Mitt, Barack And The Persuadables

  • by August 24, 2012

People tend to complain about being bombarded with nasty advertising during presidential elections, and fighting dirty has been a staple of the cycle since way before Nixon was the one. But this year’s crop of political ads seems to be the grimmest yet. Talk about Mourning Again in America: yes, I’m mourning TV spots that actually contain the spark of an idea (never mind soaring rhetoric and visuals!) and some decent art direction. 

Almost $500 million has been spent so far, mainly on TV buys in battleground states. What a waste. Considering the brilliant use of social media that President Obama made four years ago, and the elevated look of his Shepard Fairy posters, it’s especially disappointing that his campaign seems to be going so old-school lately. 

For many reasons, including the lousy economy and the rise of the Super Pacs, ads from both parties have been almost entirely negative. In this way, they seem almost interchangeable, packaged with the same crude Powerpoint visuals (black-and-white newspaper headlines intercut with stock color photos of average Americans worrying about their bills) with announcers making semi-false claims over the same maudlin musical cues. 



After a while, it’s gets numbing, and it’s less like watching politics in action and more like viewing a game of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots. If you recall, they were those Mattel-manufactured plastic boxer dudes who were red and blue, conveniently enough, and lived to jab each other endlessly in a plastic ring. Analog precursors to Battlebots, they whaled on each other until one knocked the other’s block off. (Literally. Each had a spring-loaded head that popped off to a “gotcha” sound.) 

Except this year, it’s our heads that are exploding. The escalating negativity becomes an arms race, and neither side can blink, especially if one more nasty ad might make a difference in the margins in the swing states.  This year, “the persuadables” like Bob in Ohio or Shirley in Florida could actually change the outcome. And so the candidates spend their time looking for donors to contribute millions more for local TV ads, and the bleak cycle continues.

Historically, negative ads have been used to depress turnout. Faced with enough of them, voters become weary, cynical, and just plain disgusted with politics.

On the other hand, negative advertising has its defenders, including Tom Messner,  copywriter and founder/partner at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, who actually worked on Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, (aka “Morning in America”) and many others. By contrast, he says that it can actually drive turnout, and that “negative advertising is more believable than positive advertising.” We are naturally attracted to car wrecks, and wired to pay attention to disturbing information, after all.  

Messner, whose references tend to be a great deal more highbrow than your typical negative ad would allow, explains that “in the end, political advertising is a benign form of taking power, compared to regicide, Borgia poisonings, Lady Macbethian machinations, or the removal of the Archduke Ferdinand, who would rather have had Karl Rove attack him in a TV spot than Gavrilo Princip.”

Princip was the guy who assassinated the archduke, and inadvertently started the first world war. Within that context, Messner has a point: Karl Rove doesn’t seem so bad. 

But back to 21st century advertising. I was talking about the negative phenomenon with Andrew Ault, executive creative director of integrated marketing at NBCUniversal. He mentioned that at many of the ad agencies where he worked in the past, (like Crispin, Porter+Bogusky, and Wieden+ Kennedy,) “the question always was, ‘How can we spend media money in a more effective way?’”

“Why doesn't someone like, say, Obama, take some of that money and immediately do some extraordinary charitable thing with it? Say, pay the salaries of teachers about to get laid off? Save homes in Detroit from foreclosure, or save 100 farm families? Surely, there are many other ways to spend the money that would  do some major social good and, therefore, get lots of positive PR for said candidate,” he said.

He then offered the painful example of Meg Whitman spending  north of $140 million of her own money to lose the race for governor of California. At the time, I remember thinking that that kind of capital could have put the entire state university system of California back on track and paved the way for thousands of students to get scholarships. 

“What is amazing is that neither side sees their abundance of campaign money as a means to do any good at all,” Ault says. “It just seems crazy that candidates will spend millions talking about reducing taxes by millions.”

There are no doubt complex legal issues involved in giving away campaign dough. But why can’t politicians start thinking about a way to make their advertising modern and interactive, to reflect what some of the great brands are doing in terms of building awareness? They could make their forward-looking philanthropic and public service activity be their advertising, and at the same time actually pay back.

Wouldn’t politicians want to be remembered for the social good they did while running, rather than the barrage of negative ads they left behind?. It also might leave some money and time for the old-fashioned pressing of the flesh, shaking hands with voters. Imagine getting to meet the candidate eye-to-eye, without being a donor. It would be a perfect time to thank him or her for not inundating us with depressing negative ads.

16 comments about "Mitt, Barack And The Persuadables".
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  1. Pooky Amsterdam from PookyMedia, August 24, 2012 at 11:13 a.m.

    Barbara Lippert hits the nail on the head - Love reading your blog. Yes delivering services to constituents is really what Gov't should be about. The FCC is owned by we, the people and airtime really should be given free as it is in the UK for example. Best line ever- "Wouldn’t politicians want to be remembered for the social good they did while running, rather than the barrage of negative ads they left behind?"
    Remembered for the Social Good - this phrase has true meaning. TY Barbara!

  2. Rick Monihan from None, August 24, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.

    I don't support either candidate. I think they are both pale, empty suits representing special interests I have no interest in.
    That said, it's interesting how you focus every single example of negative spending or campaigning on Republicans. It's worth noting Nixon learned quite a bit about dirty politics by running against a good friend of his, John F Kennedy. Before Chris Matthews went completely insane, he wrote a pretty good book about Nixon and Kennedy that's worth reading. Nixon was no saint. But by comparison to JFK? Let's just say there's no comparison, JFK was very dirty and sneaky. Also very talented. But very dirty and sneaky.
    With regard to the issue you discuss in broad strokes, Paula is right. It's not that simple. I think it could be that simple, if you look logically at the methods people use to parse information. For example, we may know that Romney only pays 13% in taxes. That sounds terrible, but Oliver Wendell Holmes did say it is every American's duty to avoid paying taxes, though evasion is illegal.
    But what about his charitable giving? I don't have access to his forms, but what if 13% taxes added to 10% charitable giving (I'm making that up, it could be 2%, or $2, or $0), and we see Romney is actually paying about 23% to further civilization and improve lives? Would that alter the discussion substantially? I think so (remember, Mormons tithe 10% of their income - though I have no idea if Romney is active in the LDS).
    On the other hand, Michelle Obama wrote a book, and I believe she gives a large % of the earnings to charity. Perhaps that's another good story that's worth campaigning on.
    My problem with spending money on office isn't that they spend it - that's money that gets back into the economy and is therefore useful spending. What I take issue with is, as you point out, HOW it is spent to air dirty laundry, imply some kind of malfeasance when none exists, create assumptions regarding candidates causing the death of a spouse, and a host of other unsavory points. Far better to find strengths, play them up, and spend money promoting the beneficial things people and their money have done for society.

  3. Laurence Bernstein from Protean Strategies, August 24, 2012 at 11:15 a.m.

    "Wouldn’t politicians want to be remembered for the social good they did while running, rather than the barrage of negative ads they left behind?."....ah, apparently not!

  4. Halisi Vinson from A New Dawn Media & Marketing, August 24, 2012 at 11:34 a.m.

    First off we must be very careful as content creators that we don't make cardinal mistakes when it comes to journalism. Ms. Bennett makes the statement that both sides have told lies or half-truths in their advertisements but doesn't back this up with examples and proof.

    Secondly, while I like the notion of the president using campaign funds to pay teachers that would be illegal and against campaign finance rules.

    When writing about areas that we don't have a thorough knowledge of and relating them to areas we do understand...advertising, branding, etc. We must be careful to not spread misinformation.

  5. David Gutting from Barkley, August 24, 2012 at 11:44 a.m.

    Barbara, I don't think you get politics. First of all, by relative standards the negativism of this campaign is relatively mild. Do you remember Willie Horton in 1988? Swift Boaters in 2004?

    It always seems that we think the most recent is the dirtiest.

    As for Obama's brilliant use of social media in 08--all he did was use it; it wasn't especially brilliant. And the way he won the nomination was twofold: he buried Hilary Clinton with--guess what--television advertising, and he outgunned her with old fashioned ground operations in the caucus states.

    He actually was a totally traditional candidate. He announced his candidacy on the steps of the capitol in Springfield IL and he was smart enough to download the nominating rules of the Democratic Party--something that Hilary's people apparently didn't do.

    In this campaign, he's the incumbent. He's not sitting on a great economy and even in the best of times an incumbent wins by disqualifying his opponent.

    His negative strategy this summer has been proper, and it's been--so far--successful.

  6. Barbara Lippert from, August 24, 2012 at 1:21 p.m.

    Thanks for the comments. I realize Willie Horton was so bad that it caused its creator to make a deathbed apology. And I know that it would seem pie in the sky to suggest any of this. And I know that there's an essential tension between political operatives, who make and test these ads by the minute, on minuscule budgets, in a 24/7 factory, and ad agency people, who don't. But I thought it would be interesting to suggest changing the way the whole thing has been done for 50 years, no matter how uninformed or naive it seemed.

  7. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, August 24, 2012 at 2:49 p.m.

    Rick, that's a very interesting point about charitable contributions - but did any of that show up in the few years of returns that MR did decide to turn over? Regarding negative advertising, I think the public has, unfortunately become largely inured to it, especially after 10+ ten years of reality shows that celebrate nothing but the worst traits of people.

  8. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, August 24, 2012 at 3:34 p.m.

    Gee, negative political advertising is better than assassination! That's a pretty low (and obvious) threshold, and not one worth making to rationalize the poisonous parade of lies and lowest-common denominator propaganda to which we've been subjected.

    On the other hand, it's always good to be reminded that negative political advertising has been around since forever, and even our forefathers did it long before Nixon:

    My guess for the reason the ads got so negative so fast is because there is an incumbent President.

    The same way the political machine of the last incumbent, George W. Bush, was able to "define" their opponent John Kerry in a negative frame long before the debates, the Obama machine is seeking to define Romney negatively in people's minds (and the incompetent Romney campaign is helping them).

    As for reprehensible political advertising, I was living in Georgia when the GOP linked paraplegic Vietnam war hero Max Cleland with Osama Bin Laden in the election following 9/11. That was right up there with WIllie Horton.

    People can say "They all do it," and there is an element of truth in that both sides contribute negative advertising, but the most bottom of the barrel beyond the pale stuff always seems to come from the Republicans. Remember this one against Harold Ford, Jr., in Tennessee?

    I challenge anybody to come up with ads from a Democratic candidate that's as reprehensible as this stuff.

  9. Michael Cornette from Bonten Media, August 24, 2012 at 5:16 p.m.

    Great post Barbara. I have never met a viewer who says they enjoy watching all the ads, but they work and we are going to continue to see them. However, I did meet a political operative who had an interesting take on them. His point was this; Imagine if by some strange decree, it was decided as of 1 January 2013, there would only be one soft drink sold in the United States. To what lengths do you think Coke and/or Pepsi would go to make sure they were still in operation come the New year?

    It would be nice for a candidate to be remembered for their contribution to the betterment of society. Only now is George Bush being recognized for his efforts to combat AIDS. There are times the actions simply take time to foster and emerge.

    Lastly, in regards to Thomas Sieberts challenge, how about the NAACP radio ads ran against Bush in regards to the people that murdered James Byrd, the one that was 100% factually wrong? I would also point out the ad the Obama Super Pac ran trying to claim Romney was somehow responsible for the death of Mr. Soptic's wife, again proved 100% wrong.

  10. Sandy Pochapin from Buyer Advertising, August 24, 2012 at 5:44 p.m.

    What a terrific column. I wish everyone could read it. Bravo!

  11. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 24, 2012 at 9:33 p.m.

    It wasn't Romney who personally was responsible for death; it was that he was the leader of the policies and at least part of the creation. Until you feel that security loss, you will never know.
    All who run for a high office should have to live on $10 per hour, no benefits for 40 hours of work for one year to support themselves and family. Fat chance, but at least there would be a better chance of election and position reality. Maybe Mrs. Romney wouldn't be riding on such a high horse through her unfortunate disease.

  12. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, August 25, 2012 at 1:48 p.m.

    Micheal Cornette: Neither the SuperPAC ad against Romney nor the NAACP ad against W is a political candidate's negative ad, the way the ads against Max Cleland and Harold Ford were ads paid for by the Saxby Chambliss and Bob Corker campaigns, respectively. Moreover, Obama discredited the SuperPAC ad at a press conference last week. That surely stands in marked contrast to Romney's profoundly irresponsible Birther crack just the other day. Please try again.

  13. mark hadley from jailbreak media, August 26, 2012 at 1:19 p.m.

    a noble sentiment to reallocate all the media dollars to do something positive and charitable in order to make a PR splash, however, since out media seems dead-set on paying attention almost exclusively to tragedy and drama-laced non-sense (not positive feel-good storys), this tactic would pretty much assure a massive reduction in exposure to the candidate that pursued it.

    That said, if it were possible for it to work at all, it would have to be a democrat to pursue it - given the liberal tilt of most (not all but most) of the media outlets, it's possible that if a democrat did something like this, they might support it with enough coverage for it to pay off - that would definitely not be the case for a republican.

    Anyway, if we'd like to use this advertising forum to get into a political debate, maybe we should be talking more about what these bone heads (on both sides: democrat and republican) do (or don't do) once they're in office rather than how they spend their campaign dollars.

    I'm more concerned about the sanctioned gonvernment ponzi scheme the American people are having forced upon them by both parties than I am about how Barack or Romney spend their campaign dollars.

    Or if we'd rather focus on advertising here, Miss Lippert referenced Barack's "brilliant use of social" four years ago. Sure, he did a nominally better job of leveraging social than McCain did, and therefore, a better job of using this tool than anyone before him (in terms of political campaigns anyway), but to classify his campaign's use of social as "brilliant" is ridiculous.

    We've yet to see a political candidacy leverage social anywhere close to it's full potential. I believe one day in the not so distant future we'll see a candidate not strictly affiliated with either established political party arise from nowhere and win a major election (maybe not presidential, but something significant) with virtually no campaign money, relying almost exclusively on a truely brilliant social strategy.

    Anyway, since i'm not sure what we're supposed to be debating here, i'll stop now.

  14. Barbara Lippert from, August 26, 2012 at 1:56 p.m.

    ok--David and Mark. I am persuaded that Obama's use of social media was not brilliant. how about Obama's "timely" use of social media?

  15. David Gutting from Barkley, August 26, 2012 at 2:29 p.m.

    I could accept that he used it a timely manner but I have never been persuaded that his use of any media was especially "brilliant." He ran a solid, by-the-book campaign. Consider this difference about him: his campaign announcement--on the steps of the Illinois capitol building--was utterly traditional. In his speech, he outlined what he wanted to do as president (this was before the banking collapse so some of that changed--but more than most presidents, he has actually done what he said he would do).

    Contrast this to his opponents. Hilary Clinton announced her candidacy on YouTube. It was light on vision, void of any serious mention of what she wanted to do as president, and built on the theme, "I'm in it to win."

    John McCain? He announced his candidacy on Leno.

    So both of his main opponents took the approach of "alternate" media for one of the most important moments of their campaigns.

    Obama succeeded for a number of reasons. Strategically, he identified '08 as a "change" election. Hilary may have wanted change, but she presented herself as a product of old, reliable politics. (Never mind that Barack was a product of the very same--but he was smart enough to not highlight it.)

    Obama also succeeded because he had a strategy team much more in tune with electoral demographics. They understood that the electorates of states like Virginia and North Carolina had changed and were winnable states.

    I think one of my main points is that the lens of thinking we see in the world of non-political advertising is not especially useful for understanding politics. I also think it is just plain naive to be appalled at "negative" advertising. It's like being appalled that Super Bowl champions tend to play aggressive, in-your-face defense. It also fails to understand that in presidential politics it's about one thing: 270 electoral votes. A Mary Poppins mindset is not going to get you there.

  16. mark hadley from jailbreak media, August 26, 2012 at 2:29 p.m.

    I would say it's fair to suggest Barack made some nominal gains thanks to timely use of social media.

    Also to further clarify my earlier statements - i'd say there's really not one large marketing entity in political or otherwise who've really fully unleashed a brilliant social strategy, so my earlier comments weren't so much meant as a dig on Barack's strategy - moreso a recognition that the code has not been fully cracked by marketers yet.

    All that said, let's not forget that Barack only had something like 2.5 million followers in November 2008...which is a lot relative to other politicians, but less than 10% of those that Justin Beiber has (admittedly, most of those are teen girls). Bottom line, 2.5MM followers in the context of hundreds of millions of supporters required to ensure election is a mere pittance.

    So I agree with you that Barack leveraged social relatively well when compared to other politication, and due to that enjoyed a probably unmeasureably small uptick because of it. I don't think his use of social was material in the outcome of that election - I think it's impact has been extremely over-blown by the media, to the point that everyone thinks Barack's social approach was the best thing ever, when in fact, it was a nominal improvement...over other politicians efforts - which have been totally inept.

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