Between the Ridiculous and the Incomprehensible

In a small room in the industrial part of Tel Aviv, the Labor Party's brain trust battles it out for the best campaign strategy. Anyone with an actual message is kindly requested to stay home.

No one in Labor thought that this election ad would upset anyone. "How will you be chosen if you don't lie?" the auto body mechanic asks Ehud Barak. The auto body mechanics union is not pleased. On Monday, a day before the ad is due to air, Mordi Amar, the party's campaign strategist, is asked to soften the blow somehow.

In the small screening room, the finest minds are proposing ideas for the caption at the bottom of the screen. Someone suggests: "The mechanic is not a mechanic." Sounds interesting, and the illogical phrasing also seems to delight those present. "Labor respects mechanics," sounds more formal, if a bit pompous. Finally, they decide on "the mechanic is not a licensed mechanic," even though no one really understands what that's supposed to mean.

The discussion of the screen caption takes place in a small, dark room in an industrial building near Tel Aviv's old central bus station. From outside, the building looks like an abandoned carpentry shop and from the inside, it looks like an abandoned carpentry shop that has undergone a dramatic facelift. Once upon a time, tenacious espionage and counter-espionage efforts were part and parcel of election campaigns, with workers being sent for polygraphs and defensive barriers set up around the studios. After so many elections, the security arrangements aren't as tight as they used to be, and I make my way without hindrance to the basement, where I startle someone whose face is white with makeup and pale with terror.

Everything's changed now, says Mordi Amar. There's no money, no security and no American advisers. These days, you've just got Finkelstein advising Lieberman, and I'm Labor's Finkelstein, he says.

Labor's Finkelstein is 49 and wearing the uniform of the strategic consultant: jeans, tennis shoes and a faded T-shirt. For him, the most significant date in the present campaign was November 10th. This date is mentioned repeatedly, always with a touch of awe.

On the 10th of November, the polls forecast that Labor would win just seven Knesset seats. Each seat that has been added since then is to Amar's credit and to the credit of the small notebook he carries in his pocket. I take a peek at the notebook. Barak's name is circled, with an arrow pointing to the words that have brought Amar all the fame and glory: "Lo Simpati" ("Not Nice").

This past Monday, the polls showed Labor on track to nab 17 Knesset seats. As a result, the atmosphere in the narrow room with the big screen was fairly relaxed. The table was strewn with crumbs from a packaged cake and some rugelach remnants, and empty pizza boxes were piling up in the hallway. On the screen were excerpts from ads due to be broadcast the next day.

At this very moment, in similar rooms in various places around the city, screenwriters, producers and directors are sitting and scoffing as they view competitors' ads. Here, the auto mechanic ad seems clever and sophisticated; there it seems feeble and weak. I, for one, don't know anyone who sits down with a bowl of munchies to watch the election ads. The ads are just an internal battlefield where advertising genres clash with one another.

The day after the ads are first broadcast, I discover that I was wrong. Altogether, the ratings show that the ads garnered over 20 percent of the television viewership. At 6:30 P.M., MK Ophir Pines shows up in the small room, in a gray suit and striped tie. Pines is pleased with the ads but is also concerned about the fact that he appears in them. People might say that he, the chairman of the PR staff, was pushing himself into the ads! And on the very first day, no less! Has there ever been a tougher call in our entire political history?

Pines may be concerned, but the nation is tired. So said advertising executive Motti Morel years ago. The nation is tired and just wants to relax in front of the television, he said. It has no desire or energy for complex messages. Mordi Amar disagrees. And he also has a compromise formula: The nation is very smart but when it watches television it becomes - how to put this nicely? - a little emotional. Emotion, therefore, is the strategy, and humor is Labor's secret weapon.

What counts as humor in Amar's book? Monologues by an auto mechanic, a gay makeup artist, a plasterer and a couple about to get married. Carefully planted in each monologue is this message: Barak isn't the type to go for the sort of underhandedness suggested by this "humorous" gang. The ad campaign presses the reverse psychology angle so hard that it's liable to backfire: Okay - he's not nice and doesn't work well with others; we get it - he's not a leader.

In the dark room, the chattering auto mechanic on the screen comes across as rather charming, talking in copywriter-speak and not ordinary Hebrew language. On the eve of the broadcast, Shalom Kital, the campaign manager, is called upon to resolve a very fine musical point: Should the tinkling of a piano or a military march be playing as the backdrop to Barak's words?

The next day, a few MKs and senior campaign staff meet at the party's headquarters in the Hatikva neighborhood to watch the ads. The delicate musical issue has apparently been resolved, but the solution is drowned out by a sea of trumpets and drums on the other ads with all their smoke and fire. The mechanic is charming, but in comparison he seems a bit anemic. When the screening ends, there is silence in the room.

The clips are quite nice, is the general consensus the next day on Army Radio, it's too bad Barak had to ruin them. The quirks of his speech may be impossible to fix, but at least on the billboards Barak appears trim and fit (thanks to Photoshop). In the television ads, he appears to have quite a substantial double chin.

Usually, advertisers like to splash pictures of seductive women and hunky male models on billboards. Now all of a sudden they're giving us unkempt middle-aged men with threatening expressions on their faces. In addition to the "not nice" guys there are some really scary-looking characters. Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon's frozen smile, for instance, plastered four-meters across, could definitely give small children nightmares.

The giant photographs seem to be a modest gift from the advertiser to the person who gave him work. It does something to a politician when he's driving down the Ayalon Highway with his kids and sees his own image looming so large. Anyone with an actual message is kindly requested to stay home.

I have this feeling that Shelly Yachimovich is being kept hidden for some reason. Mordi Amar sort of acknowledges this, explaining that the security issue doesn't leave room for anything else. Yachimovich protests the very idea that she could be kept hidden. You think I call Mordi before I go on the air, she asks. She's no longer one of those talents just looking for a stage. She doesn't have that hunger.

Shelly Yachimovich doesn't believe in the importance of the campaign. The attention paid to the election ads has been blown far out of proportion, she says. So what does have an influence? She has trouble putting it into words. A kind of wave, or ripple, that washes over the country. You can't control it or change it. All you can do is ride it.

By Thursday, Labor is down to 14 Knesset seats and lagging behind Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu. Now Yachimovich is more insistent. Enough with the focus on security, that subject has been exhausted. It's time to get back to social justice messages. The mechanic, the fisherman and the plasterer need to forget about Barak and start memorizing texts about Braverman.