Republicans turn to viral video ahead of campaign

Every election cycle, Hollywood’s message-makers look at the flood of campaign spots with the same reaction: “Really?!”

But the offers of creative help usually are met with a pat response: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Recently, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the first major Republican to make an official move into the 2012 presidential race, embraced the cinematic approach with a series of videos that have the intentional feel of a movie trailer, spots more fit for a Jerry Bruckheimer pic than, say, a typical political campaign. The videos — heavy on quick cuts, patriotic images, soaring music and the occasional shot of Ronald Reagan and military jets — are the brainchild of 22-year-old Lucas Baiano, who has made a mark working for Pawlenty and, before that, the Republican Governors Assn.

Having studied film at Seneca at York U campus in Toronto, and with aspirations of working in the entertainment industry, Baiano says he found that one of the best ways to market was the emotion-instilling way that movies are sold, a contrast to many political ads that are so “cookie cutter.”

“Especially in this generation, you need to be on the cutting edge, you need to be innovative,” says Baiano, who holds dual citizenship as the son of an American mother and Canadian father.

His campaign work actually started not with the GOP, but with Democrat Hillary Clinton. He pitched the idea of doing a campaign film to Bill Clinton in 2007; his three-minute long spot got picked up by the campaign’s official youth program, the Hillblazers. But when Clinton dropped out, he went to work for John McCain’s campaign because his political views gelled with McCain’s message, and that of the GOP. “As Reagan said of the Democrats, ‘I didn’t leave the party, the party left me,’ ” he says.

Baiano’s spots for Pawlenty are a contrast to how the candidate is being perceived — that while he’s a nice guy and has great credentials, he’s not exactly stirring excitement.

But Baiano says that he was attracted to the campaign because “his story and message really connected with me, the fact that he had overcome trouble and hardships. It’s inspiring.”

Pawlenty’s spots certainly generated attention, along with a few latenight talkshow host quips, but the challenge will be to break with convention as the stakes get higher.

While Web videos will gain even more traction as a medium in 2012, the 30-second spot will probably still rule. And campaigns are prone to take safer bets when blanketing the airwaves with pricey TV ads in contrast to Web videos, which cost nothing to put online.

One Republican admaker known for taking risks is Fred Davis, who has made his share of trailer-like campaign spots and over-the-top imagery. He says that there’s no question Baiano has the eye needed to produce spots, and calls him the “perfect choice for Pawlenty to bring on because the one thing he does bring is artificial excitement.”

Davis, who is working for the Horizon PAC staffed with supporters of potential presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, adds, “It is exactly the right approach for Tim. I think it will help. But the question for Lucas is, can he expand his repertoire from being a one-trick pony?”

Baiano says he does “not want people to expect what is to come” and plans to mix it up, but only to a certain point. Just as studios dream of developing distinctive brands, so too should ad makers: “I tell critics: You look at Disney. They have had the same style for generations.”

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