When the Pollies were born, they had no name, no rules, no categories. "I just decided to do it," stated Roy Pfautch, president of the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) in 1982. He sent out what he referred to as a simple “mimeographed” one sheet call for entries. He recalls that for a number of years, many had discussed starting an awards competition, but no consensus on the details could ever be reached. After leaving board member Bob Squire’s house one evening with the issue still in limbo, he decided not to wait any longer. “I just knew it was time," Pfautch said, "I figured we'll do it first and let the details sort themselves out later."
Past President Brad O’Leary recalls another reason the Pollies were created. “We were under a lot of pressure as an association to speak out against political advertising that many people saw as misleading. It wasn’t just the press; some in our own profession were speaking out. But even though we had a code of ethics, we could not take action against nonmembers. We are not a licensed profession, and we would have been guilty of violating the First Amendment rights of others and establishing a restraint of trade. So we decided instead to spotlight the best and brightest and hold their work up as a positive example.”
The first awards dinner was held in the Russell Senate Caucus Room in early December 1982. One of the guests that evening recalled, "The acoustics were just horrible and we spent more time watching color bars than commercials . . . but even then, you could sense that something special was happening and that the political awards were here to stay."
According to a news release issued by Cerrell Associates, more than 100 entries were received that year, covering advertising for both candidates and issues. Winners included media consultants Joe Slade White, Ray Strother, and The First Tuesday group of Phoenix headed by Ben Goddard, to name just a few.
The late Bill Hamilton, a past president of the AAPC, recalled that by 1984, the number of entries had substantially increased but that the judging process remained very informal. "Six of us just sat down in a room and looked at everything. It took a whole day, but we judged all the entries . . . without the formal criteria we have today, we just tried to be as objective as we could in selecting the winners." Big winners that year were Roger Ailes for his "Hound Dog" spots on behalf of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and a pro-Reagan spot produced my own firm entitled "God Bless the USA."
By 1986, black ties were donned and the ballroom was full. As the awards chairman, I disqualified myself from entering the competition that year. That was painful. But I was pleased we were able to improve the awards in two key areas: expanding the categories and formalizing the judging process.
Elaborate call-for-entry kits, patterned after those used by the American Advertising Federation and the New York Art Directors Club, were sent to a broad list of members and nonmembers alike.
"The entries just poured in," remembers Jill Buckley, who helped coordinate the judging that year. "We divided the entries into various categories and had separate judging groups for each one. Each group consisted of representatives from the Republican and Democratic committees, as well as members of the press who covered political advertising, and one or more AAPC board member. Steve Colford, who covered politics for Advertising Age was often one of those judges.
“Late one night after the final category had been judged, an unopened box was found. We had to call all the judges back and spend another day going through the entire category again,” Buckley added.
It was 1988 before the Pollies actually got their name. Until then, they had been called the "AAPC Media Awards." But new non-media categories were being added and thus necessitated a change. It was then-president Brad O'Leary who coined the name "Pollie" and invited half of Hollywood to the 1988 awards dinner at the Grand Hyatt: Kevin Costner, Brooke Shields, Joan Rivers, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. to name a few. Not knowing who he was, I said “no” to Costner when he asked to set at our table. My wife Schuyler never let me forget that.
The awards dinner was held the night before George H. W. Bush's inauguration; January 19, 1989.Comedian Mort Sahl was the official entertainment but other luminaries stole the show. Ollie North and Jerry Falwell left some Democrats gasping. The Entertainment Tonight cameras picked up Charlton Heston's provocative statement, "I'm delighted to take part in an event that finally recognizes that politics is a performance art and that is not a pejorative comment."
In a memorable moment, Lee Atwater, who was named "Campaign Manager of the Year,” joked that he thought it appropriate that the Pollie award was shaped like a "shark's fin."
The trophy Atwater was referring to was a simple, one dimensional Lucite flame. I wish I could say the Pollie flame had great symbolic meaning but it doesn’t. We just picked it out of an awards catalog, and it was the best we could do since a golf club or tennis racket trophy simply wouldn’t work.
Under Wally Clinton's direction, the 1990 Pollie awards played to a full house at the Mayflower Hotel. For the first time, the awards competition included a Hall of Fame. The founding fathers of the AAPC Joe Napolitan and F. Clifton White were the first two inductees. It was meant to be a surprise, but as he stepped up to microphone to receive the award, Joe Napolitan pulled prepared remarks out of his pocket and told the audience, “As you know, there are no secrets in Washington.” The other inductee into the Hall of Fame that evening, the late Clif White, spoke via telephone from his hospital bed in Connecticut and reflected nostalgically of the days before "we even called ourselves political consultants."
By the time of the sixth biennial Pollie awards, entries had topped 1,200. "The growth of the political industry is mirrored by the diversity of the Pollies and the quality and creativity of the entries," recalled Ladonna Lee, the 1992 awards chairman.
“In this digital age it is hard to truly appreciate the overwhelming logistical issues we faced,” recalls Amy Marcenaro Heckman, who served as Executive Director of the AAPC from 1993 through 1999. “Entries were either on large 3-foot wide art boards or individual video and audio tapes. Each day more and more would arrive, filling the conference room and offices, and lining the hallways. They were sorted, processed, and then taken over to The Graduate School of Political Management at GW for judging and then a video of the winners had to be produced from these same materials. It was a hugh nightmare.”
Over the years the Pollie awards have not been without their critics. Members and nonmembers alike differ on the judging process, criteria, categories, and even the awards ceremonies. In 2005 even the Hall of Fame Award was temporally renamed the “Lifetime Achievement Award” because some board members thought the word “fame” was inappropriate. But the most pervasive criticism by far is the large number of awards presented and the impact they have on their perceived value. Addressing that criticism in 2014, the current AAPC president, Art Hackney asserts “(we’re) trying to balance that. We’ve cut categories from a whopping 1,100 down to 365…”
However, there is near unanimity that Roy Pfautch was right: if the Pollies didn't exist, somebody would have to invent them. And perhaps, just perhaps, the Pollies symbolize more than just who won and who lost. Clutching a Pollie award in his hands years before there was a FOX News, Roger Ailes said it best, "I can't imagine a dinner like this in any other country . . . we've had Democrats win and Republicans win, but we're all here tonight for a bigger reason: because we believe in this country and believe in good government."
Tom Edmonds is a Republican media consultant. He served as president of the AAPC from 1993 to ‘95.
Some material and period quotes in this article were taking from an April 1993 Campaign & Elections article entitled “A Decade of the Pollies”.