The Art of the Campaign Ad

Courtesy of The Politic

Courtesy of The Politic

By Maya Durvasula

From October 10 to October 23, more than 20,000 ads aired in North Carolina about the Senate rate between incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan and NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, with nearly one million dollars spent on ads each day.  Although these numbers likely come as no surprise to the North Carolinians who continue to be subjected to this ad torrent, the sheer amount of money in campaign advertisements during this midterm season is staggering.

Two reports from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Wesleyan Media Project have determined that candidates and outside groups will have spent about $3.7 billion on tomorrow’s House and Senate elections. $3.7 billion, according to NPR’s Peter Overby, is about enough to buy you 2,969,370 campaign ads or, alternatively, could pay 74,000 teachers a salary of $50,000.

According to the Wesleyan report, tomorrow’s election has generated 12 percent fewer ads than the 2010 midterm elections, while overall spending has increased. This change is largely attributable to the increase in spending from outside groups, who must pay more than candidates (who are guaranteed the lowest-rate by federal law) for the same airtime. In March, DPR’s James Ferencsik analyzed the implications of weakened campaign finance laws, as a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, for electoral integrity and the democratic process as a whole.

Rather than re-visiting the impacts of uncontrolled dark money in politics, let’s instead consider where these billions of dollars are actually ending up by exploring the “Art of the Campaign Ad.”

Smiling, happy families

Advertisements during the 2014 campaign season are considered representative of apivot to the positive,” as strategists hope that uplifting commercials will stand out among their negative counterparts, a lesson taken from the failure of negative advertising during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. It is, however, worth noting that this “pivot to the positive” means that, according to Kantar Media/CMAG as of April, 71 percent of ads had still been negative; at this point in 2012, 80 percent had been negative.

Although negative ads still dominate prime political airtime, Slate’s John Dickerson and Olivia Merrion noted in late September that most campaigns have a standard, positive fallback that is “is one of the smartest—and perhaps easiest—moves:” highlighting a candidate’s smiling, happy family. In particular, Dickerson and Merrion noted that extended shots of the “ever-adoring wife” abound in positive campaign ads, placing an emphasis on the human side of a candidate (they compiled a video to demonstrate this phenomenon).

Mark McKinnon, an ad-maker who worked on George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, told the New York Times: “When people see political ads, they think someone’s lying to them.” Indeed, with a barrage of contradictory and inflammatory messages bombarding us, thousands and thousands of times per day, it is tempting to dismiss all political ads as, at worst, blatant lies and, at best, decidedly misleading.  By providing an approachable, humanizing counter to the increasingly negative and high-tech ads that attempt to monopolize evening ad blocks, visual representations of a candidate as a family-centered individual immediately make us associate him or her with familiar, likeable people.

Threatening voices

While campaigns may be shifting toward more positive messages, nearly three-quarters of all ads follow the tradition of the now-famous attack ads, like Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daisy,” which aired only once, to Hillary Clinton’s “3 AM.” Although poll after poll has demonstrated that Americans object to negative campaigning, those ads work. According to Bob Stern, from the Center for Government Studies in California, voters don’t pay attention to campaign ads unless the message is negative because “they can cut through the flotsam of an election-year blitz; they tend to stick with us when less provocative ads fade away.”

The threatening narration that accompanies unflattering pictures of the candidate being attacked and dramatic re-enactments is, in and of itself, an art. According to Scott Sanders and Dennis Steele, voiceover artists who are considered the “king and prince of the attack ad” consider themselves hired guns who must be able to communicate the right degree of negativity. Steele suggests that a spectrum of attack types, from light to heavy, exists and striking the right balance in the choice of narration can make or break an ad.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Rick Perry’s approach to campaigning was widely hyped in 2011 as the “Scientific Campaign Method” because of his insistence on using social-science methods in addition to conventional campaign strategies; as a result, it was deemed the “brainiest political operation in America” in a book written by Sasha Issenberg in 2012.

A conclusion drawn by four political scientists who collaborated with Mr. Perry’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign team demonstrated a flaw in conventional advertising tactics: the effects of television advertising, although initially significant, last approximately one week, a phenomenon the researchers characterized as “rapid decay.” Analysis of the 2000 presidential election demonstrated the same type of “decay.”

Although, at this point, you may have heard Sen. Hagan’s ads so many times you probably mutter them in your sleep, campaigns are aggressively working to ensure that they remain visible and memorable. Because of this “decay” – effectively, the population’s persistent short-term memory loss when it comes to political ads – the consensus is that repetition is key.

No worries, though. It’s all over tomorrow evening (at least until Campaign 2016 gets up and running next week!). 

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