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I Approve this Message: AU Profs Weigh in on Campaign Ad Wars

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Creating quality campaign ads is difficult, and there's an art to getting viewers' attention.
Creating quality campaign ads is difficult, and there's an art to getting viewers' attention. Image:

It’s that time of the election season when voters get bombarded with political ads on TV. The greater D.C. media market, for instance, picks up a barrage of ads for tight races in Virginia. If you didn’t know Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va. before, you do now!

Several American University professors recently discussed the state of the TV campaign ad. Experts disagree on the efficacy of these ads, but there’s no doubting they’re an integral part of modern politics. Even in the age of social media and the Internet, TV ads can reach an older voting demographic.

“You can’t forget that aging baby boomers are not really on social media that much. And they’re watching network television. They’re watching cable news,” says American University School of Communication Associate Professor Wendy Melillo Farrill. “So it really can be a very powerful way to communicate with audiences.”

Beating the Drumbeat

There is a logic to repetition in the ads. You might have ignored the attacks against Comstock the first few times you switched on Monday Night Football, but the noise eventually seeps through.

“The old rule is that a viewer really doesn’t start to pick up or retain the message until he or she has seen it four or five times. That’s an old idea, and it seems to be borne out,” says Andrew Babb, an adjunct professor at SOC.

Voters may express disgust with campaign mudslinging, but there’s evidence that negative ads are more likely to get viewers’ attention.

“If you ask Americans in surveys they’ll say, ‘Oh, no, no, that stuff is horrible. We should stop it.’ But the reality is that negative advertising works,” says Melillo Farrill.

She provides the example of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against Democrat John Kerry during the 2004 presidential race. “It was able to create an image and a narrative of a politician like Kerry. Painting him as untrustworthy and unpatriotic, because he testified against the Vietnam War,” she says. “These messages don’t have to be truthful. If you can get somebody to believe it, you can swing voters.”

Cliché Factories vs. “Morning in America”

Babb, who teaches an SOC course on political advertising, is critical of many of the ads run this year.

“They’re cliché factories. They include the following, in no particular order: Really unattractive, still photographs of the opponent, usually in black and white to make them look like villains. There is snarky voice-over. There’s a lot of type you can’t read that comes across the screen,” he says. “And they’re often trying to balance three or four issues in one commercial, which is impossible. And it just ends up being mush.”

There have been some exceptions, he says. One ad that’s gotten rave reviews is from Jason Kander, a Democratic Missouri Senate candidate (and AU alum) who demonstrated his military background—and support of the Second Amendment—by assembling an AR-15 assault rifle blindfolded.

But great ads sometimes require visionary branding from creative ad agency executives. It’s not unlike how Ford might roll out a special campaign for a new vehicle. That was the formula for the classic “Morning in America” spot for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election.

Enlisting Madison Avenue stars can be tricky, though, as they might need to take leave of absence to avoid conflicts of interest. “It taints the agency as being partisan, one way or another. That affects business for the agency,” says Melillo Farrill, who covered advertising as a journalist and was Washington bureau chief for Adweek.

Yet campaigns are frequently forced to cut quick ads in response to polling and late-breaking events. “The day in and day out campaign responses are typically done by the political consultants. They are not necessarily trained in the creative aspects of advertising and how you shape someone’s image,” she says.

Daisy, Going Nuclear, and Free Media

The “Daisy ad” to bolster Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater is probably the most famous campaign spot in American history. It also ran just once, during a telecast of The NBC Monday Movie. Democrats yanked the ad, Republicans reacted with outrage, and controversy ensued.

Babb says that type of free media can help a candidate, and that’s one reason why observers are measuring the impact of Donald Trump’s campaign. Trump ran almost no ads for large stretches of this campaign, but his provocative statements, divisive rallies, and frequent call-ins to talk shows have made him ubiquitous.

But Austin Hart, an assistant professor in the School of International Service, said Trump’s approach has ultimately been detrimental to his campaign.

“I think that’s an intentional choice that they’ve made, to rely far more on free media and earned media instead of traditional ad buys. But then you don’t have a message, and you don’t have control over the message. And when he loses control—which he’s done two or three times in the last two months—things go horribly wrong for him,” Hart explains.

Far from a game-changing strategy, Hart believes this approach is unlikely to be replicated by future candidates. “I think people will look back at that as a clear failing,” he adds.

Decline of Ads and Shifting Focus

SOC Executive in Residence Molly O’Rourke doesn’t believe candidates will abandon TV ads anytime soon, but she does foresee a cloudy future.

“The past several presidential election cycles, there has been a steady increase in campaign spending on advertising. And this is the first year we’re actually seeing a decrease,” she says.

In addition to Trump’s free media strategy, she points out that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is spending less than Barack Obama’s team spent in 2012. Part of the reason is that, as political scientists have shown, there are few truly independent voters to reach in this polarized environment.

Ads are “not used the way they used to be used in driving turnout. Especially in terms of persuasion, because target audiences of swing voters are so much narrower,” O’Rourke says. “We know who those small pockets of swing voters are—where they live, what they’re interested in. And it’s not cost-effective to use traditional network advertising to deliver your message.”

How can money be better spent? To some extent, it’s a marrying of the old and the new. O’Rourke credits how the Obama campaign utilized door-to-door canvassing and an extensive database. “They weren’t just organic. They were driven by technology,” she says. “I think that those personal contacts are an increasingly key ingredient for what makes something memorable.”

Candidates can still strategically emphasize certain issues through ads. In Hart’s new book, Economic Voting: A Campaign-Centered Theory, he found that through volume and repetition of exposure, candidates can use ads to make people think more about the economy.

“The theory of priming comes out of behavioral psychology, and it says that we care most about those things that are at the top of our minds,” Hart explains. “So the more we hear about the economy, the more it tends to weigh in our evaluations of political figures.”

For Trump or Clinton—two candidates with high disapproval ratings—this could helpfully raise the salience of economic issues, he says. But it’s a double-edged sword, as a pro-Hillary voter on cultural values may still be skeptical of the Obama economy that Clinton largely supported.

The Visuals Take Over

As this campaign season unfolds, Babb’s political advertising class has been analyzing ads and grading them based on various attributes. He’ll also have his students re-write many of these ads. At the end of the semester, they’ll write their own commercials for themselves, as if they were running for Congress.

“The reason there’s a creative element to this is so students appreciate how hard it is to write a 30-second script,” he says.

Yet since Babb started teaching this course, he’s been impressed with how students eventually learn to write incisive, high-quality spots. “They realize what the timing is. They let the visuals take over. And it’s great to watch.”