Thirty-Second Counter-Attack Man

Pacy Markman is the creative genius behind MoveOn’s anti-Bush ads

Pacy Markman just might be the most important political operative whose name voters have never heard.

With a sharply divided electorate, as shown by the negligible bounce off a “concrete trampoline” that John Kerry earned after the Democratic National Convention, Markman is playing a pivotal role in who will win this November’s presidential election.

So, who is Pacy Markman?

An openly gay advertising executive in Los Angeles, Markman prefers to remain relatively anonymous. However, his high profile and often-controversial political ads aired by affiliates of the independent advocacy group MoveOn have recently scuttled his below-the-radar approach to business.

Markman is currently a partner at Zimmerman and Markman, a political consulting firm based in Santa Monica, specializing in social issue campaigns. Prior to that, he was one of America’s most successful corporate advertising writers, working as copy chief and then creative director on both coasts for McCann Erickson, Wells Rich Greene and DDB Needham. His work for such high-profile clients as Coca Cola, Miller Beer and Columbia Pictures has garnered hundreds of awards, including a remarkable 16 CLIOs.

Before reaching 30, Markman was the top creative man on McCann Erickson’s Coca Cola account. He remembers the experience fondly.

“I was a kid,” he said during a recent interview, “and they pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. I basically got to make 30- or 60-second movies. I was really lucky because I learned a lot and I got to have a lot of fun, and I never really had to work on anything boring.”

When asked to name his favorite corporate campaign, Markman quickly answered, “Miller Lite,” perhaps an understandable response, given that his slogan, “Everything you always wanted in a beer… and less,” has been one of the most successful and memorable product launches in history.

“Before that,” he noted, “there was no light beer. It didn’t exist.” He is less proud of another liquor launch.

“When I first moved to L.A., we started with the Gallo account. I think that’s on my scorecard in heaven, that I helped the world discover Tickled Pink and Boone’s Farm,” Markman noted with a chuckle.

Markman now works exclusively on public interest ads for social causes, including pro bono ads for MoveOn, the Internet-driven political force founded during the Clinton impeachment hearings, that has revolutionized how Americans get politically involved. The group now boasts a membership of 1.8 million.

Though MoveOn is not officially affiliated with the Kerry campaign, it has been airing anti-Bush ads for months, most notably a controversial TV ad featuring a hooded Statue of Liberty meant to remind viewers of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. The ad actually focuses on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his role in the scandal, but concludes with the question, “Why hasn’t George Bush fired this man?” Republicans were so incensed by the ad that they asked the Kerry campaign to disavow it.

Other Markman ads brand George Bush as a liar, a poor decision maker and a pawn of big business. Many end with a headshot of Bush over which is superimposed the word “LEADER,” a play on the Bush campaign’s portrayal of the President. The Markman ads then slide the letters “MIS” in front of “LEADER,” and suddenly the message is clear. Several of these spots can be viewed online at Markman’s firm’s Web site, zimark.com.

Newer ads questioning the invasion of Iraq and the award of no-bid contracts to Halliburton, Vice Pres. Dick Cheney’s former employer, end with the slogan, “George Bush, a Failure of Leadership.” Halliburton, the Texas energy giant, has been given the primary responsibility of supplying American troops in Iraq and criticized for having cozy connections with officials in the Bush administration which has led to corruption, including overcharging $61 million for transporting gasoline and invoicing the government $100 million for meals never delivered to the soldiers.

New Yorkers will see very little of the MoveOn-sponsored advertising because the Empire State is one of 33 states considered “locks” by both the Republicans and Democrats who are targeting resources in hard-fought swing states. One exception, of course, is the Statue of Liberty ad, which did air in New York City.

Meanwhile, Bush campaign ads, also largely absent in New York, are reminiscent of those produced by Ronald Reagan in 1984, ads which relied heavily on stirring voters’ emotions. Ed Rollins, a former Reagan strategist, once bragged that the ads made 1984 an “issueless” election. Markman argues that those campaign spots changed political ad-making.

“1984 was the first campaign where it didn’t look like political ads. I took Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ ad,” a montage of flag-raising, going to work, getting married, and more flag-raising, “and put a Coca Cola soundtrack behind it, and it worked perfectly.”

Reagan’s ad did manage to cite, in voice-over, a few facts about the economy, whereas the current Bush clone of this ad, entitled “Prouder, Strong, Better,” conveys no informational content at all.

Other Bush ads seek to destroy Kerry’s credibility while shielding the president from obvious lines of attack.

In stark contrast, Kerry’s ads, in the hands of strategist Bob Shrum, are starkly direct and informational. Critics call them boring which is why Democratic strategists view the Markman-created ads aired by MoveOn as an important outreach tool with voters.

When asked about the official Kerry ads, Markman said, “There is an executional difference in the way we do things,” before quickly adding, “A lot of the biographical stuff they’ve done is very good.”

Nevertheless many Democrats believe that in order to unseat a sitting war president, there needs to be an emotional counterpunch to the Republican’s militaristic patriotism, and Markman has set out to provide that, most notably in the only MoveOn ad to date that features Kerry. It focuses on battle action in Vietnam, spliced into which is a photo of a young Navy Lt. John Kerry. A narrator describes a harrowing gun battle that Kerry and all but one of his men escaped, telling viewers that Kerry went back for the lost man, braving gunfire a second time because he was unable to leave even one man behind. The commercial then cuts to a shot of a desk—an abrupt departure from the action-packed footage just seen—as a rubber stamp approves George Bush’s admission into the Texas National Guard. This is followed by the image of a nurse walking into an empty hallway and looking for a patient who isn’t there. The voice-over tells us that after being trained as a pilot, Bush failed to show up for a required physical, was grounded, disappeared for months and was then released from duty eight months early to attend Harvard Business School.

The ad concludes with, “This election is about character. It’s between John Kerry, who left no man behind, and George Bush, who simply left.”

The ad would be powerful in any presidential campaign, but never more so than in an election year when so many young men and women in uniform have met their deaths and suffered grievous injuries in combat abroad.

The shot of the nurse searching for an airman who didn’t show up actually conveys a humorous tone, which is a trademark of Markman’s work. That’s not surprising given that before his career as an ad man, he spent three years writing jokes for Bob Hope and scripts for Norman Lear’s critically acclaimed comedy “Fernwood 2Nite.”

When asked about the incorporation of humor into his ads, Markman said, “I respect the people I’m talking to. They’ve worked hard all day and now they’re home relaxing. I’m interrupting their entertainment. Most people don’t turn on the TV to be educated, so I’m going to give them something emotional, make them laugh or be angry or sad or whatever. And then they’ll remember the message.”

Markman’s strategy has been honed since 1978.

“My first big social issue campaign was working to defeat the [anti-gay] Briggs Initiative in California,” he recalled of the effort to pass a statewide initiative aimed at gay and lesbian public schoolteachers.

For that campaign, Markman coined the slogan, “It’s not just dumb. It’s dangerous.” The measure was soundly defeated.

“I’d never done a campaign before,” Markman said. “I’d certainly never done a campaign that affected me. It really got me involved in electoral politics.”

When asked about the Bush campaign’s reaction to his work, in particular the Statue of Liberty spot, Markman said, “Our ads have been effective. We know this because the Republicans carp about them. All of them. They especially didn’t like the original ‘Misleader’ commercial. I think they said it was misleading.”

He laughed at that.

“But of course it was strictly factual. They were pretty incensed by the Halliburton ad, too. And the ad where Bush misses his physical.”

Then Markman drove home his point. “Everything in our ads is accurate. That’s why they hurt so much.”

Markman continues his work on issues other than presidential politics. He was heavily involved in the passage of Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law, which allows terminally ill patients to end their own lives, and he has successfully campaigned for the legalization of marijuana use for medical purposes, tougher gun laws and gay rights.

He also spearheaded the ad campaign that Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays launched against Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other homophobic religious leaders. The effort transformed the group from a small, grassroots advocacy organization with simple messages such as “My son is gay and isn’t he wonderful” to a nationwide lobby of 250,000 members, one of the largest in the gay rights movement, with considerable political clout.

“It gave PFLAG a platform they could really stand on,” said Markman. “I’m proud they let me do that.”

By his own admission, Markman, who declines to reveal his age, doesn’t like the limelight that sometimes shines on him. “I’ve always been a backseat guy. I just want to do the work and go home.” Nevertheless, Markman is not likely to stop his social issue campaigning anytime soon.

“We’re in complete service, and we love it,” he said. “It may sound altruistic, but it’s true. I’m a very lucky man to be able to work on issues that are important to me and that I believe in. I really do love what I’m doing.”

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