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Marketing Candidates for the Wisconsin Recall Elections

A conversation with Milwaukee ad man Steve Eichenbaum

Feb. 22, 2012
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Steve Eichenbaum put together the advertising campaign that propelled underdog state Sen. Russ Feingold to Washington as Wisconsin's junior U.S. senator in 1992. He has spent his life in the ad business creating both award-winning commercial and political advertising campaigns.

In the dismal economy of 1980, he was lucky enough to land an advertising job straight out of school. Hired by a tiny Milwaukee agency with which he'd worked in his senior year of college, he was tasked with every facet of the three-man operation. He learned the business and his own strengths.

With a handful of accounts handed to him when the tiny agency closed, he opened Eichenbaum & Associates in 1983. As president, lead copywriter and creative director, he built a variety of successful campaigns.

On the commercial side, his 30 years of clever and humorous billboards and other ads for the Koss Co. may set a longevity record for a Milwaukee advertising firm. His campaign to introduce the radio station WKLH was so successful it was duplicated in 44 markets across the nation. As a return favor to WKLH, Eichenbaum spent 12 years writing and performing comic rants on current events as the station's popular "Angry Man," foreshadowing Lewis Black.

A progressive himself, Eichenbaum sees hope for Democratic success in the coming recall elections only if things are done differently than in the recent past.

His advice for college graduates trying to enter today's advertising market is to keep their prospects wide in seeking internships, and to be as innovative in selling themselves to prospective employers as they hope to be in selling products or political candidates.

What has changed in political advertising today?

I think the biggest change is that there doesn't seem to be any sort of regulation about telling the truth. If there's a law on the books that says you have to tell the truth, but it's never enforced, it's like having a posted speed limit but knowing there's never going to be a policeman there with a radar gun to check up on it. Candidates or organizations aren't bound by the truth, particularly when they've got PACs where they don't have to identify who they are. That's really, really different. If you've got a candidate who's got any sort of morality, they don't want to do that. And if you're bound by the truth but your opponent isn't, before you've even decided who's going to spend the most money, you're already at a disadvantage. It's like bringing a butter knife to a gunfight.

And the "truth-o-meters"?

I know people think we've got PolitiFact now to check on everything, but anyone who buys that idea is being lazy. PolitiFact has their own issues, their own bent, their own way of looking at things. The only way for people to know if they're being told the truth is to do an investigation themselves. With the Internet, there is plenty they can do, but it takes time and Americans love to have everything spoon-fed to them. So when you don't have any gatekeeper for the truth and people are not willing to do the work themselves, that's why you have so many people voting against their own self-interest. They don't even know they're voting against themselves.

You played a pivotal role in Russ Feingold's campaign. He had less money, less name recognition, and he ended up winning. How does a lesser-funded underdog take on, for example, the governor in a recall?

I want to be really clear that what we did for Russ was certainly helpful and even key, but he won because he had a great ground game. It wasn't just the advertising. And it's a completely different game today. When the Feingold campaign happened, cable television was rare; people watched broadcast TV and didn't have the ability to tape it and fast-forward through the commercials. There wasn't so much unlimited PAC money spent on commercials that people didn't even want to watch television for the last two weeks before an election. But I still believe—even today when I've never seen more negative advertising—that there is room to sell somebody positively, so that people are actually voting for a candidate. All advertising is comparative, it has to be, but what I would call classic negative advertising—where somebody says something mean about somebody and they have an unflattering black-and-white photograph and sinister music—that stuff is really on the rise. But if you can find the right person to run, there is room to present them as a candidate that people want to get behind. You don't see that approach very often anymore. Look at the Republicans' primary. The Republicans themselves can't get behind any of these people. So how are they possibly going to run against Obama? The only thing they're going to be able to do is bash him. Will that work? I don't know. I think Obama at his peak made people want to vote for him. To a certain extent, that makes you bulletproof even when people are spending millions and millions of dollars bashing you.

Is it possible to overcome today's big money?

You can become an enormous hit on the Internet for little or no money. But I think it's about finding some new candidates with a certain charisma, and maybe no political baggage, that people can get excited about. And I don't see anybody like that in Wisconsin politics. Maybe they're out there. But I think that's going to be necessary. I guess what I'm saying is that if we play it with the same kind of candidates and the same kind of advertising, we're going to lose. And that will be really bad, because it will suck all the energy out of anybody ever trying to do this sort of thing again; and on the other side, those people will think: If we have the Koch brothers' money behind us or whatever, we can do whatever we want, because if we can get away with it in Wisconsin, the rest of the states are going to be a piece of cake. This election will be watched around the world.

What needs to change in Wisconsin?

What I sense in the last 25 years is that there's sort of a Madison network that's controlling who's going to run the races and what they're going to say. I'm seeing the same people in Madison managing the campaigns, doing the same kind of commercials over and over, and at best they're wallpaper. Somebody needs to do something different this time, run a different candidate and do a different kind of campaign. I will say this: Whoever managed the recall, I was really impressed by the way they handled it. The whole idea of suddenly delivering almost twice as many signatures as they needed, and making that be a surprise and a real story—I thought that was brilliantly handled. Maybe that's a sign of things to come. I hope so.


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