But one Montgomery company had it in the bag. Sen. Gerald Dial’s bag, to be exact.
Public Strategy Associates, the political advertising firm that produced Sen. Gerald Dial's 2010 campaign ads for the state Senate, won a Silver Pollie Award from the American Association of Political Consultants.
The award is for a direct-mail campaign that sent paper sacks –- labeled as trash bags -– to voters in Dial’s district.
The ad's message? Those other campaign ads are garbage, so put them in here.
“We knew voters would be getting lots of ads in the mail, so we tried to find something that would stand out,” said Brent Buchanan, senior partner at the firm.
Dial defeated Democrat Greg Varner, an Ashland lawyer, last year in the race for District 13 seat in the Alabama Senate, which represents Cleburne, Clay, Randolph and Chambers counties.
It was a comeback for Dial, who held the seat for eight terms as a Democrat before losing a primary in 2006. As a longtime legislator and party-switcher, Dial had a long history in Montgomery -- something that an opponent could have mined for negative material.
Buchanan said his firm expected negative ads late in the race. So rather than planning for specific attacks, they sent the trash bag to voters about a month before the Nov. 2 election.
“Basically, we told them Greg Varner’s going to be sending you a lot of trash about Gerald Dial,” Buchanan said. “Put it in here.”
When asked what negative ads actually came from the Varner campaign, Buchanan claimed there were several. But he would name only one: an ad that claimed Dial once proposed legislation to create a mandatory lottery.
“There was the lottery ad, which of course wasn’t true,” Buchanan said.
News accounts from the late 1990s disagree with Buchanan’s statement. Various newspaper reports show that Dial proposed a $1-per-week tax for education, with a lottery-like payout to one taxpayer every week. According to news accounts from the time, Dial proposed the measure as an alternative to then-Gov. Don Siegelman’s lottery proposal.
Varner turned the proposal into an ad saying that if Dial had gotten his way “even your preacher would have to play” the lottery.
Mentally, voters seem to have placed lottery ad in the circular file. Varner lost the election.
But it’s not at all clear that the “trash bag” ad helped voters look past Varner’s ad.
“I have to admit, (the trash bag mailer) was a great ad,” Varner said. “A very smart idea. But if I had to pick the biggest factors in the race, that ad would definitely not be on my list.”
Buchanan said his firm doesn’t have hard data to prove that the trash bag ad swayed voters in favor of Dial –- though he does say Dial cited the ad as the most popular of his campaign.
Attempts to reach Dial for comment were unsuccessful.
The American Association of Political Consultants is a nationwide trade organization for political advertising firms. The group bills itself as non-partisan, but it could just as well be described as bipartisan: the Pollie Awards are divided into Democratic and Republican categories, as well as categories for various political races. The Dial ad won in the category for direct mail ad campaigns for Republican state legislators.
Judges in the contest seem to have a taste for humor, sharp criticism and ads that use the opponent’s own rhetoric against him. Among the other winners was a Democratic Web video that spoofs the “Demon Sheep” ad produced for Republican California governor candidate Carly Fiorina; a mobile-device ad for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmanm made specifically for people attending the Minnesota State Fair; and a labor union’s ad capitalizing on Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell’s comments about witchcraft.
Buchanan’s firm didn’t send anyone to the award ceremony. Most firms at the ceremony are aligned strongly with one party or the other,he said, but despite the rhetoric during campaign season, the consultants get along well across party lines.
“Most of us get along pretty well,” he said. “We’re all in this for the long run, so you learn not to burn any bridges.”
Contact assistant metro editor Tim Lockette at 256-235-3560