Business booming for Pittsburgh political ad firm BrabenderCox

Everyone agreed: The Vietnam spot was a winner.

The other ads attacked Obamacare, touted the candidate's military career, showed off his family. This one was different, a sepia-drenched take on his fight to have a Vietnam veteran honored on the national memorial in Washington, D.C. It hit everything at once: family, country, honor.

The only problem was the helicopter.

"Did he actually get injured in a helicopter?" editor Andy Keleman asks, clicking through the clip on his computer. The room is silent. The chopper hangs frozen in the digital night sky for an eternity before his boss has an answer.

"I think it was an APC," Rob Aho concedes from the couch. "But to me, that Huey puts you in Vietnam instantly."

And so the helicopter stays.

This is how political ads are born, dreamed up in small studios like this one on Mount Washington, shot, edited and distributed by people who know that every little detail -- even the placement of a helicopter -- can affect the course of a campaign.

As money pours into political advertising, firms across the country are launching advertising campaigns of never-before-seen sophistication. What was once a select industry has grown into a $3-billion-a-year behemoth that spans print, direct mail, television and the Internet.

Between April and September, politicians, parties and political action committees spent nearly $350 million on television advertising in the presidential race, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. That's nearly three times the $130 million spent during the same period in 2008, when Sen. John McCain and then-Sen. Barack Obama began to compete in earnest.

As campaigns grow more Internet-savvy, specialty consultants have sprung up to advise candidates on video, social media and online fundraising. But in politics, television is still king. So at BrabenderCox, a Pittsburgh ad agency that counts Rick Santorum and Tom Corbett among its clients, that means men like Mr. Aho are in charge.

A gregarious 39-year-old who never sits still for long, the BrabenderCox partner glows with that same combination of down-home charm and salesmanship that powers many of his clients' campaigns. Born in Franklin Park, he joined the firm in 2003 after a stint in public relations and traditional advertising.

Like many in the business, the black-and-white results of the ballot box appealed to him.

"There's no if's, and's or but's, no 0.2 percent increase in market share," Mr. Aho said. "You either won or you didn't."

This Friday in September, he's showing off the latest spots for an out-of-state Republican's campaign. (Because some of the advertisements have not yet aired, he asked that the candidate remain nameless.)

First up is a biographical ad -- the usual shots of the candidate at home with family or on the street with constituents. The colors are vibrant, the contrast sharp, Mr. Aho notes -- lending an air of vitality to both the candidate and the campaign.

It's followed by an attack ad on Obamacare, trumpeting the candidate's opposition. Door after door slams on woebegone doctors, shutting out their patients. Then the candidate steps in and pushes the door back open, mirroring his contention that the Affordable Care Act will separate patients from the doctors until it is struck down.

Then there's the Vietnam ad: It focuses on a small issue with only one man helped, but a powerful story with the potential to move percentage points, the staff bets. In a business where polls determine reality, Mr. Aho and his colleagues aren't afraid to punt. "You're never going to get a survey to tell you to do this," he says, pointing at the screen. "Most of the political stuff up on the air is pretty stifling."

Campaign ad aesthetics have evolved into their own art form, a toolbox Mr. Aho's colleagues rummage through frequently. Candidates are always shown in vibrant color, their opponents in drab grays and blacks. Adding graininess to footage lends it a surveillance camera quality; putting a clip in slow motion can appear momentous or furtive.

At BrabenderCox, producing an ad campaign starts months earlier than the first air date, beginning with meeting the candidate's coterie. They'll rough out the arc of the campaign, which issues they want to hit and when. Right from the start, Mr. Aho says he usually knows how he wants to portray the candidate -- in a crowd, in an office, talking directly to the camera.

Every ad starts as a series of images, not a script. The cartoon storyboards Mr. Aho's staff draws up have no words, giving them the tranquil air of an airplane evacuation placard. The vocals, he says, come second to the pictures.

Then come the shoots, usually on location with the candidate. In the October rush, this translates to plenty of hurried flights and toss-and-turn nights in hotels, as the firm reacts to opponents' attacks and new polling data. During a 2010 push to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., BrabenderCox editors produced up to three ads a week.

The finished product is shipped back to Pittsburgh and fine-tuned, every second examined. Reviewing the slamming-doors-on-doctors ad in September, Mr. Aho regretted he didn't have another shot of a child with a nurse. "Should we put that doctor first? Or that mom?" he asks. "When he says 'period,' do we want to see the kid? These things matter."

Sometimes you bomb, despite it all. Mr. Keleman, the editor, remembered producing an ad showing voters vomiting in response to a candidate's speech. It was quickly shelved after production. Other times, you might be up for a "Pollie" -- the Academy Awards of political advertising, presided over by the American Association of Political Consultants. BrabenderCox has won more than 60, at one point topping the charts of political media firms.

With a few clicks, Mr. Keleman tightens up the saturation on an old military portrait, bringing the soldier's features into sharp nostalgic relief. He replays the audio. The Vietnam spot is almost ready to go.

Mr. Aho says he always asks himself one question before putting an ad on the air: "Is this really going to matter to voters? If you ask that question, you'll get an ad that moves numbers."

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Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497. First Published October 14, 2012 4:00 AM


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