Back in July, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander stood in an old Kansas City automotive factory behind a table foraged from a local thrift store.
It was the setting for the ad, “Background Checks,” in which the Democratic Senate nominee assembles a rifle blindfolded. Released last week, the spot has been viewed more than 900,000 times and has been heralded as one of the best campaign ads of the cycle.
Republican incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt and the National Rifle Association have now responded with their own ads, both of which incorporate clips of Kander’s spot. That they responded that way, Democrats argue, is evidence that they’re nervous about the effectiveness of Kander’s ad.
Kander’s campaign produced the ad knowing that they’d inevitably need to respond to Republicans on the Second Amendment, and they think they’ve succeeded in changing the terms of the debate.
But the ultimate test for any ad is how voters respond. “Ads aren’t art,” said one Democratic ad-maker. “Getting attention for the ad-maker is a great business strategy, but it can be malpractice if the real aim isn’t to move poll numbers.”
Mark Putnam, the ad-maker behind President Barack Obama’s ad using Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, produced the Kander ad. Before he thinks about how to grab an audience’s attention, Putnam likes to get to know everything he can about his clients.
“It came up that [Kander] could assemble a rifle very quickly, and I thought to myself, ‘Well that’s interesting.’ But I didn’t think that would be enough for an ad.”
Then he had an idea. “I asked, ‘Can you do it blindfolded?'” Kander said he thought he could. He practiced the technique that night, sending Putnam iPhone footage of his trial-runs.
“The best political advertising furthers the candidate’s story,” Putnam said — in this case, Kander’s military background and the contrast with Blunt, who has never served.
Even Republicans concede this is a powerful ad. “Given his service background and what he’s trying to portray as a gun rights candidate …this is memorable and likely effective,” GOP ad-maker Ben Burger said.
“The flip side of this performance is that Kander has exposed one of his greatest weaknesses — his gun record,” Burger said. “The NRA’s response is taking a very memorable ad and turning it back on Kander in a devastating rebuttal.”
But in at least one respect, this ad may already be a success because of the attention it’s raised for Kander, potentially attracting donors to a campaign that lags Blunt’s in cash on hand.
“The goal was always to elevate his candidacy into that top tier of races,” Putnam said.
In the last several weeks, Missouri has taken an increasingly prominent spot in the national Senate landscape as a red state that Senate Democrats think they can contest, even if Hillary Clinton can’t.
At the end of the day, though, “Background Checks” is still just 30 seconds of TV.
“No one ad, or even a series of ads, wins a campaign,” Putnam said. “The candidate wins a campaign.”