August 12, 2008


Who's winning the message war, Obama or McCain?: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a leading analyst of political advertising, dissects three commercials from Barack Obama and three from John McCain. (Alex Koppelman, Aug. 12, 2008, Salon)

Why don't we talk about specific ads now? What about the McCain Web ad "The One," in which the McCain campaign mocks Obama by comparing him to Moses?

The first advantage that this ad has is that it's using Senator Obama's [own] statements in actual video clips. It heightens credibility. The second advantage to that ad is that its use of humor is effective. Charlton Heston as Moses is unexpected the first time you see the ad, and the juxtaposition with the theme of the Obama quotes on each side is effective. And so unlike the "Celeb" ad [featuring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton], in which the test of plausibility is immediate, in that you can begin to ask, what are these two women doing in this ad; you're far less likely to ask that in "The One."

Across those ads you're seeing the same basic theme: Is Obama ready to lead? The Republicans have found their theme and the question becomes, is it a theme that is ultimately disadvantageous, [if] in the debates Senator Obama establishes that he is able to hold his own with Senator McCain. Debates provide a test of that. We've seen it historically across campaigns. John Kennedy was advantaged in 1960; that was the question being asked by Richard Nixon at the time. In the first debate, Kennedy established that he was as competent, not more competent, but as competent as Richard Nixon, and he was advantaged. John Kerry was advantaged in the same way in the 2004 election because after the scare tactics that were employed by the Republicans against him had potentially gained traction, the debate gave him a chance to step beyond the caricatures. So the danger in the Republican strategy is that it sets up an argument that can be rebutted by performance of the opposing candidate in a debate. Nonetheless, the ad called "The One" is an effective ad because its use of humor works, because its use of quotations by Senator Obama works. As a result it passes the plausibility test. [...]

What about the "Celeb" ad, which features Britney Spears and Paris Hilton? [...]

The other thing that interests me about this ad is that it is visually and verbally recasting the speech in Germany. And that is important because there is a view that is offered by the Obama campaign, largely reinforced in news and in the talking-heads commentary on cable, in which that speech is a symbol of Europeans expressing support for America's role in the world and the form of leadership that Senator Obama would bring. If that is your view of the speech in Germany, then it's a very positive signal.

If, however, that visual of the 200,000 people is transformed into not an affirmation of an important U.S. role in the world and a European willingness to embrace that role, and a willingness to embrace Senator Obama, but rather a crowd chanting his name and an audience transformed into a crowd [that] just looks like a large mass, [the image has] been stripped of some of its power and now there's a vaguely menacing sense about the chant and about this undifferentiated mass audience.

That's the argument this ad is making. That is a very different visual and verbal image than the one that was conveyed by the speech itself or the interpretation of it offered in news. And that part of this ad is very effective and largely unremarked on.

When your message is our message, you're toast.

Negative ads: They really do work (MARK J. PENN | 8/11/08, Politico)

Some negative ads crystallize voters’ opinions without presenting any new information. That’s what was behind John McCain’s recent ad equating Barack Obama’s celebrity status with that of Paris Hilton — that viewers would associate the Democrat’s leadership with mere celebrity, not substance. Fair or not, as advertising it did its job: It used humor, stuck viewers with memorable images and created a debate, just as Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad, Walter Mondale’s “Red Phone” spot 20 years later and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “3 a.m.” commercial in 2008 did.

The Paris Hilton ad also bore a Republican political trademark — attacking a candidate’s strengths rather than the candidate’s weaknesses. The spot attempted to portray Obama’s leadership for change as something fluffy and useless. Obama did not immediately hit back on the air.

Other types of negative ads use candidates’ own words against them. During Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign, we used to devastating effect the speeches that Republican nominee Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave — especially a speech in which Gingrich admitted that his balanced budget plan aimed to cut off Medicare funds so the social insurance program would “wither on the vine.”

So far in the 2008 contest, neither candidate has connected with any ads that explosive. But fresh information about their past views in their own words could shake up the race.

Another nice hint that the tapes exist, but the brader point is the GOP needn't present new information when the Unicorn Rider's (or Dukakis/Gore/Kerry's) own information actually works to his disfavor.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 12, 2008 10:35 AM
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