Ad guru tries to beat Trump at own game

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“As both a political ad guy, and a general ad guy,” says Sonoma’s Bob Gardner, “I always lean toward trying to do the kind of commercial that will draw people in, and make them think a little bit.”

Adds Gardner: “As opposed to trying to hit them over the head with a sledgehammer.”

A seasoned political media consultant and the founder and president of San Francisco’s the Advocacy Group – an advertising and communications firm with a focus on corporate, crisis and political messages – Gardner recently found himself in the midst of a global social-media maelstrom.

The cause is a quartet of eye-opening YouTube spots, vigorously ridiculing presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump.

In one gleefully salacious 30-second commercial, a supremely flexible yoga practitioner teases Trump’s self-proclaimed “size.” Another is a straight-shooting 60-second coffee-shop oratory featuring two friends debating the pros-and-cons of Trump’s much ballyhooed “political un-correctness.” A third features an adorably expressive baby, observing his Trump-supporting father in baby-ish horror, while comparing the “nasty” billionaire candidate to his own self-centered, toy-hoarding big brother.

The fourth spot presents a friendly poker game that turns political when a player cautiously remarks that Trump must know what he’s doing because, “He’s a world class deal maker,” to which another player scoffs, “He bankrupted a casino, dude.” The spot ends with one of the poker buddies arguing, “Look, we made a bad bet last time and lost. Let’s not double down.” “And end up with Hillary,” adds another card holder, ruefully, as they all nod in buzz-diminished alarm.

What the spots have in common – aside from their all being brazenly anti-Trump, and certainly anti-Clinton – is a playful energy and a deliciously wry sense of humor.

“I believe in that,” says Gardner. “You have to use humor. You can’t take on Donald Trump head on. We’ve seen how badly that works out. He dropped 17 opponents, a lot of whom were trying to take him head-on. And now, I think the Clinton camp – and to some extent the Sanders camp – is making the same mistake.”

An avowed conservative, Gardner has worked in the advertising and marketing industry for over 35 years. Having once served as a speech-writer for Donald Rumsfield, he’s created advertising campaigns, written catchy jingles, and devised television commercials for Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mitt Romney, and others. As such, Gardner strongly believes Trump is a bad representative of Republican ideals.

“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he says of the candidate many assumed had joined the race as a lark, or a strategy to pave a path for some new reality show. But then, all the other Republicans dropped out of the race.

“I finally had to do something,” Gardner says.

The resulting “Why Trump?” spots, despite their entertainment value – and Gardner’s established conservative cred – have drawn a fair amount of flak from the political right, as well as from the left – while predictably irritating a large number of Trump supporters. On YouTube, certain viewers, mistakenly assuming the Trump-attacking ads to be pro-Democrat, have excoriated Gardner for “throwing Hillary under the bus,” while other viewers, apparently a bit confused about how ads are made, actually attacked the actress playing the yoga practitioner for thinking anyone cared about her political opinion. More than a few have said the ads would have convinced them to vote for Trump – had they not already decided to do so long ago.

Gardner says he’s just glad the spots have inspired conversation.

That said, he admits that in terms of their original purpose – to obstruct Donald Trump’s stampede to the Republican Presidential nomination – the commercials arrived a tad too late.

“These spots were done a few weeks ago, so of course they’re political ancient history,” he says. “It was back when we thought that California was going to be the primary in which Donald Trump was finally stopped, prevented from getting the necessary delegates for his ballot victory. They were made with that expectation.”

Of course, after Trump’s astonishing victory in Indiana, in early May, stopping Trump became a moot issue. But Gardner says he didn’t want his “Why Trump?” spots to sit on a shelf somewhere. That’s how they ended up on YouTube, and other social media outlets, where they immediately went viral, sparking a furor from all sides that has called as much attention to Gardner and the Advocacy Group as to their Trump-opposing message.

“This whole ‘Why Trump?’ thing has been covered nationally and internationally, tweeted and retweeted, and shared all over the world,” he says. The reason, Gardner believes, is that the spots are noticeably different, in terms of their approach, from most “negative” political ad campaigns.

“Most negative advertising looks like one ad person did it for both sides,” he says. “It’s a very standard format. You take a distorted photo of the opponent, add some sort of creepy music, and run scary newspaper headlines across the bottom of the screen, with a very foreboding voice-over. They almost all look like that.”

To Gardner – who suggests that a Donald Trump candidacy does not necessarily mean a Hillary Clinton presidency – the whole campaign has been one surprise after another. The possibility of a third party candidate still looms, for one thing, and the ultimate outcome of Bernie Sanders’ unpredictable tenacity is impossible to guess.

“What a crazy race this has been, and it’s far from over,” Gardner says. “Everybody says that Hillary should probably have put Bernie away weeks and weeks ago. In fact, I think the two most surprised people in this race are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.”

Contact David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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