EARLIER THIS YEAR, the Academy AwardĖwinning documentarian Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) offered to make a campaign commercial for John Kerry. The Kerry campaign never accepted, and Morris subsequently created a series of ads ó based on conversations with Republicans who voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but are supporting Kerry this year ó for the liberal group MoveOn.org. These spots, which show voters looking directly at the camera and explaining their change of heart, were filmed using Morrisís "Interrotron," a two-way-mirror device that lets people talk directly to the camera while still making eye contact with the interviewer. They resemble the "switcher" commercials Morris shot for Apple Computer, and were compiled from 30-some hours of interviews conducted at a studio in Canton.
MoveOn.org ran a full-page ad featuring nine Republican switchers in the New York Times on August 30, the opening day of the Republican National Convention, and five of the video spots were broadcast nationally on Fox. But more than 60 other Republican-switcher ads Morris created have never been seen by the public ó and, unless some liberal 527 organization pays to run them before November 2, they never will be. (The central item on Morrisís Web site, www.errolmorris.com, is a plea for assistance from any 527 willing to fund another ad buy.) As a group, the Republican-switcher ads are elegant and compelling, a welcome departure from the swelling strings and sonorous intonations that mark most political advertising. If this yearís election is as close as 2000ís was ó and if Bush wins ó Kerryís failure to work with Morris may well go down in the annals of regrettable political decisions.
Last week, the Phoenix spoke with Morris in his East Cambridge studios about the switcher ads, the state of political advertising, and the branding of John Kerry. An edited transcript follows.
Q: What was the genesis of these ads?
A: The underlying idea is that the election is going to be decided by a very small group of voters. The electorate, as we all know, is polarized; thereís a group thatís going to vote for Kerry no matter what, and thereís a group thatís going to vote for Bush no matter what. What about these so-called undecideds, or people who will abandon their traditional voting patterns and switch? What about these people? How do you reach them? How do you talk to these people? Iím not particularly interested in just simply creating ads that make Democrats feel better. Iím interested in creating ads that will have some influence on that group.
Q: Do you think the Republicans are effectively targeting those undecideds? Are they doing better than the Democrats?
A: Yes. I think thatís the clear answer. And I think there are many reasons for that. Itís odd ó I have these two independent careers: Iím an advertising guy, and Iím a filmmaker. As an advertising guy, I constantly have to think about questions about the nature of the brand ó the story that weíre trying to create about the brand. Iím not saying that itís the same thing, although it might for all intents and purposes come down to the same thing. But what you have to do, in any kind of advertising campaign, is to tell a consistent story. And I would argue that there is no consistent story emerging from the Democratic side, and a far more consistent story emerging from the Republicans. By consistent, I donít say true or false; I just say consistent.
Q: How would you paraphrase the Republican story?
A: That George Bush stood by this country through 9/11, and ultimately that he was strong and forceful in his response to 9/11, and that is what is needed in order to make America safe. I think itís very, very, very simple. They have never tried to tell us that George Bush is a hero because of his service [during] Vietnam. In fact, theyíve told us quite clearly the opposite ó that George Bush was a neíer-do-well, an alcoholic, a fuck-up. And that he overcame this history. He found Christ, he found a purpose in life, he transformed himself. Itís one of the reasons why the Republicans can attack Kerry abut his Vietnam War record, because Kerry based his convention around his heroism in Vietnam. Attacking Bush because of his failure to fight, his avoidance of his military duties, actually does nothing. Because heís already conceded the point.
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Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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