Donald Trump ran one of the most unorthodox — and successful — political campaigns in modern history. One aspect of the campaign that hasn’t received much attention is the Trump ad strategy: How did the Trump media team sell one of the best known and least traditional candidates in history to a skeptical public?
GOP media consultant Larry Weitzner was at the center of that effort. The CEO of GOP ad firm Jamestown Associates, Weitzner crafted the Trump TV message. Weitzner and I exchanged emails earlier this week and he agreed to an interview. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited, is below.
Q: Donald Trump is a very, very unorthodox candidate. And a very famous one. What challenges did that pose in terms of running ads about him?
Weitzner: President-elect Trump was not a typical political candidate and he did not want typical political ads. There’s no way he would walk through a factory talking to camera while reading lines from a TelePrompTer. Mr. Trump wanted high-energy, high-impact ads that fit his message, and that is what we gave him. He instantly rejected ads he deemed “boring.”
This ad (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFmF7fDew78) particularly satisfied Mr. Trump’s desire for high-energy, high-impact, non-boring communication. [Trump campaign chairman] Steve Bannon and [campaign manager] Kellyanne Conway told me we needed an ad capturing the fact that Mr. Trump started “a movement, not a campaign.” The ad isn’t issue-oriented, but it captures the feeling everyone on the Trump campaign, everyone at his rallies, and everyone supporting his candidacy saw as great enthusiasm for his “movement.”
Mr. Trump is also a pro when it comes to production and lighting. We had to make sure lighting and set-ups were perfect on production shoots. I even hired crew that previously lit him on “The Apprentice.” Once Mr. Trump was confident we knew what we were doing, everything went very smoothly.
Submitting spots for review was another unorthodox aspect of the campaign. Bannon, [Trump son-in-law] Jared Kushner and [Trump digital director] Brad Parscale directed me to produce spots for review without approving scripts – they wanted to see our vision. I loved that. It gave us a chance to do some interesting ads without idly waiting around for script approval. One of the closing ads, “Choice” was the result of a brainstorming session at Jamestown Associates’ Philadelphia office, where our team came up with the concept of uniquely focusing on one American voter and the choice she was tasked with making. Another ad, “Change” clearly illustrated the change Mr. Trump would bring to D.C. versus Hillary Clinton’s “more of the same.”
Finally, the closing ad, “Argument for America” was originally produced as a two-minute web video. After seeing it and sharing it with the Trump team, Parscale – who gets credit for the idea – told me, “Everyone loves it, we are putting it on TV.” Now, that is unorthodox. Two-minute political commercials don’t usually air nationwide. It blew up on social media, with more than eight million hits, greater than any TV ad produced by either campaign. So many people have told us that ad was the turning point in deciding to vote for President-elect Trump.
Q: Hillary Clinton was outspending Trump on TV in most swing states throughout the fall. How did you combat that spending disadvantage?
Weitzner: We had to grin and bear it. We tried to be smart with where and how we spent money on TV, and we had a very robust earned and digital media campaign. We tried to produce impactful spots with a little bit of edge to cut through the political noise.
Q: What ad or ads that you guys did really cut through the clutter? And, why?
Weitzner: When Hillary Clinton said that half of Donald Trump’s supporters resided in a “basket of deplorables” we knew we’d been handed a gift. The “deplorables” comment was her “47 percent” moment, truly revealing her disdain for millions of hard-working people in this country. The moment her “deplorables” comment was reported, I spoke to my partner, Jason Miller, who served as head of communications for the campaign, about how big a game-changer this could be. We instantly got to work on an ad. We produced it over the weekend and Jason showed it to Mr. Trump who loved it. Mr. Trump had two great recommendations: first, include more of Hillary speaking about all the “deplorables,” next; sharpen the closing line of the script to emphasize Hillary’s elitism. The edits turned a good ad into a great ad, and was followed by this ad that drove the point home.
Q: What ad that Clinton did hurt you guys the most? Why?
Weitzner: The Clinton campaign produced uniformly excellent negative ads. They hurt. What was missing was a message that gave swing voters something to vote for, rather than against. They tried, but could never really connect because their messenger was not believable or relatable.
Q: Finish this sentence: “The single biggest untold story of the Trump ad campaign is __________.” Now, explain.
Weitzner: Donald Trump is a brilliant man, who more than anyone, understood American voters yearned for change and hope that someone could “Make America Great Again.”