Maybe I just have “birth control” written all over my face. Why else would they pick a photo of me for a television spot that says: “When the Bush administration tried to make it harder for women to access birth control, it was pro-choice attorney general Martha Coakley who sued to stop them?”
In the ad, I’m smiling at Coakley, as if I’m telling her how grateful I am. Don’t get me wrong. I support access to birth control. But I’ve never discussed it with Coakley. In fact, I’ve hardly discussed anything with her at all. That’s why my first thought was: Where the heck did that photo come from? And my second was: What does this say about how political ads are produced?
The picture was taken at City Councilor Tito Jackson’s turkey fry. Every year, the delicious smell of turkey wafts over Grove Hall, attracting neighborhood kids and powerbrokers to Jackson’s backyard. This summer, a steady stream of candidates rolled through, too. Don Berwick. Evan Falchuk. Steve Grossman, who served ice cream all afternoon. He’d just packed up his scoops when Coakley marched in with a chocolate cake.
I introduced myself, joking: “Did you and Grossman coordinate to come at different times?” She shook her head: Nope. That was the sum total of our conversation. So how did it end up in an ad about birth control?
Here’s how: Coakley’s photographer snapped pictures and posted them on Coakley’s Flickr page. Then a pro-Coakley super PAC, the Mass Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee, harvested it. Since super PACs can’t coordinate with candidates, they had no way of knowing the context. I could have been an anti-birth-control activist hissing death threats under my breath.
To its credit, the PAC edited me out as soon as I made the request. Still, I wondered about the rest of the people pictured in those ads. Some campaigns make people sign releases, saying they agree to allow their pictures to be used. (“That way, the only thing you have to worry about is using an old photo of someone who’s dead,” one consultant told me.)
But in this age of social media, Coakley and her supporters have thrown caution to the wind. I’m not the only victim of her Flickr account: Ron Bell, a Falchuk supporter, ended up in an ad produced by her campaign.
So how many of the people in these ads are actual supporters? For the answer, I called Vinny Minchillo, a former ad guy for Mitt Romney who recently produced the infamous “Republicans Are People, Too” video. It shows attractive people doing apparently Democrat-like things — “Republicans Recycle. Republicans Drive Priuses. Republicans are Black” — and was widely ridiculed when it turned out he’d used stock photos.
I asked Minchillo if it would have been easier to just find actual Republicans. Not at all, he said. Stock photos are cheaper than photo shoots, and can be used to portray anything you want.
“If you had posed for a stock photo, you could end up in an ad for Home Depot, or for a topless bar. There is very little vetting,” he said.
Flickr streams are different, though: photos of real people, at actual events.
“That’s one of the dirty secrets in politics,” Minchillo said. “The campaign puts materials on its website so that third parties can use them.” Coakley’s social media pages, he said, are a “gold mine” for third parties. “I’m sure they were looking for a woman, and a certain demographic set. . . You two look like you were super-engaged in conversation. I would have used that photo.”
But aren’t real supporters more effective? Not really, he said. The use of paid actors is extremely common. One of the most effective political ads of all time showed a little girl picking daisies, with a nuclear explosion and Lyndon Johnson’s voice in the background.
“There’s no guarantee that the girl plucking the daisy petals was a Democrat,” Minchillo said.
True. But no viewer would have assumed that. Not so with the ad I ended up in.
As jaded as we are, most of us still assume that politicians are more than just products — and that campaign ads aren’t car commercials. It would be nice if campaigns lived up to that expectation.
It’s one thing to use pictures from your own campaign rallies. It’s another thing to offer up photos of people who just came to taste the turkey.