[September 2004]

Anyone who knows Bill Hillsman knows two things. He’s both a very serious and a very funny guy. And he is a master at the art of promotion, including self-promotion. Here’s a man with no compunction about self-praise: “Regarded as without peer nationally when it comes to achieving results through unorthodox marketing methods to a jaded public,” says his staff bio at his North Woods Advertising firm’s website. But what the heck? Even if he is his own number-one fan, he’s not wrong.

Hillsman and his North Woods crew’s ads (“Fast-Paced Paul,” “Jesse Ventura Action Figure”) were the driving forces—some would say the burning spears—behind the low-budget election upsets of Senator Paul Wellstone and Governor Jesse Ventura. He also fashioned the much-respected Ralph Nader ad campaign in 2000.

Hillsman’s first book, Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System, One Campaign at a Time, hooks its audience early on with plenty of dishing about those famed renegade campaigns. Hillsman details at length the initial reluctance of Wellstone and his chief handler, Pat Forciea, to air the hilarious “Fast-Paced Paul” ad in 1990, on the grounds that it failed to make Wellstone “look senatorial”—as if the Garfunkel-haired, spark-plug-sized professor could ever look the part. The more media-savvy Ventura, on the other hand, did not hesitate to approve the action-figure motif for his ad campaign—though it took some fast talking to get Ventura’s family to agree to his famous last-minute “Jesse the Mind” spot, in which The Body appeared as an apparently nude, winking version of Rodin’s The Thinker.

The book drops a couple of other fascinating side notes, too. It reveals, for instance, that early in the 2000 race, Wellstone and Jesse Jackson considered running on a single presidential ticket, but the idea fell apart when they couldn’t decide who should top the bill. It also pointedly describes sad changes in Paul Wellstone between the time of his idealistic 1990 Senate victory and his more orthodox 1996 re-election bid. By then, Wellstone had waffled on gay rights, voting for the Defense of Marriage Act. He flip-flopped on motorized vehicles in the protected Boundary Waters. He flipped on whether he would vote for a flag-burning constitutional amendment.

Hillsman all but accuses the senator of morphing into a pawn of the system he had once fought against. The 1996 race was a reelection bid that Hillsman plainly found dispiriting, especially as it became clear the senator was falling under the sway of big campaign donors and election-mill hacks and pollsters—the open cabal that Hillsman dubs “Election Industry Inc.” In fact, on this point (and partly in defense of the senator), it could be noted that in his unsparing and even somewhat unkind treatment of Wellstone, Hillsman himself might be charged with a bit too much idealism. Without rejecting Hillsman’s critique out of hand, it’s worth asking: What mere mortal wouldn’t be forever altered by six soul-compromising years on Capitol Hill?

In Wellstone’s case, the influence of Election Industry Inc. led to a bit of senatorial paranoia, according to Hillsman. His book describes an episode in which Wellstone pulled the adman aside, expressing fear that a Republican flack photographed him in a compromising position as he left the opulent home of a California donor after a fundraiser. Wellstone was worried that Republicans might publish the picture, which could make it appear the senator was hiding his face in his coat, like some mafia don fleeing a courthouse (he apparently was simply putting the jacket on when he heard a camera shutter click). The photo was never produced, and Hillsman suspects the camera was empty.


But paparazzi ambushes have only become more common since 1996, which says something about the tactical maneuvers of Election Industry, Inc. The heart of Hillsman’s book is an indictment of this industry—and the political parties, pollsters, political consultants, media mavens, special interest groups and lobbyists that exist to serve it.
In his view, the system exists for two purposes—self-preservation and money. It’s all about incumbency. Incumbents, subordinated to the system, don’t create problems the way occasional mavericks like Ventura and John McCain do. Elected officials accustomed to the royal treatment, who have it in their power to fix rules to prohibit the intrusion of outsiders, have little incentive to change those rules in the interest of the public.

“ Election Industry Inc. is a vast and mendacious enterprise that has fooled all but the smartest and bravest candidates into believing that their way is the only way,” Hillsman writes. “Using the power of money and media, it is debasing our democracy and aligns itself against the best parts of our nature. Election Industry Inc. is an enemy of the people, with colossal advantages and odds that are overwhelmingly in its favor.” The rhetoric is a little hot, but the sentiment resonates.

Hillsman complains that campaign staffs rarely employ anyone who understands modern communications and methods of persuasion. Campaign managers earn their stripes not by mastering communications, he writes, but by knowing how to organize an office and run a volunteer organization. On top of that, the best ad agencies generally want nothing to do with the blood sport of electoral politics. That leaves the field wide open to Election Industry charlatans, who uniformly don’t get it, according to Hillsman. Most political advertising fails to convey candidates’ core message, particularly those candidates who are trying not to go negative. The ads do nothing to grab viewers’ attention and elicit no response—in short, they fail all the tests of modern marketing. This is of no consequence to Election Industry Inc. because their m.o. is simply to carpet-bomb their advertising, targeting TV viewers with the same ads again and again until they grow nauseous. Then they broadcast them some more.

“ Let’s face it: Most political ads are crap,” Hillsman writes. “If Coke or Pepsi were advertised as badly as most candidates are, we would never drink cola.” Still, he acknowledges, it takes more than a few well-placed creative and effective ads to stage the kind of upsets Wellstone and Ventura achieved. It takes intelligence, sound strategizing, expertly targeted marketing, and—if Hillsman is to be believed—dedication to the notion that the candidate’s message is real.

There’s one other requirement that Election Industry Inc. seems unable to grasp, let alone provide. The candidate must be likeable. As he does repeatedly in his book, Hillsman ably boils down such complexities to a few cogent lines. “Voters have to feel comfortable having you the candidate in their living room, especially in these days of TV-oriented campaigns. If they’re not—if they can’t trust you and don’t like you—it doesn’t matter what you have to say about Social Security or education or foreign policy or any of the Big Issues. They aren’t listening. You can have the best ideas in the world. But if voters don’t like you, they aren’t going to vote for you.”

Hillsman’s analysis does not portend well for frosty presidential aspirant John Kerry, chosen not so much for his likeability as his “electability”—a supposed Kerry characteristic that was vigorously peddled during the Democratic primaries by practitioners of Election Industry Inc.


Run the Other Way doesn’t just dissect the entrenched problems of the American electoral system—after all, as an adman Hillsman is charged not just with identifying challenges, but also with finding creative ways to surmount them. His proposal for taking down Election Industry, it turns out, may not be all that radical. Hillsman advocates a new progressive third-party movement, optimistically predicting that it is merely a matter of time before a third-party candidate is elected president. So not surprisingly, Hillsman directs his greatest disgust at the two major parties, which he believes actively attempt to limit the number of voters drawn to the polls.

Despite their perfunctory teeth-gnashing about low voter turnout, the electionmeisters pretty much want everyone to stay home, he says—everyone except for their own party faithful, those whose votes and attitudes they can predict, if not actually control. That’s why the emergence of figures like Ross Perot and Ventura, or even nominal major-party mavericks like McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger, threw Election Industry Inc. into convulsions. These candidates carry a message—and elicit a response—that can’t be easily measured, polled or controlled. And that, Hillsman insists, is because they appeal to independent-minded voters: people who think for themselves, take their time deciding how to cast their vote, and ignore the sludge that passes for “information.”

“ As far as Election Industry Inc. is concerned, participation in our democracy is only good as long as it is predictable,” writes Hillsman. “Political parties don’t want independent- minded voters going to the polls. They want like-minded voters going to the polls. They and their pollsters want to know what issue is most important to you and where you stand on that issue. Then—and only then—do they care or want to know if you intended to vote. If you’re with ’em, golly gee yes, they want you to vote and they’ll spend plenty of money telling you how right you are to think the way you think and vote the way you do. They’ll even arrange a ride to the polls for you.

“ If you’re agin ’em, however, they will do everything they can to make you stay home, including making it difficult for you to get into the polls once you get to the polling place. Sometimes—as we saw in our last presidential election—they make it difficult for your vote to count even after you’ve cast it.”

The adman wraps up his book with a series of recommendations on how to run winning insurgent campaigns. It isn’t the book’s brightest spot, consisting mainly of a series of generalities (“Use the Internet effectively”; “Achieve critical mass in your fundraising”; “Be creative”) that don’t go very far in describing how to achieve those objectives. With all the obstacles put in place by the major-party powers, that is, after all, the central question.

But that’s a fairly small complaint. Overall, this is a unique, valuable, idiosyncratic analysis of our American state of political paralysis. Even if the hyperbolic polarization of the current election cycle suggests that there is little chance of immediately implementing much of the Hillsman program, his book nevertheless makes worthy reading for anyone seeking to understand how the current crisis happened and what might be done about it.

Kevin Featherly (www.featherly.com) is a Bloomington reporter and columnist who covers politics and technology.


© 2004 Bill Hillsman