Ad Men
In TV advertisements, Bruce Harrell (top), Ed Murray (middle) —and even Mayor Mike McGinn (bottom)—found their own way to distance themselves from the incumbent.

In the opening shot of mayoralchallenger Bruce Harrell’s first and only TV ad of this summer’s primary race, mayor Mike McGinn’s disembodied head looms large and heavy over the Seattle skyline. Then, as Harrell declares in voiceover that the incumbent had “failed and fractured” the city,
McGinn’s head shatters and crumbles. It was the first TV ad broadcast by any candidate, and it set the tone for every challenger: At all costs, define yourself as the anti-McGinn candidate. 

Given McGinn’s dismal job approval rating of just 32 percent, according to a July KING 5/SurveyUSA poll, it was a smart strategy. Collectively, the mayoral candidates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads and mail pieces in the dash to the August 6 primary. Those ads were packed with lofty themes; state senator Ed Murray said, simply, “Seattle can do better.” There were to-do lists, like Harrell’s promises to propose “legislation to improve women’s pay.” And there were boasts about past accomplishments; former city council member Peter Steinbrueck took credit for “protecting Discovery Park.” But ultimately the candidates spent their money trying to emerge as the alternative to McGinn. The only question: Should your ads go after him directly or take a more clever approach?

Harrell’s approach was the most explicit. After hitting voters over the head with the McGinn-is-a-divisive-ogre theme, his TV ads went on to introduce the two-time city council member as the friendly alternative. The spot told the feel-good story of the local kid from the Central District–turned football hero–turned progressive lawyer, concluding with Harrell addressing the camera: “It’s time to have a mayor as innovative, collaborative, and compassionate as the people of Seattle. I will be that mayor.” The nicey--nice bio made for an odd transition, though, coming on the heels of his opening pot shot. 

And oddly, Harrell’s ads, both on TV and in the mail, failed to prioritize his go-to issue on the campaign trail: social justice. He was the clear winner at most of the debates, speaking forcefully about the underserved, but he only hinted at that theme in his advertising by referencing proposals on youth empowerment and women’s pay. Not contrasting himself with McGinn on issues of social justice was a strange choice for a candidate who clearly wanted to frame himself as an alternative. The strategy failed; he finished fourth on primary night.

Peter Steinbrueck, who could only afford to send mailers, took the opposite approach. Rather than go after McGinn directly, he stuck with a theme—standing up for neighborhoods—that indicted McGinn without using his name. One mail piece began, “I am running for Seattle mayor because we need to rebalance our city’s priorities around people, communities and neighborhoods before we lose what matters most to us.” Another mailer led with: “Peter Steinbrueck, Neighborhood Voice Neighborhood Choice.” The message echoed his stump speech, “Neighborhoods are the solution, not the problem,” and capitalized on the perception that McGinn’s urban development agenda pushed neighborhoods aside. 

However, Steinbrueck sacrificed a soft-focus bio similar to Harrell’s to focus on long lists of pro-neighborhood accomplishments, and his campaign suffered by not giving voters a person-ality to hang on to. Like Harrell’s, his approach wasn’t enough to push him through. He finished third on primary night.

Murray, who raised the most money and spent the most on TV and mail, went another direction entirely, neither hinting at a policy contrast nor explicitly framing his bio against McGinn’s. And as a result, Murray ran the blandest—not to mention safest—campaign, claiming simply that Seattle is “special” and that he’s a “progressive.” 

While Murray’s ads did list specific accomplishments—securing transportation funding, staving off Republican cuts to education, passing gay marriage—his ads never specified what he wanted to do, relying instead on focus-group catchphrases like “progressive leadership,” “shared values,” and his track record for bringing together traditional adversaries.

Frustrating pabulum perhaps, but there was a canny strategy at work. By sticking to that vague language and using a dreamy, over-the-top shout-out to idealized Baby Boomer icon JFK, Murray positioned himself as the anti-McGinn without even mentioning the mayor. He didn’t do it by going after the incumbent with a direct or specific critique, but by surrounding himself in friendly jargon that by implication pitted him against a mayor who’s perceived by many voters as a go-it-alone bully.

Going with a vague and friendly approach wasn’t all Murray did. In both his TV and mail ads he placed a heavy emphasis on gay marriage, including prominent shots of Murray—who’s gay—with his longtime partner. It was a savvy play. Not only did it introduce a strong personal component to the ads, it also incorporated a popular political story line—one that the vast majority of Seattleites find inspiring. Obviously, the generic approach worked; the once relatively little known state senator catapulted to first place on primary night.

Even McGinn riffed off the anti-McGinn sentiment. But in an attempt to reframe the narrative he directly challenged it. Each ad posed the same question—“What if we had a mayor who…?”
—followed by a different civic cause that needed funding. One TV piece focused on schools, another on libraries. Each ad ended by simply answering: “We do. And his name is Mike McGinn.”

At first the Q&A format seems a curious frame; why not just come out and say the mayor has funded all of these projects right off the bat? But it makes sense, when you realize the overarching theme of the primary season was casting McGinn as a bad guy. And so his campaign screamed, Why don’t people get it? I’ve accomplished all of this cool stuff! In light of his reputation for being defensive (or his dwindling popularity), at first the mayor kept his face out of his ads, opting instead to use on-camera testimonials from others. McGinn was challenging the conventional wisdom that he was a failure, but those ads must not have worked: A week before the primary the mayor changed strategies and showed up himself in a final, $60,000 spot directly addressing the camera with a list of his victories, on everything from a lower crime rate to fighting the proposed coal trains. His tone was soft, even friendly. But the message was the same: Stop picking on me.

All of this is fitting from McGinn, a know-it-all who believes he’s leading a truth-to-power campaign. He emerged during the primary with an ad built on the conspiratorial thesis that the public has been duped. And his ad strategy dovetailed with his core message: He’s going to keep fighting the establishment.

The antiestablishment line was sufficient to get him through the primary in second place. After weeks of questions about his ability to even make it to the general election, that little victory made it clear he’s still a force. For Murray, the question now is whether he’ll drop the vague anti-McGinn approach and get more specific. But the larger question is whether he’s prepared for the tables to be turned. Because in the runup to the November 5 vote, there’s no doubt the incumbent will try to drown out the anti-McGinn sentiment with a new one: I’m not like Ed.

Published: September 2013