Ted Cruz styles himself as the presidential candidate for America’s heartland. But when it comes to his campaign ads, the Texas senator draws heavily on Hollywood values.
Or maybe that’s not quite right. “Hollywood production values, not Hollywood values!” says Owen Brennan, an executive at L.A.-based ad firm Madison McQueen who has helped craft Cruz’s cutting-edge media campaign.
The most playful ads are the brainchildren of Brennan and two colleagues, Bob Perkins and Justin Folk — “the MadMac guys,” as they’re referred to within the campaign. A veteran of Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral administration and presidential campaign, Brennan has a long history in GOP politics. Perkins and Folk both boast Hollywood pedigrees, having cut their teeth on big-budget blockbusters such as The Matrix and The Incredible Hulk.
That combined experience provides them a clear-eyed view of the conservative messaging problem. “That ominous music, that torn headline, that picture of the bad candidate with Venetian-blind visual effects over him — that channel is actually closed,” says Brennan. “It’s inundating [people,] they get hit with those ads a thousand times.”
“It’s the old Reagan maxim: If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” he continues. “You have to touch people emotionally. If you make them laugh, you get a message through a messenger they aren’t expecting.”
Madison McQueen’s storytelling acumen and top-notch production values have made them central to the Cruz campaign in more ways than one; they also designed the “TRUSTED” logo that is now a fixture at Cruz rallies across the country. But they’re just one piece of the Cruz campaign’s broader media operation, which includes more conventional messaging along with radio and Internet ads designed to cover all bases.
“We’ve been able to collect a unique team where there isn’t a push and pull in any aspect of production,” says Jason Miller, Cruz’s senior communications adviser and a partner at the D.C.-based Jamestown Associates. His firm is the force behind several other Cruz ads — including “Cruz Commander,” an ode to the candidate by Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson that culminates in the two men blasting birds out of the sky from a Louisiana duck blind.
Cruz’s comprehensive approach to advertising seems to have burnished his brand, helping propel his message to GOP voters in early primary states. An analysis of GOP presidential ads conducted just before the Iowa caucus gave Cruz five of the top eleven most effective ads among Republican voters. That included the number-one spot this cycle, Prime Media’s “Kill the Terrorists,” where a well-coiffed Cruz looks straight into the camera and tells viewers he’d, well, kill the terrorists.
Madison McQueen’s top-performing ad — a relatively staid spot on Cruz’s victories as a lawyer — was only the seventh-most effective. But that ranking ignores the ability of their quirky ads to bring in earned media. Take, for example, “Playing Trump,” an ad where toddlers manhandle a Donald Trump doll that “pretends to be a Republican.” The video got extensive play on political websites such as IJReview, Mediaite, and The Daily Caller. And that, in turn, got people talking. “The production value on this new Ted Cruz video is second to none. He needs to get it on the air ASAP,” tweeted influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson. Another spot, the Office Space spoof “It Feels Good to Be a Clinton,” even earned notice from Esquire and C-Span.
Sometimes the Hollywood edginess crosses a line. “We’re always looking to be bold and creative with Cruz’s advertising,” says Miller. “But we’re always going to make sure that we’re brand consistent — that we don’t run and do anything that he wouldn’t want to see us advertising with.” His team obviously fell short of that pledge with “Conservatives Anonymous,” an anti-Rubio spot featuring a former soft-core porn star. Cruz’s team quickly pulled the ad, but not before the news media and late-night hosts gleefully mocked the oversight.
It wasn’t the only ad to stir up controversy. “Cruz Christmas Classics,” which featured Cruz’s two daughters, inspired a Washington Post cartoon portraying the girls as dancing monkeys, with their father as the organ grinder. “Invasion,” an ad depicting lawyers and journalists sneaking across the Rio Grande like illegal immigrants, was panned on cable TV. “That’s just a weird ad,” said MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. “That’s not going to connect with anybody.”The Cruz campaign admits to purposely goading the outrage machine. “We understand the value of B roll,” says Brennan. “You get MSNBC and CNN apoplectic for 48 hours that anybody would have the tenacity to run these ads anywhere. Meanwhile, behind Chris Matthews or behind Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper, our ad is all over!”
Still, loads of free media and glittering production values can’t propel a campaign by themselves. Despite all the attention, Cruz couldn’t take down Donald Trump and a resurgent Marco Rubio in South Carolina on Saturday. If his campaign hopes to regain its post-Iowa momentum by Super Tuesday, it will need a lot more than some Tinseltown magic.
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.