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How Eric Cantor's own advertising killed his re-election chances

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If you go along with Richmond Times Dispatch associate editorials editor Bob Rayner's June 22 report, Eric Cantor's own advertising was one of two major factors in his primary defeat. But it was actually two advertising campaigns. Cantor can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing about the other, because it launched in 1962, the year before he was born. But his advertising team has no such excuse, since the campaign in question was such a breakthrough that the lessons it taught about campaign strategy are still reshaping advertising a half-century( and counting) later.

Deja vu...

No advertising professional worthy of the name should be ignorant of the 1962 Avis car rental "Number 2" campaign, especially because of what it demonstrates so clearly about what dominant brands should and shouldn't do, say and spend money on when competing with a distant underdog.

Madison Avenue folklore has it that hot agency Doyle Dane Bernbach would take the Avis business only if CEO Robert Townsend agreed to run whatever ads a top DDB creative team came up with. And when copywriter Paula Green and art director Helmut Krone studied the company, they discovered only two good things they could honestly say about it -- that it was only number two (behind Hertz) and that it would try harder (to keep ashtrays empty, cars clean, gas tanks filled, provide friendly service, etc.).

But there's more to the campaign than the folklore. At the time, Avis was not only second to Hertz, but a very, very distant second, coming off 13 consecutive years of losses and about to be overtaken by number-three National. So strategically, the campaign distanced Avis from National by appearing to take on Hertz. The key word here is, "appearing," because they cagily never mentioned any other car renter by name. "Avis is only #2 in rent a cars," said the kickoff ad's headline, "So why go with us?" ("We try harder," the body copy answered. "When you're not the biggest, you have to.")

"When you're only No. 2, you try harder. Or else," said a later ad's headline, next to an illustration of a big fish about to swallow a small fish. Another, taking advantage of the Cold War ethos of the times, showed a tire iron and a shop mallet arranged to look sort of like a hammer and sickle next to a headline saying, "No. 2ism. The Avis manifesto."

In addition to winning renters over from Avis, the campaign was setting a trap for number-one Hertz – a trap that Hertz leaped into, head-first, with ads headlined, "For years, Avis has been telling you Hertz is No. 1. We're going to tell you why." and imitating the Avis photo of two raised fingers with a shot of one raised index finger.

Falling into the trap, Hertz:

  • spent their own ad money to publicize Avis' existence, name and ad campaign.
  • lent credibility to Avis in a way that Avis ads, not matter how well done, could never hope to accomplish.
  • created the impression that Hertz and Avis were neck-and-neck rivals, which
  • helped Avis achieve its strategic objective of distancing itself from third-place National.

As a result, Avis enjoyed a $31.3 million (in 2010 dollars) turnaround from loss to profit in just one year.

And this year, Eric Cantor's advertising team made the same mistake as Hertz's. (Actually, they made a worse mistake, because at the time Hertz didn't have the benefit of the Avis vs. Hertz example.)

...all over again

In Virginia's 7th District Republican primary, Eric Cantor was even more of an overdog than Hertz was to Avis. He'd been winning primaries and elections lopsidedly since 2001 and, in the process, had risen to House Minority Whip and then Majority Leader. Had his campaign simply ignored seriously underfunded challenger Dave Brat, he's probably have been, for the eighth time, a shoo-in.

But he didn't.

His campaign made the same mistake that Hertz did 52 years ago. As Rayner describes it:

If you were on Cantor’s mailing list and if you watched Fox News on occasion, you spent much of an otherwise pleasant spring reading colorful fliers and watching 30-second TV spots branding Brat as a “liberal college professor.” The claim was absurd, easily proven absurd and once proved absurd beyond any reasonable doubt, an insult to the intelligence of anyone exposed to it. And, boy, were we exposed to it.

Cantor’s deep pockets allowed him to stuff mailboxes and run commercials with ruthless abandon. Unfortunately for the congressman, who is generally a smart and sensible man, this theme was among the worst ever conceived for a political ad campaign. It not only made Dave Brat a household name — at least among likely Republican primary voters, resolving for Brat the problem of not having enough money to become a household name among likely Republican primary voters — it also made Cantor look like a cynical D.C. bully at a time when many on his right flank were expressing that very concern.

So, the No. 1 reason Eric Cantor lost is really bad advertising — repeated beyond the limits of normal human endurance...

It's particularly fitting that Rayner used "No. 1" in his report, because the Cantor campaign boosted the competitor's standing the same way the Hertz counter-campaign did for Avis's 52 years earlier.

In addition to handing Brat, on a silver platter, more awareness than the challenger's tiny war chest could ever hope to buy, it conferred on him an air of legitimacy, the same way Hertz's counter-campaign did for Avis. It leveled the playing field, raising perceptions of Brat to Cantor's level. And it brought the Brat campaign to the attention of talk-radio conservatives including Laura Ingraham and Marc Levin – to say nothing of superblogger Matt Drudge – and their vocal support talked directly to Cantor's conservative base in a very conservative Congressional district.

Learn the lessons that Cantor didn't

Competitive advertising, even if it involves naming names, can be a good tactic – or, as in these two examples, a disastrous one. It all depends on knowing when to use it – and when not to.

In the Coke vs. Pepsi cola wars of the 1980s, kicking butt and taking names was no problem for either brand. This was because both were more or less equal in size, so neither was using its own ad dollars to build up the other.

It's when you're orders of magnitude bigger than that pesky competitor, competitive campaigns become a problem. Because with them, you run the risk of calling consumers' attention to a brand they were blissfully unaware of, legitimizing that brand, creating the perception that they're your equal, and having that perception turn into a reality.

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