The room is packed at a Washington, D.C., conference for political consultants. They've assembled for a panel discussion entitled "Understanding the Internet In Campaigns." The speaker at the microphone begins as latecomers stand or drag chairs into the crowded room.
"My name is Bill Hillsman," he announces in a reedy voice that cuts through the chatter. "I was sent with a message for you all.
"I was sent here by the voters and I was sent here by the non-voters. And what they're here to say is that if you screw up the Internet the same way that you've screwed up television advertising, radio advertising, direct mail, those stupid phones calls — 'Hey Mom, Ted Kennedy is on the phone, he wants to talk to ya!' — they're all going to stay home. They're sick of it."
Hillsman, it seems, always has a message. The president of North Woods Advertising, he is one of the few political consultants who doesn't associate himself with a particular party. He shows an open disdain for what he calls "Election Industry Inc." — the network of parties and consultants who make their livings from campaigns.
The group he founded, Independent Voters of America, raised money on the Internet for a 2004 anti-Bush ad aimed at "independent and undecided voters in battleground states." The title of his 2004 book neatly sums up his philosophy: Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System One Campaign at a Time.
Hillsman's ad campaigns have turned heads and raised eyebrows since a series of ads helped get an unknown college professor — the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota — elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990. One of them, "Looking for Rudy," used the hand-held camera style of director Michael Moore's documentary Roger & Me to follow Wellstone as he walked into then-Sen. Rudy Boschwitz's campaign office to challenge him to a debate (he wasn't there, or in any of the other places Wellstone looked).
The spot won accolades: the New York American Marketing Association named the Wellstone ad campaign the most effective of the year — a first for political advertising. It proved effective — after just one airing, according to Hillsman, the ad generated enough media coverage to get the senator to debate Wellstone.
Another Hillsman client was Jesse "The Body" Ventura. In one Hillsman ad, the wrestler turned gubernatorial candidate poses as Rodin's thinker in an attempt to sell "The Body" as "The Mind." In another, two boys play with a Ventura action figure capable of defeating special interest groups with a knockout punch.
In 2000, Hillsman produced an ad for Ralph Nader spoofing the MasterCard "priceless" commercials that ran a few times and was widely replayed on nightly news programs. The spot sparked a lawsuit by MasterCard, which drew even more coverage.
Hillsman had no federal candidates in 2004, but this year he has a couple of high-profile irons in the fire, including the campaign of Connecticut Democrat Ned Lamont and the independent Texas gubernatorial bid of country singer and mystery-writer Kinky Friedman.
It's an ad for Friedman's campaign that Hillsman wants to show the conference, as an example of how not to screw it up. The Web-only animated ad is something Hillsman calls a "KinkyToon" — an irreverent and bawdy musical commercial fit for a man who once fronted the band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys: "Why should he be Governor? Well, why the hell not?" This toon, one of several, deals with the petition Friedman needs to file to get on the ballot. The ending takes a shot at politicians who need to check with consultants before making a decision.
The crowd loves it.
"Now I submit to you that that gets the information across that we need to get across about a very, very complicated situation," Hillsman said. "That's the type of thing that I think we really need to be doing on the Internet."
In contrast, Hillsman's Lamont ad campaign was fairly conventional. In one spot, the candidate, sitting on his couch, addresses the camera directly, criticizing George W. Bush and playing up his stance on health care. The Hillsman twist becomes evident as a crowd gathers outside the window behind him, eventually bursting into the room to help out (in a nod to the pro-Lamont movement on the Internet, the crowd is led by Markos Moulitsas, better known as the blogger behind the "Daily Kos").
In his book and elsewhere, Hillsman argues that campaigns fail when they target likely voters. The unlikely voter is his target, and a record turnout in the Connecticut primary backs him up.
Hillsman's detractors say that his style may work for outsider candidates like Lamont and Ventura, but that even Wellstone switched to a more conventional strategy for his re-election bid. Hillsman acknowledges that different campaigns require different styles.
"When you're running a top-down campaign with a lot of money, you want everything to be very, very, very controlled. So if you're trying to get out your base, maybe it's good to have Tom Daschle record a call and talk to a Democrat on Election Day," he said.
"I work a lot for challengers, not for incumbents," Hillsman said. "So the more chaotic a race gets, the more comfortable I get."