You’re Doing Issue Advocacy Right When They Display Your Campaign in the Smithsonian

(Originally posted on CQ Connectivity here.)

On July 8, an issue advocacy advertisement created for The Corn Farmers Coalition was placed on permanent display at The American History Museum as part of their new American Enterprise exhibit – which, as described by the Smithsonian’s website, “chronicles the tumultuous interaction of capitalism and democracy that resulted in the continual remaking of American business—and American life.”

Visitors walking through the “Eras” of the exhibit will encounter Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, Alexander Graham Bell’s experimental telephone, an early version of the Monopoly board game and, ultimately, the Corn Farmers Coalition ad.

The piece, itself, came to the Smithsonian’s attention when it ran as a large poster in the Capitol South Metro station in Washington, D.C. (along with 53 other pieces).

In the distant past, I was lucky enough to have worked alongside Morgan Young, now president of Young Ideas, who is the creative force behind this campaign. Below is an excerpt from my interview with Morgan on how he approached this campaign and his overall philosophy towards the making of great issue advocacy advertising.

Tell us about the overall campaign message for The Corn Farmers Coalition, what were you trying to achieve?

The campaign started eight years ago as an effort to help inform opinion leaders on the reality about corn in America. Early on in our research we found that people had great misconceptions. Namely, they believed the myth that the family farmer doesn’t exist anymore. This is just factually not true. The creative approach to combat this was to keep things simple and highly visual. And source everything!

The greatest asset we have is the family farmer himself or herself. So a smiling farmer was front and center in our approach. To make a strong visual we had each farmer hold a large white board. From there we were able to insert a key number that served as the launch point for our 15 primary messages. Each message fed into the overall theme of “The Family Farmer is using innovation to help grow the US economy.” Over the years, fine-tuning the campaign, we have been able to hone in on the technology aspect of farming as being one that really resonates with the audience. As a result, messages that focus on technology have moved to the top of our list.

When you are working with an issue advocacy client, what are the key elements of creating the right campaign concept?

Just as a focus group participant may well bring preconceived notions into the room, so can the client. One of the most important tricks in this business is how to manage the client and their expectations. Sometimes you are dealing with someone who is not well versed in issue advocacy or brand campaigns. They get frustrated that we are not screaming from the treetops what the client believes “the truth” is about with their particular issue.

That’s where people skills come in handy. You need to say, “Hey, the person on the other side of the glass may be technically wrong, but if they believe it to be true, then it is true to them. Yelling at them won’t change their mind. It will only make them defensive and hunker down in their position.”

That’s where we need to get the client to trust us that we are going to get our message across, but in a way that the consumer of the ad will accept. From there, you have to be articulate and forceful enough in your communications to be able to sell the ad campaign. In the end, it is about building trust with the client. Ultimately you need to have them get to a point where they have full confidence in the vision of the campaign and confidence in the agency that it will be executed properly. Not an easy task. Not easy at all.

You have decades of experience in issue and political campaign creative, what defines a great piece of advertising for you?

One that resonates immediately. One that makes you think about something or someone in a new light. Where I live, in Colorado, I was inundated with political ads this year. Most of them were awful. But Cory Gardner’s ads (for U.S. Senate) did a wonderful job of casting him as affable, moderate, and trustworthy. Not a series of traits that had been associated with him before.

Gardner’s opponents’ ads missed the mark. His opponent had one message said over and over again without passion. They were technically on the money, but they were without passion. The audience grew tired of the single message campaign and tuned them out. They aired past their expiration date by months. It’s a fine line between hammering the message home and letting the message over saturate. That is where the art in the business lies.

Gardner, on the other hand, was able to redefine himself with his ads. A whole series of ads on different issues that fed to his core theme of, “I’m not scary; I’m likable and trustworthy.” He was able to wipe the canvas clean and start fresh. Not an easy task for somebody with a long voting record.

You have always leaned heavily on original photography for your campaigns (as opposed to stock photography). Tell us why.

You can smell a stock photo a million miles away. By their very definition, they are generic. Clients hate them and so do I. I believe the human face is the greatest connection we can make. And if I am dealing with an issue, any issue, I can find a real human who can serve as a spokesmodel for that campaign. And when I say a real person, I mean someone who lives and breathes that issue.

I think we were never more successful with this approach than with an effort to beat back an Asbestos Bailout Bill that the Bush Administration was pushing. The debate had become about numbers. How much would each victim get? When would they get it? It turned into a discussion on accounting, not a discussion about life and death. I sought out the victims, the real people this would impact, and I had them become the spokespeople for the campaign. These people were dying at that moment. Not in 20 years. Not even in 10. They had months to live in some cases. They and their family needed to be seen and heard, now! And when we put them on TV, the whole campaign changed.

It is amazingly powerful when you see a blue collar worker — direct to camera — who had worked his whole adult life on a job where his employer knew they were exposing him to a deadly disease and hear him say, “My doctor says I’m dying, I know I’m dying, but some Senator up in D.C. says I’m not dying? I want a second opinion.”

You can’t get that with stock photography. Never. If you need a blue sky to put into the background, fine. But don’t use paid models as the face of your campaign. We won that campaign by the way. To the surprise of everyone. Even me.

Is the corn real?

Of course it is! Back to the stock question, I admit, some of the actual corn shots are from stock images. That was a function of being forced to shoot in early spring when the corn was only knee high. But many of the shots, including the one for the ad being placed in The Smithsonian, the corn was as real as the people were real. Which is real real. The sky may be a little bluer, the corn a little greener, but it is real.

You are not the first member of the Young family to have a piece of work hanging in the Smithsonian, tell us about that.

Both my paternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather have pieces in collection at The Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. They hold four pieces in all. Now five are in the family! I did not know either of them well, so I am not going to claim any direct inspiration, but it is a nice asterisk to the story. They were struggling artists who reached success posthumously. When I was 18 years old, I flew to D.C. to represent the family at the unveiling. It is satisfying to be alive for the unveiling of my own piece!

Any other exciting projects you want to talk about that we can look out for around town?

We are always working on something. And with most of our clients, we have very strict Non-Disclosure Agreements that keep us from talking about them, even after they have been published. Yes, we have some work showing in D.C. and more work playing out in Boston and upstate New York for a different client, but alas, I am not in a position to talk about that. Yet.

Morgan Young is President and Founder of Young Ideas in Boulder, CO.