An A+ For Allan

I’ve repeatedly raised questions about whether Minnesota Senate candidate Al Franken’s wiseacre act can sell in Lake Woebegone. And the recent Star Tribune gossip column item about Franken allegedly mocking a conservative Carleton College student (not a misprint) renews concerns about how Al’s incendiary talk radio style will mesh with Minnesota Nice.

But I have to say Franken’s “Mrs. Molin” television ad is political advertising that belongs at the top-of-the-class.

Franken has a daunting strategic communications “to do” list in front of him. He needs to remind people that he grew up in Minnesota, without sounding defensive or like he is trying too hard. He needs to show he’s a serious guy without papering over the rest of who he is. If he tries to mask his smart-ass personality with prototypical political programming, Minnesotans’ BS Meters will go mad. And in the process, he would rob himself of his greatest asset, his distinctiveness.

That’s a tricky communications assignment, and most consultants would get it wrong. With this ad, Franken’s consultant got it right.

In a world polluted by prosaic, pre-fabricated political ads, Mrs. Molin comes to the rescue. Mrs. Molin, Franken’s Energizer Bunny of a fourth grade teacher, repeatedly reminds us that Allan grew up in Minnesota. Not by beating us over the head with it, but with spry storytelling.

Mrs. Molin brags on Allan endlessly, but she does it with credibility that standard political ads lack. It’s palatable, cute even, when a teacher points out that her star pupil went to Harvard and writes books, because that’s what proud teachers do.

Mrs. Moline even good-naturedly corrects her pupil for spinning himself as a “satirist” instead of a “comedian,” to the student’s great amusement. That playful banter spotlights an unaffected, self-effacing Midwesterner who can laugh at himself and respect his elders, not a big shot who went all East Coast on us, or a self-absorbed, thin-skinned megalomaniac, like the last celebrity Minnesota elected.

By bridging the gap between little Allan and big Al, the ad begins to bridge the Grand Canyon-sized cultural gap between Saturday Night Live and Saturday night potlucks. For instance, “married for 32 years” isn’t a phrase you read in many People magazine profiles.

At same time, the essential Al Franken is not hidden away. The wisecracking is still there, but so is the less familiar side.

Importantly, the Mrs. Molin ad starts to disarm some major Franken vulnerabilities – “not from here,” “not in touch with us culturally,” and “too big for his celebrity britches” — without getting overly defensive or boastful. Mrs. Molin’s kind words feels almost akin to an endorsement from the Minnesota Church Basement Gals Association, a key cultural constituency in the Land of 10,000 Hotdishes.

Is the ad as entertaining as the best of the Super Bowl ads? No. But it’s much more entertaining than other political ads, and unlike most of those entertaining Super Bowl ads, this one is actually strategic and effective.

Love Al(lan) or loathe him, he has produced a fine piece of political advertising. He better find himself a mighty shiny apple for Mrs. Molin.

– Joe(seph) Loveland

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19 thoughts on “An A+ For Allan

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Wow, regardless of one’s affinity for Al Franken that is a beautiful, insightful analysis of what I think is only a sixty-second ad. Look at all the complexities confronting the producers in conveying Franken’s message to touch all the right notes. TSRC at the top of its game!

  2. Hornseth says:

    You know what’s the real star of political TV advertising?

    COFFEE!

    Case in point: Here you see the candidate holding a pot of coffee and pouring coffee into a coffee mug. I presume there’s another mug for his wife, because there’s a half-pot left. Then, a bit later, it’s the candidate talking with the concerned parents — and all three have a nice cup of coffee before them.

    I suspect that the teacher’s coffee cup is there but just out of shot.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Too bad the reality of Franken’s caustic personality and track record of volatility overshadow the ad agency’s work.

  4. Dennis Lang says:

    Okay Mr. Loveland, check out Anonymous, above. He’s still unconvinced despite our brilliant first ad. I’m an Al Franken handler. I come to you with the challenge to create a piece that persuades Anonymous that his perception of the “reality” of the candidate is inaccurate. How do you change his mind? Is it possible? Or is he so tied to his preconception he is invariably unyielding? What’s our next ad?

  5. jmaustin says:

    I don’t have a follow-up ad to suggest, but I think it’s interesting that Al jumps from Mrs. Molin’s class right into Harvard without mentioning his time – junior and senior years – at The Blake School, the snooty prep school on the hill (and – since they have three campuses – the one downtown and out in Wayzata). I understand why as it would undercut all the things Al’s trying to communicate, but it’s fun to note nonetheless.

    Austin

  6. Bill Dewey says:

    I’d like to see that ad, but outside the constituency we don’t get such stuff. Would the campaign allow you to post it here (with disclaimers, of course)?

  7. jloveland says:

    Bill, you should be able to see the ad by clicking on “Mrs. Molin television ad” in the text of the post. If not, go to youtube.com and search for “Mrs. Molin.

  8. jloveland says:

    Dennis, I should note that I’ve been skeptical about Mr. Franken’s candidacy. He hasn’t been my first choice, but I’ll support him if he runs against my last choice, Senator Coleman.

    The next ad? First, I’d stop thinking of my good friend Anonymous as your audience. In any campaign, there are persuadables and unpersuadables, and I’d guess Anonymous may be in the latter category.

    With no research and all of thirty seconds thought, at this stage I’d maybe go with an establishment liberal statesman endorsement, with an innoculation on the “unsenatorial” charges. Reason: Establishment liberal statesman, because a) this is a nomination fight rather than a general election, so enlisting liberals is Job One, so go with a credible messenger for that audience; and b) some still doubt whether Mr. Franken is “serious enough” or has the right “senatorial demeanor” and a rebuttal from a respected Senator will answer that more effectively than simply dressing Mr. Franken up like a Senator.

    Example: Walter Mondale (a supporter?) to camera interspersed with clips of Mr. Franken with Minnesotans: “’A comedian in the U.S. Senate? You’ve got to be kidding me.’ That was my first reaction when I heard Al Franken was running for the U.S. Senate. As we polite Minnesotans sometimes say, “well, that’s different.” As a Minnesota Senator for XX years, I know a little bit about what it takes to be a Senator. And after spending time with Al and watching him in action, I gotta tell you my first reaction was dead wrong. Al Franken will be a great Minnesota Senator in the tradition of Paul Wellstone. He has an uncanny ability to connect with ordinary Minnesotans. He has a huge heart, and he’s a great listener. He knows his stuff as well as any Senator, and he’s right on the issues. Look, Al is plenty wise enough to know the difference between the roles of a satirist and a senator. But satirists are all about exposing the truth, and that part of Al Franken will never go away. A satirist as a senator? Well, that IS different. But you know what? I think Congress could benefit from a little something different for a change.”

    Very rough, and worth the price I’m charging. I’d go shockingly candid to cut through the clutter of cookie cutter ads. Whatever ad they do, this is their “to do list.” Innocuate against the “unsenatorial” attacks to come (because responding under attack will sound defensive). Validate the skepticism Minnesotans are still feeling (see high negatives) and then disarm it. Frame the alleged weakness as a strength by making Franken’s differentness dovetail with the electorates hunger for change.

  9. jloveland says:

    Good point, Hornseth. And for Walter, really weak Folgers perked by raw egg-wielding church ladies. Executional details are key.

  10. Dennis Lang says:

    Mr. Loveland– An education on the marketing of a personality. Fascinating! Thanks for picking up on my question and I must admit the next time I saw the Franken ad after reading your initial piece it was rather like seeing it for the first time.

  11. Becky says:

    Forgive me if someone’s mentioned this, but I can’t watch that commercial without expecting to hear him say “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, vote for me.”

    Signed,
    Generally bored and turned off by the 2008 election

  12. Dennis Lang says:

    Mr. Loveland–Great stuff! Examining these campaign ads from the inside-out. The challenge to convey an idea creatively–and memorably. What are your thoughts on Mike Ciresi’s consistent inability to capture an audience despite his compelling resume? By the way, care to share the recipe for those muffins consumed by management in a neutral-toned conference room several weeks ago? How long does the adrenaline rush last?

  13. jloveland says:

    I have enormous respect for Mr. Ciresi. He’s done a great service to our state and to ordinary people around the world. He’s an interesting, compelling guy with a great story. He’d be a terrific Senator. In a primary I may well vote for him. But his ads look too much like all other ads to get noticed and felt.

    My ill-informed opinion: When you need to tell your own story, I prefer someone else do it. Third parties are much more credible. And if you want to stick out from all the other political ads, you need more provocative language, tones and visuals than all the other political ads. If you know people are hung up on the lawyer thing or the not warm and fuzzy thing, then raise the issue proactively and make it into a strength.

    But this is all just parlor game stuff. I don’t know enough about either candidate’s spefici situation (research, budget, candidate preference parameters, etc.) to have an informed opinion.

  14. Dennis Lang says:

    Mr. Loveland–At the risk of wearing out this subject just one more question from me if you have time. I can recall reading about specific product-ad campaigns such as “uncola”, the original Volkswagan Beetle (underwater?) Lifesaver candies, Barbasol (sp?) and others where the the success (really the foraging of a market niche in the first place) was attributable to the creativity of the campaign. Can we find similar instances in political advertising? For instance how important was Wellstone’s imaginative ad approach to electing him? How detrimental was Barry Goldwater’s (yeah ,dates me, I was just a kid)–the little girl and the mushroom cloud? How do we evaluate the impact of the advertising? The Novick spots are truly exceptional.

  15. jloveland says:

    There are lots of good ones out there. Google something like “best political ads” and you’ll get a bunch. There are a lot of unsuccessful candidates on those lists, but that has a lot to do with the incumbency advantage.

    The measure of any political ad is impact on polling, and ultimately votes, but bang for buck is important too, particularly for cash starved challengers. Campaigns measures impressions as if every impression is created equally. Remember a guy named Jesse Ventura? What’s more memorable and impactful? Watching a standard cookie cutter ad — you know The One — 20 times or watching his Thinker ad once? Not every impression is created equal.

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