The Strategy Behind Early Senate Ads

By Sarah Birnbaum

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Dec. 16, 2011


BOSTON — The onslaught of campaign ads makes most voters dizzy — especially when they appear a full year before an election. With you the voter focusing on your job, your family and your holidays, are Massachusetts Senate candidates wasting their time and money advertising this early? 

Tobe Berkovitz
, a professor at Boston University whose specialty is political advertising, explained the strategy. “You want to use the advertising to try to start manipulating public opinion and moving it in your direction and also moving it against your opponent,” he said.

So let's look at two of these early ads. 
 
Scott Brown and big oil
 
Have you seen this ad? It features a Scott Brown lookalike complete with barn jacket and truck, fumes spewing from his tailpipe and oil oozing from his palms.

Berkovitz’s take: 

“This is probably going after the independents who voted for Scott Brown, thought that Scott Brown was a good guy, and now what they’re trying to do is show those independents — who are, again, mostly Democrats underneath who don’t want to admit that they’re Democrats — showing them: See? You thought Scott Brown was one thing. And that’s your nice neighbor in the barn coat with the truck. But in fact he’s something else, a tool of the oil interests and big money out of Washington.”
 
Elizabeth Warren and the Occupy movement
 
A woman's voice intones, “Fourteen millions of Americans out of work. But instead of focusing on jobs, Elizabeth Warren sides with extreme-left protests.” The camera focuses on an Occupy protester’s Che Guevara sign.

Berkovitz said this ad is geared to undecided voters who don’t follow the news that much:
 
“What this is trying to do is sort of speak to the great unwashed out there, people who aren’t paying that much attention to politics and they’re sort of sitting in their living room watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and all of a sudden this comes on and says, ‘Oh, this is a scary lady.’”
 
Warren… and the wandering womb?
 
That scary lady image, and other images of female candidates looking out of control, are a staple of negative ads, said “Slate” contributor Libby Copeland.
 
“Elizabeth Warren in this ad is being painted as almost deranged,” Copeland said. She thought the message hearkened back to historical uneasiness “about women at the helm in executive positions and the assumptions of their hysterical nature.”
 
With that kind of cultural baggage, Copeland said, “When you call a woman nutty, it can be a little more effective, I believe, then if you’re throwing those accusations at a man."
 
The strategy behind the early start
 
But the timing begs the question: Why go after independents and undecided voters this early? Don’t they wait until the closing weeks of a race before making up their minds?
 
“What you’re trying to do now is get all this buzz going and then start moving the polls,”  Berkovitz explained. “Then what you can do is say ‘See, Elizabeth Warren is on the rise,’ or ‘See, Scott Brown is holding his own.’”
 
The ads also target a second group: the media.
 
“The media is almost always the first target for these ads because what will happen is the media is obsessed with them. It’s like crack to an addict,” Berkovitz said.
 
Moreover, ads are an easy way for the media to start covering a campaign. Policies are complex and can make people’s eyes glaze over, Berkovitz pointed out. “But a political ad?  Nothing subtle there!”
 
Air early and often
 
The frequency of these ads is also part of the strategy.
 
The ad linking Warren with Occupy Boston was paid for by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. The group said it spent $596,00 on the ad and that the average resident saw it 10 times.
 
The Scott-Brown–drenched-in-oil ad was paid for by the League of Conservation Voters, which is spending $1.85 million, or enough to make sure the average TV viewer saw the ad 25 times.
 
But the real circulation is much higher. The ads are usually excerpted on the news… like we’re doing here… and repeated on radio, quoted in newspapers, posted on blogs, before going viral across social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. The result: Your exposure to the ad increases tenfold.
 
The $1.85 million question
 
Campaigns are trying to shape the narrative of the candidate, move the polls and build momentum. But does it work? Can you really sway voters this early in an election — especially with ads that seem like one giant cliché?
 
Berkovitz said it’s hard to tell. Campaigns conduct internal polling and focus groups to see if their ads are resonating with voters but they won’t release that information.
 
One thing’s for sure: We’ll be seeing a lot more of these ads before Election Day 2012 is done.

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