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Spooky Music, Steelworkers, and American Flags: A Brief Taxonomy of the Political Ad Wars

The fateful marriage between TV advertising and presidential politics that was consecrated 60 years ago with a crudely drawn black-and-white cartoon endorsing Dwight D. Eisenhower—the amateurish off-screen musical narration: “You like Ike. I like Ike. Everyone likes Ike for president”—will culminate this year in an estimated $1-billion-plus orgy spent trying to define the Obama-Romney race. With two potent fund-raisers atop the national tickets (2012 is the first year that both presidential nominees have rejected federal funding for the fall campaign) and the Wild West shoot-first era of Super PACs this will be an especially great campaign … as long as you are a media consultant.

Campaign reporters are understandably overwhelmed by the deluge. They are simultaneously forced to juggle the Sisyphean task of fact-checking the ads with the detective work needed to decipher the true size of claimed media buys. But what journalists too often forget is that most TV spots in presidential campaigns are as superfluous as they are duplicitous. The Americans who go to the polls in presidential races are high-information voters, even without the partisan crib sheets provided by TV ads. Based on the national conventions, three fall presidential debates and saturation news coverage, voters would form indelible impressions of Obama and Romney without a single political commercial ever being aired.

There’s also the fact that, all too often, the ads themselves are simply mediocre. We are not talking about eruptions of Don Draper-style creative genius here. Presidential campaigns tend to be cautious enterprises with even the best media consultants hamstrung by too much polling, too many focus groups and too many layers of approval to get an ad made. As a result, the real story of Campaign 2012 may well be that never in political history has so much money been spent to convince so few voters of so little. Take, as a case in point, the dreary dozen of TV spots and web videos put out by the Obama and Romney camps in the last two weeks. These ads offer either visual wallpaper or run-from-the-room negativism. There is not a dollop of surprise or aesthetic flair. These are headache ads transported to politics.

The early wave of cookie-cutter spots put out by the Obama and Romney campaigns (and their respective Super PACs) has been convenient, however, in one respect: They neatly encapsulate a large portion of the spectrum of ads that we can expect to see over the course of the campaign. Here is a categorization, for handy reference during the months ahead.

Go-for-the-Jugular Negativism

The emblematic attack ad from this early phase of the campaign was sponsored by (shocking revelation ahead) Crossroads GPS, the on-message Republican Super PAC founded by Karl Rove. They went up with a straight from Central Casting one-minute anti-Obama spot that anyone who follows politics could have scripted in about the time it takes to read three tweets. 

Begin with the male voice-of-doom narrator and the kind of spooky movie music you get when a blonde cheerleader decides to go searching for zombies by herself. The visual is a hand-held computer screen that keeps shattering with every broken Obama promise on the economy. And in case TV viewers haven’t gotten the hint, the soundtrack is punctuated by breaking glass. (Memo to Crossroads GPS: When the screen on an iPad cracks, it doesn’t sound like a baseball hitting a living-room window).

Pro-Obama forces can be equally crude in their negativism. PAC+, a Latino Super PAC, has been running an anti-Romney spot in Arizona that links the GOP almost-nominee with such anti-immigrant round-them-up figures as GOP Governor Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The tag line flashed on the screen seems like a leftover from 1960s efforts to demonize Barry Goldwater: “ROMNEY—Too Extreme for Arizona.”

Negative Real-People Testimonials

Most anti-Romney ads are designed to sneak up on viewers as displaced industrial workers speak to the camera about the pain from Bain.

The initial Obama commercial begins in heavy-handed fashion with Joe Soptik putting on a hard hat as he says, “I was a steelworker for 30 years.” (The Obama admakers must have loved his name since “Joe Soptik” is about as close as reality ever gets to the mythical “Joe Sixpack”). The key line in the commercial is delivered by Jack Cobb, a white-bearded steelworker, who declares, “It’s like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us.”

Cloning and shortening the Obama campaign ad (and hitting the TV screens not coincidentally just a day later), Priorities USA Action, the leading pro-Obama Super PAC, actually found its own white-bearded steelworker. Pat Wells, whose headgear is a workingman’s cap instead of a hard hat, stands in front of what is presumably the abandoned GST steel plant (the only visible sign says, “Sheffield Station Industrial”) and says about Romney, “He promised us the same things he’s promising the United States. And he’ll give you the same thing he gave us. Nothing.”

These ads and the rest of the anti-Bain campaign look staged. Everyone in them is so stereotypically blue-collar that they seem like refugees from a 1930s agitprop drama like Waiting for Lefty. The other downside to these Mitt-is-unfit testimonials is that they have a deadpan tone that sort of blends in with the sofa. The stories in the longer Obama ads (its followup anti-Bain video runs more than 5:00 minutes) have a repetitious quality that makes the mind wander, not to the inequities of Romney but to whether its time for a remake of Norma Rae.

In response, a Romney campaign video playing up the candidate’s job-creation record in the private sector is called, yes, “American Dream.”

It begins in equally clichéd fashion with a camera panning a grassy expanse as the voice-over says, “Steel Dynamics started with an empty field and a big dream.” The only burst of creativity lies in the way that the video avoids even mentioning the word Bain. In the video, it’s “Mitt Romney and his leadership team.”

Negative Testimonials with Actors

In my view, the most effective negative ad run so far in this campaign is by Crossroads GPS. The 60-second spot opens with a young mother looking out the window as she says, “I always love watching the kid play basketball. I still do.”

Her voice has the sepia nostalgic tone of a woman in a drug ad reminiscing about the days before her husband was afflicted with Erectile Dysfunction. Small wonder—within 10 seconds her hair has grayed and her small children are now gawky adults living at home because they are jobless in the Obama economy. Hitting the right more-in-sorrow tone, she says, “I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully.”

The endemic problem of political ads is that the admakers are never satisfied with landing glancing blows, they always have to move in for the kill. At 27 seconds into the commercial, the woman’s voice morphs into feminine attack ad mode as she declares, “But things changed for the worse. Obama started spending money like our credit cards have no limit.” The Crossroads spot ends with this now enraged suburban Mom ordering viewers, “Tell President Obama to stop the job-killing debt.” Yeah, sure, I’ll get on it.

Gauzy Flag-Waving Positive Ads

The Romney campaign has so far aired two 30-second spots designed to conjure up our first president named Mitt. In the first ad, President Romney immediately restores the Keystone Pipeline and, in stunning news, ends “Obama-care.”

The commercial boasts three separate visuals with American flags (19 in total), two scenes with obvious black faces and three shots of Romney wearing a tie and three shots of the candidate with an open collar.

The sequel—in which President Romney stands up to China and ends job-killing regulations all in the same day—has more of a lower-middle-class feel.

It boasts five separate workplace scenes (including a young African American hunched over a computer screen at what appears to be a state-of-the-art dry cleaner) and a shot of Romney in a hard hat. It ends with a photograph of Mitt and Ann Romney holding hands as the candidate approves the message in a voice-over so cheerful that you wonder if his dentist gave him laughing gas before the taping.

Running in North Carolina are two Obama campaign spots that strive to recreate the Reagan-esque “Morning in America” tone so beloved by presidents of all parties running for reelection.

While the ad about Medicare (filled with smiling elderly voters) is so marzipan that it makes a Hallmark card rack seem as cynical as the writings of Ambrose Bierce, the 30-second commercial aimed at the military is more intriguing. It features two handshakes with veterans, a presidential salute, an American flag, three helicopters, a runner with a prosthetic leg and the sure-to-repeated Obama voice-over with the signature phrase, “go after al-Qaeda and kill bin Laden.”

WE WILL PROBABLY look back at May as the Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm phase of the campaign in which both Romney and Obama actually bothered to air positive commercials. It seems a safe bet – since a Super PAC sucker is born every minute – that rogue donors will eventually pay for ads linking Obama with Jeremiah Wright and ridiculing the further shores of Romney’s religion. It’s going to be ugly out there. It’s enough to make us all long for 1950s cartoon figures singing about “Rock with Barack” and “Don’t Quit on Mitt.”

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He also writes the “Character Sketch” column for Yahoo News. Follow him on twitter @waltershapiroPD.