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'Helicopter ad' joins lore of political boners

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 18, 2006


Everybody’s talking about Rod Smith’s TV ads, but not quite the way the Democratic candidate for governor had hoped.

Dumb. Weird. Amateurish.

Those are among the nicer adjectives Smith’s friends have used to describe the snippet of Florida political history that will forever be known as “the helicopter ad.”

The ad is about homeowners insurance, but what sticks in the consciousness is the sound of Smith shouting over the whir of a helicopter parked right behind him. He sounds like a country preacher shouting to be heard over a barking dog.

Smith appears to have just arrived at a campaign stop, and is surrounded by media people, talking about the need for “an independent commission to require insurance companies to open up their books to justify rate increases.”

Smith is the best natural communicator of the major candidates for governor. But you’d never know it from this ad, shot at a general aviation airport in Fort Lauderdale.

He’s talking too loud and too fast, and any consultant will tell you that older voters, who vote in primaries, don’t like fast-talking politicians.

It’s striking too, that Smith chose this as his first ad. He was on the air with this commercial 10 days before his rival, Jim Davis. Smith had a golden opportunity to dominate the airwaves with a traditional, biographical ad that introduced him to Florida’s Democratic voters. Smith went another way.

“Helicopter” was on the air for nine days, according to Smith’s campaign, but it seemed like a month. The ad left the air for good Monday, but people are still talking about it.

Maybe that was the point.

When Gov. Jeb Bush found himself competing with the hum of an air conditioner at a press conference Thursday, he joked that it was a good place to film a Rod Smith commercial.

“While the ad irritated people, they heard it,” said Screven Watson, a Smith adviser. “I’ve never heard people talk about an ad so much.”

The ad was produced by Stan Adkins of Adkins & Associates, a Coral Gables admaker and media strategist who has been around Democratic politics in Florida for three decades.

Adkins has managed three other statewide campaigns, and they were all eons ago, for Bob Crawford, Gerald Lewis and Ken Jenne.

Smith’s campaign paid Adkins’ firm about $145,000 for media production, according to campaign finance records.

In this age of The Colbert Report, TiVo and reality TV, Adkins was looking for something edgy and new that would stand apart from the typical “talking head” ad and cut through the clutter of all those other spots.

In this campaign, Charlie Crist is the king of talking head ads. They may be boring to some, but if the polls are accurate, the strategy is working beautifully for Crist.

Inside Smith’s campaign, the helicopter ad caused an uproar. The Buzz’s bloggers ridiculed it, and the donors who paid for it hated it.

“To be honest, there were some people out there who didn’t like it,” said David Kochman, Smith’s spokesman, who has ties to Adkins & Associates. Most critics, he said, were Tallahassee insiders.

Adkins came to Smith’s rescue when he badly needed help. In Smith’s first state Senate race in 2000, he was being attacked mercilessly by a political committee backing his Republican opponent, Bob Casey.

Within 24 hours, Adkins had a response ad on in Gainesville and Jacksonville that answered the attack and preserved Smith’s victory. So it’s understandable that Smith felt comfortable with him.

But as criticism of Adkins’ ads mounted, Smith switched media advisers and hired Strother-Duffy-Strother, an established Democratic media firm that did Smith’s new stem cell research ad that uses a variation of the talking head approach.

As Smith prepares for his first TV debate with U.S. Rep. Jim Davis next Wednesday, he’s behind in the polls. But he’s within striking distance, there’s a huge pool of undecided voters and Smith is racking up one newspaper editorial endorsement after another.

We probably haven’t heard the last of the helicopter ad.

If Smith falls just short of catching Davis, he’ll hear no end of second-guessing from “experts” who will think his misguided ad cost him the Democratic nomination for governor.

And if Smith should beat Davis, Stan Adkins, the ad’s creator, will be hailed as a political genius.
Just watch.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or bousquet@sptimes.com.