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Political Ads — Which Catch Your Attention And Why?

Don’t watch this YouTube just yet.  Do a little reading first… 

The Washington Post has been doing a whole series of articles on issues surrounding the upcoming election in November.  Two of these articles caught my eye over the last week, and I wanted to explore their main points in a little more depth — using some Democratic party and candidate advertising as illustrations for everyone.  I want to make clear up front that several of these advertisement links were sent in to me by readers — but that they are not all Blue America-vetted candidates, so I’m not giving any sort of endorsement to any particular candidate whose ad is featured here. 

These are all Democratic candidates, but if you live in their district, you’ll need to do more digging on your own to see if they represent your values and your politics — I just want to use them for advertising comparison purposes this morning because they each have different pluses and minuses to offer in their ad presentations.

What I wanted to do was use these ads to highlight some of the particular features that each of them have…and have us talk a bit about which ads use them to good effect and which fall short.

But first, the WaPo articles I referenced.  On 9/17/06, there was a short piece by Shankar Vedantam regarding aiming for the heart, and not the head, with campaigns, and which makes the following assertion:

…Given the enormous proliferation of policy questions today, surfing the emotional wave nowadays may be even more important than it was in 1935. George E. Marcus, president of the International Society of Political Psychology, said modern research confirms that unless political ads evoke emotional responses, they don’t have much effect. Voters, he explained, need to be emotionally primed in some way before they will pay attention.

The research is of importance to politicians for obvious reasons — and partly explains the enduring attraction of negative advertising — but it is also important to voters, because it suggests that the reason candidates seem appealing often has little to do with their ideas. Political campaigns are won and lost at a more emotional and subtle level….

The success of the Fenty campaign, several political psychologists said, was in making energy the central emotive issue in the campaign. Once it was the top item on the agenda, Fenty had to win. (Besides being amid a whirlwind of activity, the candidate made sure he said the words "energy" and "energized" every chance he got. Reporters followed Fenty’s lead, attaching the adjective "energetic" to news reports about his campaign.)

The Fenty machine essentially took advantage of what the Allentown study found: It is comparatively difficult to persuade anyone to change their mind on an issue. What works much better, because it influences people at an emotional and subtle level, is to get people to focus on a different issue — the one where the candidate is the strongest.

Note that this is particularly important at a time when there are a lot of complaints that any number of candidates have no clear message at all other than "vote for me, the other guy is worse." (Not really an emotional tug to that one, is there?)

The second was an article that is based on some research and survey work done on behalf of the WaPo, and written up by Shanto Iyengar entitled "Who Said What?:  Issue Advertising and the 2006 Vote."  The whole article is worth a read, but this paragraph leapt out at me:

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Democrats are credible on national security; the ad pairing characterized by the lowest level of Republican voting (26 percent) consisted of a Democratic attack on "staying the course" and a Republican ad arguing that Iraq is a key arena in the war on terror. The Republican share of the vote also fell significantly (to 32 percent) when both parties addressed national security. We cannot be confident that these observed differences are attributable solely to issue content because the ads in question differ in various subtle respects other than content. The sound track in the Republican ad on terrorism, for instance, features continuous gunfire in the background. Nonetheless, the data suggest that Democrats need not shy away from national security and that they can successfully "dialogue" with Republicans on this issue.

The article reports that they found that terrorism and immigration are clearly Republican issues, but that these issues rank behind Iraq and the economy in terms of voter concerns in this election cycle — giving an enormous opportunity to Democrats to turn the discussion to those issues and seize the momentum going into the Fall.

With that in mind, take a peek at the above YouTube. It’s a DCCC ad that’s being run to soften up Brad Ellsworth‘s opponent in Indiana’s 8th Congressional District.  Now, without knowing anything about either candidate, that ad all by itself does tug at your heart, doesn’t it?  And it does piss you off that this Hostettler fellow is a heartless bastard — or at least appears to be one in this ad, doesn’t he?  (For a second DCCC ad for the same district, take a peek here.  It seems Mr. Hostetler is also a friend of pay raises for himself, but isn’t so big on helping out military families.  Effective, but doesn’t tug my heartstrings as much as the one above.  What do you think?)

Ellsworth’s own ad portrays him as a tough-on-crime sort of fellow (which you’d expect, frankly, seeing that he’s a Sherriff and all).  But I found the DCCC ads more effective, frankly, than this Ellsworth ad.  How about you guys?  Is it the lack of emotional content in the Ellsworth ad — I’d like to think I’m beyond just falling for a heartstrings ploy, but I think it is something that you need to think about and ask yourself. 

Now, contrast that with this YouTube-posted spot from Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.  It has a "think of me as Jack or Bobby Kennedy-esque" sort of quality to it, with a sort of old-style speak on principle tone to the message.  A bit stilted at the start, but he warms a little by the end.  I liked the clear statement on "George Bush’s War" at the end.  But this ad just didn’t work for me, and I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why.  I’d love your thoughts on this one.

Then there is this style of ad — for candidate Patricia Madrid, running for the House seat in New Mexico’s First Congressional District.  It certainly paints a bleak picture of her opponent, and the background music, graphics and photos bring that home to a large extent.  Is this effective for you?  It certainly doesn’t want to make me vote for Wilson, but I would have liked a "we can do better, and I plan on doing just that when I’m representing New Mexico in Congress" at the end, wouldn’t you?

This next ad is on the website of a Democratic candidate for the House seat in Nebraska’s 3rd District.  This was sent to me by a reader and I thought it hit some good notes — at least for the area of the country in which I live, and for the heart of red-voting farm country in Nebraska as well.  It wouldn’t work everywhere, I’m sure, and I’d like it if they’d spent more time talking about the candidate himself instead of his family background…but it does tug at a heartstring or two, especially for senior citizens who tend to vote in droves.  So for this particular district, this may be a good strategy.  What do you think?

The last ad is a Quicktime video (via StarTribuneBlog, with a big hat tip to reader BarbaraM for the links).  It’s for a candidate in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District — Tim Walz.  I love a lot about this ad.  It starts off a little stiff and preachy, and I’m not in love with the scripting particularly, but it gets better as it goes along.  And the end, where the candidate himself comes on is the best part for me — this fellow doesn’t look like some self-absorbed butthead who has been running for office his whole life because he likes to hear himself talk.  This is a real person who is fed up with the problems that he sees every single day not being fixed, and who has decided that he has an obligation to stand up and do something to make things better.  A real, honest-to-goodness human being who cares about his community and his country.  (Yeah.  I know.  How great is that in a candidate?!?)

[UPDATE:  Huge thank you to Twolf1, who uploaded the Walz ad to YouTube for everyone.]

I watched a bunch of ads putting this post together, and I thought I might have gotten bleary when I got to this particular ad, because I had such a good reaction to it overall.  So I road tested it on Mr. ReddHedd — and he had the same reaction, which is funny considering how opposite we tend to be on advertising viewing and reactions.  His comment was that he would vote for that guy — and if he lived in his district and saw this ad, he’d go right to the website and look him up.  I’ll be interested to see if everyone else has the same reaction.

So much of this is personal and subjective.  What moves me isn’t going to move everyone else, and vice versa.  I tried to look at all of these ads not through my "political junkie" eyes, but through the eyes of someone who only pays attention to political stuff once in a while, catching an ad out of the corner of their eye while cooking dinner or watching football on Saturday, with the rest of life taking priority most of the time. 

The bottom line for the November election is this:  GOTV efforts are crucial.  Again, the WaPo article from 9/19/06:

All told, the main implication of our results is that the great majority of Americans are already "locked in" to their congressional vote. Campaign advertising over the next few weeks may still make a difference, but primarily through differential mobilization of party supporters.

The question is not only which of these ads move you emotionally — but also, which of these ads would move you off the couch and to the polls? Now THAT is a question worth asking.  So, what do you think?

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com