Posted: Oct. 20, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Valerie Biden Owens spoke Wednesday evening at the University of Delaware. Everybody knows what her claim to fame is.

"It hasn't been easy raising an older brother," she cracked.

Biden Owens has run every single one of Brother Joe's Democratic campaigns. She was with him from his first race for the New Castle County Council in 1970 through seven elections for the U.S. Senate to his two tries for president, the last one in 2008.

It led to a day job about 12 years ago. Biden Owens is the executive vice president of Joe Slade White & Co., a political consulting firm that handles media campaigns for its clients.

Imagine. Two vice presidents in one family.

Biden Owens was back on the Newark campus, where both she and her brother went to college, along with Slade White as part of the university's National Agenda 2011 Speaker Series. They appeared before several hundred people in Mitchell Hall.

She calls him "Slade White," by the way. In her life there is only one "Joe."

Biden Owens and Slade White were focused and funny, quick-witted and connected easily with the crowd. It was only to be expected from people who are used to getting 30 seconds in a political spot to say everything they have to say.

They spoke about some of the principles they follow to create their political advertising and showed clips of their work.

Every campaign is a riddle.

"I love riddles. If you think about the answer you'll never get it," Slade White said. "You have to break the code. You have to think nonlinear."

The consultants know there are people who will always vote for their candidate. They know there are people who will never vote for their candidate. The challenge is to reach the people who can be persuaded to vote for their candidate.

"The purpose of the TV ad is to make the uninterested interested," Biden Owens said.

Break the rules.

This even applies to their own rules. For example, they have an ironclad rule about never filming kids and animals for their political spots -- "you can't script kids, and you can't script animals," Biden Owens said -- except sometimes they do.

They used kids gloriously playing sandlot baseball to turn around the polls and win a referendum to build a stadium. They devastated an opponent, running for state treasurer as a "watchdog," with a spot that transformed her from a Doberman into a little bouncing terrier puppy.

Don't alienate the people you are trying to convince.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do negative advertising.

"Most negative ads are angry at you. The subliminal effect is, 'I don't like this,'" Slade White said. "Sound sad. The anger needs to be in the audience, not in the ad."

The consulting firm was instrumental in taking out Bill Brady, a Republican running for Illinois governor, with a series of negative political spots, each one introducing the voters to something new not to like about him.

"Who is this guy?" the spots asked. "The more we know about Bill Brady, the worse it gets."

Each glimpse made him scarier and scarier. No accident there.

"Everything I learned about negative advertising, I learned when I was eight years old, going to monster movies," Slade White said.

Turn potential weaknesses into strengths.

The firm worked on the campaign of Tony Knowles, a Democrat elected governor of Alaska. Knowles was against capital punishment, a very un-Alaskan position to take, so Slade White & Co. put him in a spot speaking about the virtue of candidates who have the courage of their convictions.

It was a pre-emptive strike, and it worked. Capital punishment never became an issue.

Get out of D.C.

Washington is an echo chamber. Slade White lives near Buffalo. Biden Owens lives across the line in Pennsylvania.

"I think we're normal," Biden Owens said.

"We're not normal," Slade White said.