this seat is vacant in the first place is because the former Democratic representative here, Mike Zabel, [who] resigned in March after being accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. But just a couple of years ago, another Democratic representative in the area, Margo Davidson, resigned for campaign finance fraud. Just this year, a mayor in a major town in the district was charged with a DUI and said she wouldn’t run for reelection.

So the Democratic brand locally just hasn’t been terrific in this part of Delaware County. Like I said, that’s in the Philadelphia suburbs. But Democrats are also worried about a problem that has often plagued us somewhat less so in recent years, but potentially seems to be cropping up again this time, and that’s simply low turnout. These off-year elections have often seen lower levels of Democratic participation, and that’s kind of all you need to turn what should be a solidly blue seat into potentially a tossup.

Now, I’m not certain if it’s a tossup. Republicans have not spent nearly as much money as Democrats have. They haven’t run TV ads. They don’t seem to be going all out on this one. It’s possible that Democrats are just playing it extra, extra safe, but certainly they’ve done polling here. You don’t go and spend $1 million on an ostensibly blue seat in a special election unless you’re actually worried about it. So definitely keep an eye on this one on Tuesday night.

Beard: Yeah, and I think it totally makes sense for Democrats to be concerned to spend this money. It wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up closer than the Biden numbers, but I would be pretty surprised if the Republican actually won given how you said the Republicans have been acting here, given the money that’s spent to make sure that it stays in Democratic hands rather than just actually ending up 50/50. That would be a huge red flag and very different from the other races that we’ve seen this year.

The other race in Pennsylvania that we want to discuss that has a big race on Tuesday is the Philadelphia mayor’s race, and this is really a free-for-all. There are about five major Democratic candidates all competing to win this primary. There’s no runoff or ranked choice voting in Philadelphia, so whoever gets the most votes on Tuesday, they’re the Democratic nominee and presumably the heavy favorite to be the next mayor as they go into the general election in November.

First, I want to cover two self-funders who have polled in double-digits at times, but generally seem to be a little bit behind the other three who are leading. That’s former city council member Allan Domb and first-time candidate and grocery store owner Jeff Brown. They’ve both put in a bunch of money. Brown has put in about $4 million from his pocket. Domb has put in about $10 million from his own pocket, but neither of them seem to have turned that money into actually leading the race. And instead, we’ve got three women who have all polled in first or tied for first in different polls, and certainly seems like the victor is going to come from these three women.

So any of these women would be the first female mayor of Philadelphia if they were to win. First we have progressive former city council member Helen Gym. She would also be the first woman of color as mayor. She’s been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, a number of the left, and she’s definitely the most progressive major candidate in the race. Then we have Cherelle Parker, another former city council member. She would also be the first woman of color if she were elected mayor. She has close ties to a number of the building trades unions that have endorsed her and really seems to have a lot of the Democratic city establishment behind her, and that’s definitely sort of the lane that she’s been running in.

And then lastly, we have Rebecca Rhynhart. She’s the former city controller and she’s got the backing of the last four mayors of Philadelphia. Though the current mayor, Jim Kenney, didn’t officially endorse her, just said that he was voting for her, but that seems to be mostly because he’s pretty unpopular at the moment rather than he does clearly want her to win. But otherwise, she doesn’t have a lot of Democratic Party support within the city. She seems to be in a pretty similar lane to Parker, but Parker has really consolidated a lot more of that sort of establishment support. So it’s really a free-for-all. It’s very hard to tell who might come out as the victor here. If I had to guess, I think Cherelle Parker may be best positioned, but really none of the three leading women would surprise me if they came out on top.

Nir: So one last race that we want to talk about is one that will hopefully be on the ballot next year. The ACLU and a bunch of partner organizations announced a plan to place an amendment on the ballot in Florida to undo Ron DeSantis’ new six-week abortion ban and enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution. This is something that we have seen underway in several other states, including Ohio. In Florida, there are considerable obstacles. I mean, it’s never easy to qualify an amendment for the ballot, but in a state as big as Florida, it is especially difficult. You need almost 900,000 valid signatures across the state in order to get on the ballot. And you need signatures equal to 8% of the total vote cast in the last presidential election in half of the states, 14 congressional districts. Okay, but that means that you are collecting these under Ron DeSantis’ gerrymandered congressional map, so that’s an added burden.

On top of that, Florida Republicans in recent years have made the ballot initiative process more difficult by making it tougher to actually collect those signatures. In particular, they did something very devious: They passed a law making it illegal to pay people based on the number of signatures that they collect. Instead, you have to pay them by the hour, or I suppose a flat rate. As a result, you take away the incentive from people to collect as many valid signatures as they can while they’re out there pounding the pavement.

And as a consequence, it’s basically increased the cost of qualifying a measure for the ballot by double, so it costs twice as much as it used to. On top of that, there’s the very conservative state Supreme Court, which has been packed with far right extremists by DeSantis, and also Rick Scott, his predecessor. That court has blocked other progressive measures from the ballot, claiming that they were confusingly worded. They did that with some marijuana-related measures. Who knows what that court might do if there is a legal challenge? But then, even if you do get on the ballot, you need 60% of the vote in order to pass. That is the highest threshold in the nation. It is a very difficult target to hit.

The only good news, and I really do put scare quotes around the word “good” here, is that Florida Republicans abandoned a plan to try to increase that threshold even higher. This year in their legislative session, they were working on an amendment that would’ve raised it to a two-thirds supermajority, which is just completely nuts. Thankfully, that’s not happening. I would say that the one genuinely good piece of news is that the ACLU and its partners wouldn’t be undertaking this effort unless they really thought they could overcome all of these obstacles, including hitting that 60% mark, if and when the measure goes before voters. You don’t embark on a project this difficult, this expensive, this long-term, unless you really do a lot of polling and laying a lot of groundwork. While of course we haven’t seen the internal polling that’s been done on behalf of this effort, undoubtedly it shows the measure capable of getting the 60% that it would need.

I’m hopeful here. I think this would be a great thing to have on the ballot. And certainly if it gives Democrats in Florida an extra reason to show up at the polls next year, and not just Democrats but moderate pro-choice voters who may be independents or even Republicans, then that’s only a good thing.

Beard: Yeah. And I think if there’s any issue that can overcome this litany of obstacles, it is an abortion rights measure. Obviously, we’ve seen in other states that these things are very popular. Florida, despite its constant pain every election night for Democrats, is not that red of a state compared to a state like Kansas, which rejected an attempt to try to tighten abortion restrictions. Despite its red hue, its purple status, I would expect this to be pretty popular. Like you referenced, the internal polling probably showed that it was pretty popular. And there’s going to be an extreme amount of passion behind getting these signatures, getting it on the ballot. Obviously, if the Florida Supreme Court decides it doesn’t want it on the ballot, there’s not much to be done. But you can’t let that stop you, you clearly have the passion here, you do everything you can to get it on the ballot, and then I think the voters will respond well.

Nir: That does it for our weekly hits. Coming up, we are going to be talking with Democratic ad-maker Mark Putnam, who is responsible for some of the most distinctive ads in campaigns, about how to make ads that people actually want to watch. It’s a very interesting and in-depth conversation, so please join us.

Joining us today is Mark Putnam, the founding partner of Putnam Partners, who has three decades of experience as a national media strategist and is a leading Democratic ad-maker. Mark, thank you so much for coming on “The Downballot” today.

Mark Putnam: It’s really great to be here.

Nir: Mark, I want to start with the big picture. At Daily Kos Elections, we watch so many campaign ads. It’s probably not good for our health. We watch thousands every election cycle. And I got to say, so many of them are just so generic. And I want to ask you, what makes a successful political ad? How do you stand out from that pile of generic messages?

Putnam: I’m going to start by talking about what may seem obvious, but the best political advertising is both strategic and creative. And that sounds obvious, but there’s so many ads that get the strategy and they communicate a message that is very poll-driven with enumerated points, but there’s nothing interesting about it. And then, sometimes you’ll see as they’re very creative but are not driving a strategy, are not really on message, they’re just creative for the sake of being creative. I think both are equally important–strategy and creativity. And it does need to all be driven by research, by public opinion research. I will oftentimes come into a campaign and a candidate will ask at the very beginning, “What sort of ads are you going to make for us?” and I’ll say, “I don’t know until we have the research in hand.” That may seem obvious, but that’s where it all begins.

You hear the words “storytelling” or “authenticity” a lot; it’s a cliche in our business. But it’s true. I think authenticity, more than anything else, is really important. It’s why I have really gotten away from obvious special effects. I think that’s a gimmick that sometimes ad creators will lean on. I think that you really want to have something that seems true to the candidate, captures their personality and the reasons they’re running, and just feels like it’s in their voice because it really needs to be.

I think the best political ads are concept ads. And what I mean by that is it doesn’t have typical traditional B-roll, the candidate in the hard hat at a construction site or the candidate sitting with kids reading a book or a candidate talking with seniors at a community center. Those shots are in thousands of political ads and don’t make it an interesting experience for the viewer. Instead, I want a concept ad where the ad, 30 seconds, has unique footage for that ad, tells a unique story, and is not necessarily useful in any other ads in the campaign. Now, that becomes more shoot-intensive for a campaign. They have to go out and we have to do more shoots, but it makes the advertising just more interesting to the viewer.

And then, I think good advertising does something unexpected for a political ad. I don’t like to fall into the traps of the usual political language. And I learned a lot about writing for political advertising from two sources. One was Peggy Noonan’s first book, which was called “What I Saw at the Revolution.” It was about her years as a speechwriter in the Reagan White House. Now, if you can get past her politics and just read the book for what it is, which is a book about speechwriting, you can literally read the whole book out loud. It’s written for the ear. And that was a very useful tool for me to learn how to write succinctly and clearly and emotionally. And then there was an ad-maker named Hal Riney who did a lot of just nonpolitical work. He was known for advertising for Gallo wines and airlines and car manufacturers like Saturn cars. Now, he did the Reagan “Morning in America.”

And you’re going to start to think that all my influences are Ronald Reagan and that’s not the case. But these are two people that were very formative for me and my writing style because Hal Riney’s ads were written in a very spare way. And so, I think the best political advertising doesn’t use a lot of wonky terms, doesn’t resort to cliches, is written in very spare English language. And so, I think the writing is vitally important in good political ads.

And then lastly, I would say that good political advertising makes something that voters want to watch and is ultimately meaningful to them, something that moves them, something that motivates them to take an action, because I’ve always said that voters have … Well, I used to say they have the right of remote control. Nowadays, they have the right of the skip button. If they’re not pulled in the first few seconds of an ad, they’re not going to give you their attention and they’re going to move on to something else. And so, I actually think the best political advertising is made in a way where you don’t know it’s a political ad for the beginning, that it does something that pulls you in, and then it starts to make that political transaction later on in the ad.

Nir: I find that answer completely fascinating, especially the influences that you list. Your style, Mark, I think is particularly distinctive. And you’ve had a number of ads go viral. Maybe the most prominent one was an ad for Jason Kander who ran for the U.S. Senate in Missouri in 2016. He ran an extremely competitive race, especially given how red the state was. He wound up losing by only 3 points. And the ad that I’m thinking of is the one where Kander, who is a veteran, assembles a gun entirely blindfolded. I’d love for you to talk about that ad, how it came to be, the reaction to it. And also if you could talk maybe a little bit about what your style is, if you have a way of defining it, especially in the context of ads like this Kander one.

Putnam: Sure. That ad came about from the process that I like to go through with candidates, which is spending at least a full day with them in their home, wherever that might be, if not a whole weekend, where I really get to learn everything about their life. I get to meet their family, I get to meet their siblings, their parents if they’re still around, I get to see where they went to school. I just try to go with no agenda other than being a sponge and listening and learning.

With Jason, we spent a lot of time talking about boot camp because he was in Army Intelligence and that was a formative experience for him. And along the way, and I think it actually came in a conversation later, I learned that he learned how to assemble and disassemble a rifle very, very quickly. And the question was, “Is that useful?”

And I said, “Well, yes, it is. You being comfortable with an assault weapon is going to show that you’re not an alien being.” In Missouri, a Democrat is seen as an alien, especially one that’s tagged as being a national Democrat. You being comfortable with a weapon was a way to help us address Second Amendment issues in the campaign. And we knew that he was going to be attacked for having an F rating from the NRA. Now, most Democrats would call that a badge of courage. I would too. But in Missouri, it was a problem for us. We needed to be able to answer that attack. And so I said, “I think there’s a way to use this ability you have with a weapon, but I don’t know if just building it quickly is enough. I don’t know. Can you do it blindfolded? Because that would make a great ad.”

And so, what I’m trying to do is find the little piece of a story. And then, my brain is at the same time trying to figure out, “How can I make that interesting in 30 seconds?” And so I thought if he could assemble–in this case it was an AR-15 that we used in the ad–if he could assemble it blindfolded, it would make for a really compelling ad. And it’s a single shot.

I would say that’s also something that people shouldn’t shy away from. Sometimes single-shot ads, if it has a story to it–a beginning, a middle, and an end, and something compelling about it that makes you want to watch the whole 30 seconds–it can really work. In this case, it was could Jason remember the script blindfolded? Could he assemble the weapon without a mistake? And could he do it in less than 30 seconds? And he was able to do all three of those. And in the first take, he did it perfectly except for one problem, and that was I couldn’t hear half of what he said because the loud noises that were made when he was assembling the weapon obscured a lot of the words.

So I said, “Okay, Jason, I need you to add a fourth dimension to this. I need you to think about where all those sounds are and put them between the words.” And he looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “You’re kidding me, right?” And I said, “No, I’m not kidding. I punctuate your thoughts.” So when you watch the ad, and it’s on my website, which is, you’ll see that there’s some of the quieter noises are during his words, but the loud noises are when he bangs the rifle butt on the table and other sounds. It’s between the words. It became the music soundtrack for the ad. There’s no music in the ad and normally I think music is an incredibly important part of any ad-making, but in this case, the music was the percussive sounds of the rifle being built.

What was great was I don’t remember how many takes we did. We did quite a few, and he got faster and faster and faster at building the weapon. So it meant that by one of the last takes, we had a good amount of time at the end after he’d finished to just fade up his logo, Jason Kander for U.S. Senate, and let it sit there for a moment rather than immediately having to fade to black. So I would say that that encapsulates a lot of pieces of my approach. A) learn the candidate story, b) find those little nuggets of information that make for a compelling ad, c) figure out how it fits into your strategy. We knew we had to answer attacks on the F rating from the NRA. So this was a way to do that in a way that reassured Missouri voters that he was like them. And d) it also helped us online because we were able to raise a lot of money that we didn’t expect, and it raised his profile when the ad went viral. It went viral because it was just a really cool ad to watch.

Nir: I remember the nature of that ad with the loud clunking, thunking noises punctuating his statements, and that just really took it to the next level of it. That is so brilliant. And yet that was something that you added to solve a problem. It wasn’t even intended at the outset when you were creating the ad in the first place.

Putnam: Yeah. There are often little happy accidents along the way in making any ad where something will happen that will either save an ad or something that we realize in the process of shooting that is just something we hadn’t thought of ahead of time. But once you’re watching this through a camera lens and seeing what is developing, you can come up with a lot of good ideas. That was definitely a case where it was necessity to figure out how we’re going to fix that problem.

Nir: I love happy accidents; that makes you like the Bob Ross of Democratic ads.

Putnam: I’ve never even thought about that. You’re right.

Beard: So obviously working directly with candidates and molding ads to fit those individual candidates is a huge part of this. But for most statewide federal campaigns nowadays, a healthy portion, if not a majority, of ads that candidates might see will come from independent expenditures, which means that they can’t coordinate directly with the candidate and so they have to do other things other than film an ad with the candidate and be able to work with them directly. How do you deal with that? Is there a way around making that still successful advertising despite those limitations?

Putnam: Sure. I think a good example of this is … Well, first I try to remember, it’s still storytelling. You’re still trying to achieve the same objectives I mentioned earlier about drawing viewers in and telling a candidate story. A good example is from 2020. I made an ad for the super PAC Unite the Country, which was helping Joe Biden get elected. We saw in the early stages of the general election that then-Vice President Biden was doing a good job at consolidating the Democratic progressive base. And that was a really important thing for him to do in the wake of the primary that he had just been through. But we also saw that he wasn’t talking enough about th e… And this was not a criticism of him or the campaign, they were doing important work, but there wasn’t yet enough time being spent on telling his story of growing up in the middle class and coming from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

We saw that that was an area that we could be helpful. So I made an ad where we used his voice from his 2012 Democratic convention speech where he told the story of his father climbing in the stairs up to his bedroom and telling him that he was having to move to Wilmington, Delaware. It was a very formative memory in Joe Biden’s life. So we went and we were able to do this as [inaudible]. We went to that house that he grew up in and got to know the owner of the house.

We filmed going up the actual stairs that his dad would’ve climbed. What was amazing was in the attic of the house was still the bed that he had slept in as a little boy when the family sold the house–they left the bed up in the attic and they had no idea. Just they thought it was a bed that fit well in the attic.

We brought it down, put it in the same bedroom, and we were able to have the camera climb those stairs and go towards that bed that Joe Biden would’ve been sitting in 70, 80 years earlier. No, I guess 70 years earlier. We used his voice telling that story from the speech. And what’s really amazing about this particular speech bite was he starts off quietly and then his voice grows with intensity, and then the crowd starts applauding and he gets more energetic and more volume as the ad progresses.

He ends with a real audio climax. All of this was available to us as an IE on the internet. We could download that speech. There are photographs that we could license. We went out and took a few photos of our own to supplement the story. So it’s an example of … I think it’s very easy for independent expenditures to just go get some stock footage and some stock photos and write a narrator-driven script.

But I think if you can, if you can stretch and try to find audio that’s useful, or go record the candidate at a public event and get some audio from them, find ways to interject their personality into the ad. Now that’s for a positive ad. For negative advertising … I mean there, again, I think the best negative advertising is advertising that uses the opponent’s voice.

So then it’s a question of what do you do with that voice? I actually think the voice is more important than the video. Any independent expenditure can find ways to get audio and/or video of the opponent. A good example of this actually isn’t an independent expenditure ad, but it’s an ad that I made for the Obama campaign in 2012. And that was in the wake of the 47% comments that you might remember from Mitt Romney where he-

Nir: Unforgettable.

Putnam: He cared, for those that don’t know about this. He characterized the 47% that polling showed were not going to vote for him in very harsh terms. I mean, clearly a pollster told him, “Listen, Mitt, there’s 47% of the electorate that’s never going to vote for you, so you can’t worry about them. You got to go for those voters in the middle.” And instead he internalized it: How could 47% not like him? And he ascribed the worst character attributes to those people. What happened was there was a bartender at this fundraiser where they put a camera behind some beer glasses or wine goblets, and you couldn’t really see Mitt Romney.

He was blurry on the screen, but his voice was crystal clear. And so when I was told about these 47% comments, I knew exactly what that fundraiser already was because about three weeks earlier, I had been told that there was another soundbite that had already been posted from that fundraiser where he talked about visiting a factory in China where he was seeing all these young women working in the factory 16-hour days and falling asleep at their work stations because they’re exhausted and their dormitories were horrible.

He was describing all this and he was marveling at it, and ultimately he wanted to buy the factory because it was so profitable. Well, of course it was profitable when you treat people like slaves. So I had known about this fundraiser, I knew the limitations of the footage, and I made an ad that ultimately wasn’t used because this 47% comments then suddenly popped up on YouTube. It was a person at that time, unknown, that was posting these comments.

So what I did was I took the audio and I married it with images of what the 47% looks like, basically like regular Americans, working-class Americans. One line that he says is he thinks these people, the 47%, they’re entitled. They feel entitled. Well, right there, I put a shot of two veterans. The least entitled people in our country who sacrificed more than most.

It was a way to bring his words to life and to show who he was describing. It was a very simple ad, but we spent two days trying to find the right imagery. This is my long way of saying that independent expenditure shouldn’t feel constrained. You can do a lot of creative things if you figure out ways to get your opponent’s voice or your candidate’s voice and make compelling advertising.

Beard: So that actually segues into something I did want to ask you about. I think a big problem that sort of surprises some people that you run into is that when you explain to regular voters what Republican politicians actually stand for is sometimes they don’t even believe you. And that’s gotten, I think, particularly worse during the Trump era, though it was something that occurred before the Trump era, particularly with sort of extreme tax cuts and those sorts of spending cuts, but now just all sorts of the conspiracy theories, all of this Trump-era craziness and the far-right folks. So how do you tackle running against a Republican who is just saying crazy things and actually then trying to convince voters he says and believes what he says and believes?

Putnam: Finding examples of the opponent saying these things is vital. Just like with Mitt Romney, as I mentioned earlier, we had audio of him. So that was helpful. I had a candidate … Well, I worked for Sen. Tom Udall and in his 2014 campaign, he was running against a guy named Alan Way, and they would send a video tracker to shoot video of him, and they never got anything of any value because he saw the video camera. At one of the events, our tracker decided, let’s put the camera in a bag and so he won’t see it. And then he said like this really crazy thing. I mean, he said, “No minimum wage below the age of 26. So what if they’re making four bucks an hour? So what?”

He didn’t know that he was being recorded. First off, with these far-right candidates, if they don’t know they’re being recorded, they will say some pretty crazy things. But even when they know they’re being recorded, they’ll say crazy things. And you have to be really exhaustive in searching an opponent’s Facebook page, see all their events. I was working for Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton who’s from Northern Virginia, and our opponent was a Republican right-wing extremist named Hung Cao. And he had a great story, a hell of a story to tell.

He was a refugee from Vietnam who was one of the last people to escape the country. He went to the Naval Academy, he served in the Navy, became a captain. He had the ideal American dream story, but he would say some crazy stuff. When he was in the primary process to become the nominee, and he eventually was chosen by a convention, but he’d tell these stories and he would just go off on riffs that were clearly what no political handler would want him to say.

But he would talk about all of the things he wanted to do if he was in Congress. And one of them was in a long litany of things was that he wanted to punch Dr. Fauci in the face. Now, there are a lot of people in red states that would like to punch Dr. Fauci in the face, but there’s a lot of voters in this Northern Virginia district who would find that just reprehensible to even talk about that.

So we made an ad where we had seven things you should know about Hung Cao. And when we could, we would use his words against him. He talked about the Jan. 6 insurrectionists in terms like, “These are our people. Set them free.” Nice short little sound bite. So in the seven things you should know about Hung Cao we closed with, “and he wants to punch Dr. Fauci in the face,” using his own words against him. I think that that is probably the key to getting people to understand just how extreme some of these folks are and to make it believable is to let them speak for themselves. Or at least at a minimum, show that you are footnoting and heavily sourcing your charges. I have seen in a focus group where we quickly made an ad for a focus group and we didn’t put footnotes at the bottom of the page, and it was amazing. One of the people in the focus group said, “Well, I don’t know if I can believe this ad. There’s no footnotes there.”

And it told me a lot. It told me that the voters had gotten to the point where they expected to see sources and citations for what you were claiming because it at least removed a little bit of the skepticism that they might have about a political ad if they thought it was based on something that they could go look up. Now we know they never will. They’ll never go check on the web and try to track down that footnote, but they will see it and it registers.

So it’s small things like adequately sourcing your material and your attacks. B, it’s not making them too hysterical. It’s saying things in a measured way. No unfortunate photographs of the opponent where they’re sneering. No big red “no” symbols slamming down on the candidate. Instead, make it reasonable-sounding, factual and whenever possible, use their words against them. And that’s the best hope you really have of getting over that hurdle. It’s an excellent question and it is a constant challenge, but you have to take your best shot and those are the approaches that I take.

Nir: So Mark, one thing we love to do on “The Downballot” is really get into the nitty-gritty of the political process. The behind-the-scenes. And you talked quite a bit about your creative process for meeting with candidates and getting to know them–”being a sponge,” as you put it. But I’d love to hear more about the technical aspects of how you actually make an ad from soup to nuts. So you talked about creating the concept, but then how do you write the ad? How do you figure out where do you shoot? How do you figure out who to recruit?

In so many of these ads, you have these amazing third-party validators. How do you find them? How do you find the right local sheriff or the nurse or the mom whose kid was bullied in school? Whatever the topic might be, where do these people come from?

Putnam: It all starts with having a really good relationship with the campaign because ultimately the campaign has to help you find these people, but they don’t necessarily help you write the script. Let me take it back to the beginning of the process: So we’ll get a poll. The pollster will brief us on the strategic imperatives of the messaging, and then I have to figure out how many ads we can run based upon the budget that’s set aside for paid media. Everything from broadcast and cable TV to digital advertising, radio advertising sometimes.

I’ll figure out how many ads we have. Let’s just say it’s four ads. Well, I can usually get four ads shot in a two-day shoot. So we’ll put a shoot date on the schedule for the campaign. We make sure the candidate is completely free for both days. We don’t want to have to worry about them needing to race off to a fundraiser if we have to spend a lot of time with them on something. So I’ll know how many ads I have to make.

Then I usually just try to find a quiet place. And by the way, every firm does this differently. But sometimes in some firms they’ll sit around at a conference room table and they’ll bounce ideas off each other and write things on a whiteboard and narrow down their creative concepts that way. That doesn’t work for me. For me, I just need to go find a quiet space and just really think about how am I going to make an ad that I don’t think has been made before.

What is an approach that would be interesting first off to me? I’m going to want to watch it. And then what’s going to be interesting to our target voters? What’s going to adequately capture our candidate’s personality if we’re talking about positive ads? I have a set of filters, and I’ll just start thinking about metaphors. What’s a metaphor I can use for this person? For instance, John Hickenlooper, when he was running for governor of Colorado, he had made a promise that he would never run a negative ad.

Nir: I remember the ad you’re about to talk about very well.

Putnam: And that was a challenge, as a consultant. He’d said this before we ever got hired for the campaign. And of course you feel like you’re handcuffed, like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do when we’re attacked? How are we not going to counterattack if you’ll never do a negative ad?” He did eventually agree that he would answer an attack, but he wasn’t going to counterattack. We tested in the poll, it was the number one testing positive argument by far that he was going to bring people together and not run attack ads and drive people apart.

Okay, great, we’ve got a great argument. How am I going to make an ad about that? And so I’m sitting there in my writing chair trying to figure out. Well, I knew what I didn’t want to do: I didn’t want to have him watching an attack ad with his back to the camera, point his remote control at the TV, freeze-frame it and turn to the camera and start to cry “mud slinging,” right? We’ve all seen that ad a thousand times. It doesn’t work. Voters think it’s whining. So I knew I didn’t want to do that.

I actually thought that if we could lead off the campaign by telling people about this promise, this pledge that he had made, that it would be a great way to claim the high ground. Okay, great. How are we going to do this? And I just started ticking through ideas in my head and I came upon this idea that every time he saw a negative ad, it made him feel like he had to take a shower. And you see a lot of them.

So the idea was he’s dressed in clothing but different outfits. And you see him going in and out of the shower over and over and over again because he’s constantly seeing negative ads that he can’t stand and that make him feel like he needs to take a shower. So that came from me just sitting there and trying to figure out how to tell that story of the pledge he had made. How to do it in a way that nobody had done before and to make it visually interesting.

And so he just had a variety of outfits. Sometimes he was in a suit, he was in a Hawaiian shirt, he was wearing a cowboy hat in one of the showers. And it made the point that it almost didn’t matter what he said in the ad except the part about he’s never going to run a negative ad because he sees so many of them and it makes him feel he needs to take a shower.

So I come up with the idea, I write the script, then it’s a matter of, “Okay, how are we going to put this together? What bathtub shower are we going to shoot in?” I originally had in my head a clawfoot tub, but we couldn’t find a good old fashioned clawfoot tub. And the body person on the campaign who drove him around said, “Well, I don’t know, we have a pretty basic house. How about just a regular bathtub shower?” And because at that point we weren’t finding what I originally had in my head, I’m like, “Sure, send me photographs.”

I liked the shower. We ended up deciding that that’s where we were going to shoot that ad along with a number of other ads that we did for that campaign. And then I send an advance person out, and this is a really important part of any good political shoot. It used to be a consultant would just call up the manager and say, “Here are the things I need. Classroom full of kids. Seniors at a center. Construction site.” And they would just have the campaign put everything together.

I will send somebody out and they’ll spend five days doing nothing but working with the campaign to find all the locations, to find all the extras, to put the shoot schedule together. To know where the sun’s going to be, what are the production hurdles we have to deal with, where’s the sun, where’s the power, where’s the parking? All of that stuff. You’ve got to put it together. And I have a lot of respect for that process because I started doing my own, advancing my own shoots many, many years ago, and I would only give myself two days. And I realized after a while that wasn’t enough time; it needed to be five.

So you set up the shoot. The whole crew shows up at the first location, you got to make it through the day. You then shoot. Usually a concept ad takes four to five hours to shoot, which is about how long we spent making that shower ad. The hardest part of that ad for then-Mayor Hickenlooper was that we ran out of hot water after the fourth shower and we had to shoot nine showers. We had nine outfits, and he, by the fourth or fifth shower, he was getting pretty cranky, but we had to make him keep taking these showers.

So when you watch the ad, you’ll know that half those outfits, he’s freezing cold. He’d have to dry off after each shower. We’d style his hair and then have him put on a new outfit. Pulling on an outfit over a semi-wet body is not easy and go back and shoot another shower.

We got all the footage, we then go into the editing and I have access to a lot of really good editors that know my style and then I work with the editor. I’m just as anal about the editing as I am about the writing at the front end. You want to get it right. So there’s a lot of back and forth in that editor-producer relationship and music is really important. In that ad we found just a nice guitar lick that we liked and we were able to have our usual composer supplement it with some additional instruments and just made a really fun hip ad. So that’s just one ad.

I mean, normally on a shoot, three or four ads that we have to go through that same process: Figure out the concept. Write the script. Get the campaign to approve it. Send out an advanced person. Put the whole shoot together. Have a lot of help from the campaign finding the right bathroom or the right extras or the right people to interview and then capturing them on camera. And the last thing I’ll say, sorry for the long answer, is that I believe anybody can be good on camera. It just takes time.

It takes, usually the first 10 takes if there’s a teleprompter involved, for the person on camera to just stop thinking about what the words are and start thinking about what the words mean. And then the next 10 takes are usually when you start getting into good performances. And sometimes we interview people, but interviews are different. So an entirely different beast. And whenever you interview somebody and want to make a 30-second ad, you usually end up trying to change it to a 60-second ad because people say things in a fashion that’s longer than you have to make a 30-second ad.

Nir: That Hickenlooper ad was totally hilarious. And just seeing a politician, an office-holder, governor of the state, getting completely soaked to the bone while wearing a full set of clothes. I mean, the humor for sure was central to that ad beyond just the message of, “I’ll never run negative ads.” Because it made him seem [like] a relatable guy. That he could actually sort of humiliate himself in this very funny way.

Putnam: I have my 10 rules for what makes a good political ad and one of the rules is self-deprecation is always good. If a candidate is willing to poke fun at themself or put themself in a situation that isn’t what people expect of a standard politician, it just makes them more endearing and it lowers the barriers of cynicism and skepticism that every voter brings to watching a political ad. If you can break through that barrier of cynicism and say, “Hey, this is a regular person,” it opens them up to your argument.

Nir: We’ve been talking with Mark Putnam, the founding partner of Putnam Partners, a top Democratic ad maker, about the ad-making process and how to make an excellent ad that stands out from the pack. Mark, where can our listeners find your work and watch all of these ads?

Putnam: Sure. Our website is probably the best place. It’s Putnam Partners, it’s P-U-T-N-A-M And if you go to the political campaigns page on there a little ways down, we have some little bit of rhetoric about the races we’ve helped win. But then there’s a lot of case studies of different campaigns.

If you click on Heidi Heitkamp, you’ll see several ads from her 2012 campaign for Senate or you can see presidential work. I even have a section called “Other Presidential” because I feature the Joe Biden work, the Barack Obama work, some work I did for Kamala Harris in 2010 when she ran for attorney general. And then I have “Other Presidential” and there’s some interesting stuff there that people can see.

Nir: Well, Mark, thank you so much for joining us on “The Downballot” today.

Putnam: No, thank you for having me. It’s just been a lot of fun talking about all of this.

Nir: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Mark Putnam for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday, everybody listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our producer Walter Einenkel and editor Trevor Jones. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.


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