In his first job in politics, Joe Slade White logged more miles with George McGovern than anyone else on the South Dakota Senator’s 1972 presidential campaign.
The Iowa native had barely stepped off Georgetown University’s campus before he was trekking across the country with McGovern, tape-recording his speeches and news conferences for electronic press releases sent to radio stations for broadcast in primary states, a new idea at the time.
Forty years later, White lives in a modern glass-walled house on 28 acres of land outside Buffalo, N.Y. He runs his own media-consulting firm out of a virtual office with a dozen staff members and can edit his ads from his living room.
The one-time Vietnam War protester has been Vice President Joseph Biden’s media consultant since 1995 and was responsible for Republican T. Boone Pickens’ television ads in 2008 promoting energy independence.
“One of the things that people don’t realize about the Pickens Plan advertisements is that not one of them was ever aired on broadcast television stations,” White said. “They wouldn’t have fired me if I’d said I need a few more million dollars to go on NBC, CBS and ABC. But we saved them money by not doing that.”
White prides himself on his unusual strategy, dubbing it the “Moneyball” approach to media consulting.
“It really is about wins,” White said. “And it is about getting people on base, finding the target audience, really doing your research. And once you figure that out, my job is to see how I can do it spending the least amount of money the most effective way.”
He hails from the school of electronic recording guru Tony Schwartz — White calls him “my Yoda” — and his ads aim to strike a “responsive chord” with viewers, a phrase he uttered several times over the course of an hourlong phone interview.
White credits Schwartz, who invented the portable tape recorder in 1945, with teaching him how to make a good radio ad. He transferred those tools to TV advertising with the rise of cable in the 1980s.
“He taught me a new way of thinking, and it was the responsive chord,” White said. “Research the audience, find out what’s important to them and then draw them into an ad. Make them respond to something.”
A look through White’s YouTube reel reveals that his ads have a distinct DNA with a focus on storytelling and captivating the audience during the first few seconds when it’s not yet clear that the ad is political.
When Biden was running for a fifth term as Senator in Delaware in 1996, his campaign decided to go in a new direction and hired White as a media consultant.
“What we were looking for was someone who did media that people would remember,” said former Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), a longtime Biden aide. “How do you cut through the clutter?”