As the North Carolina Democratic Primary draws near, the political ads take on the insistent buzz of summer morning cicadas. In addition to a free-for-all gubernatorial race that has already devolved to a rather spectacular mudfest, we are having an historically significant presidential matchup, as well, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a tight race to see who will become the first female or black nominee of a major party for the office of President of the United States.
With respect to the presidential candidates, there has been an interesting trend in advertising here in North Carolina: Just a few weeks ago, when Senator Obama was not only leading in this state by a largish percentage but also more or less the presumptive candidate (with a massive war chest to go along), there were a healthy number of Obama spots, but the Clinton ads were few and far between. However, since Hillary beat Barack pretty soundly in Pennsylvania, her coffers and outlook have been freshened. Now there is a wealth of ads from both sides. I have picked four to analyze: one positive and one negative for/against each candidate.
1. Negative ad against Obama: Paid for by Hillary Clinton for President, her official campaign, this ad focuses on high gasoline prices and touts Senator Clinton’s plan to suspend the federal tax on gasoline, offsetting the cost of her proposal by tapping the “windfall profits” enjoyed by the oil companies. The ad’s punch comes from our visceral outrage at Big Oil for posting record-breaking multi-billion dollar profits while we regular folk struggle with burgeoning prices at the pump.
Hillary is depicted as coming to the rescue of the suffering common man, which plays nicely to her blue-collar base. There is a quote from Obama (cropped to two words, “just pennies”, to make him look elitist) to show that he does not support this proposal, which is flashed on the screen in white letters on a severe black background while a stern (but not sneering) voiceover warns that “he’d make you keep paying that tax, instead of Big Oil”. The ad goes on to say that Clinton will “make” the oil companies invest in clean energy and reduce the price of gas, which are pretty big promises, and closes with the tag line, “Relief for today. Bold solutions for tomorrow”, as a cute little girl sits astride her mom’s shoulders, holding up a “Hillary for President” sign amidst a crowd of supporters (this looks like footage from an actual rally).
As negative ads go, this wasn’t too bad. It’s certainly more of an attack ad against Big Oil than against Obama, but he is clearly depicted as someone who is not willing to help with the problem. Clinton knows that she has to tread lightly and not go too negative against the very popular Obama, so as to maintain a warm and positive image for herself. This ad has a definite negative edge, but it’s wrapped thickly before and aft in feel-good messages.
2. Negative ad against Clinton: Paid for by Obama for America (official campaign), you can tell this one’s going to be negative from the beginning, with a slightly blurry version of the above-described ad under the disapproving-sounding announcer, who starts off, rather hilariously, with “Another negative ad by Hillary Clinton!” (maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s funny when someone’s negative ad expresses disgust with someone’s negative ad)
USA Today and The Wall Street Journal are quoted as describing the gas-tax-abatement plan as “political pandering” and “poll-driven gimmickry”. Even though you can see the text of USA Today’s article naming both Clinton and the Republican candidate, John McCain as proponents of the idea, only Hillary gets bashed for it. Interestingly, this ad goes on to reaffirm the “just pennies a day” quote that the Clinton ad used to make Obama seem elitist, and the screen graphic shows “Average Savings: About 30 cents/day” over a background of assorted change. Some people, especially those working-class voters who rack up a lot of mileage, like subcontractors and truck drivers, might consider this dismissive, as they are likely to be paying higher than ‘average’ fuel costs and thus would save more. And Barack is wondering how he’s alienating Hillary’s base. Heh.
Next we hear about Senator Obama’s plan to “take on price gouging by oil companies” and “tax their windfall profits”, and to “invest in alternative energy”. So far, this sounds exactly like the Clinton ad, except for the gas tax abatement, but then we hear about the Obama plan for a “$1,000 tax cut per working family”, according to the screen graphic, which appears over an image of Obama talking to a very concerned and kind of weary-looking white woman.
This ad had a different pattern, with a larger dose of negative coming up front and ending with the warm fuzzy stuff, so as not to leave too bitter an aftertaste, and also perhaps to fit a “this is the problem, this is the solution” model. In viewing this ad right after the Clinton ad, the order in which they were broadcast, it seemed less rebuttal and more “Me, too!” Nevertheless, neither ad was particularly ruthless (the really bad ones always seem to be from a group that’s “not affiliated”-heh-with the official campaign). I know that neither tempted me to change my mind, but the Clinton ad might hold out more tangible hope for an undecided working-class voter.
3. Positive ad for Obama – This ad, also from Obama’s campaign, is a video excerpt regarding high gasoline prices from a prior speech he gave in North Carolina. He blasts the idea of suspending the federal gas tax as a gimmick, but does not mention Clinton (or McCain) by name in the speech or in any graphic-it’s implied, of course, if you know what’s what. Most of the footage is of Obama delivering his speech and of the crowd responding with laughter or nods at appropriate places, with a few graphics appearing on screen to underscore his points. Unlike the ominous black backgrounds in the two candidates’ negative ads, these are black type on a pure, optimistic white background. The spot ends with a graphic that says “Barack Obama. President.” Tapping in to the power of positive thinking, here.
The setting of Obama’s speech in this ad is the typical configuration of the political rally of recent times: in addition to the expected crowd, there is a bank of supporters behind the candidate. As these people will be seen in all televised clips of the speech, they are carefully selected to convey a chosen image. Republican candidates, for example, like to display women and minorities behind them in an attempt to combat the perception of the GOP as an old-boy club of rich white men (good luck with that, guys, and thanks again for giving us eleven rich white male candidates this year).
Obama takes the opposite tack: in contrast to the sea of black faces normally in the crowds at his North Carolina rallies, he packs his dais almost completely with telegenic white folks. If I were black, I might get irritated by this, especially while I’m listening to him railing against the use of “political gimmicks”. Noticeable is his use of “we”, as in “we can do it”, which gives people a feeling that this is a collaborative effort. I can understand how this inspires and galvanizes people-Hillary’s ads are about what she is going to do.
4. Positive ad for Clinton: Mike Easley, North Carolina’s outgoing Democratic governor, who supports Clinton, is the star of this ad from Clinton’s campaign. He appears in a sunny, porchlike ‘just folks’ setting, speaking interview-style to someone off-camera as though just asked to share his opinion of the senator. The ad synchronizes his voice-over (notice that both positive ads feature the candidate or a supporter talking; the negative ads give the dirty work to the Stern Voiceover Guy) of Clinton’s plans with images of Hillary speaking in front of a flag (graphic: End $55 billion in special interest giveaways); shaking hands with a black male factory worker (graphic: Create 5 million new jobs); Easley again (graphic: Cut taxes for middle class); back to Clinton, comforting a sick child in a hospital setting, then a bedridden elderly woman (graphic: Make health care affordable and available), and interacting with young children in a preschool setting (graphic: Universal pre-K/ end No Child Left Behind).
As Easley continues to praise Clinton, we see her shaking hands with another factory worker (white male, this time) and with a racially mixed group of young women who appear to be college students. It ends on Easley, whose folksy delivery and accent are strongly similar to that of Bill Clinton, saying, “She’ll be a great president.” As in the Obama spot, the power of positive thinking, but this is an extremely positive ad, which speaks only of the wonderful things Hillary Clinton plans to achieve and makes no mention whatsoever of her opponents, either by name or by allusion to contrasting policies or platforms.
In analyzing these four ads, I am struck by the fact that the Obama ads are actually more negative (even his ‘positive’ ad took a veiled swipe), which surprised me, because Clinton seems to be taking more of the rap for going negative. I liked the positive ad by Clinton the best, as it showed her broader platform and didn’t stick with the one-note message of the gasoline prices, as the other three did. I can say that I, personally, will not be changing my vote based on these ads, but undecided voters might find some appeal on either side. Here’s some food for thought: according to the CBS Evening News, Barack Obama is still ahead in North Carolina, but his lead has been reduced from double digits to single digits. In light of the fact that, until just recently, this state was considered a walk-away for Senator Obama, this result should give him some pause. Hillary’s ads must be working.
In closing, I would mention that much has been made of the longevity of this campaign, but I, for one, appreciate still having an opportunity to actually have a choice of whom to vote for, seeing as how my state seemed to get lost in the stampede to have the earliest primaries (and how did that work out for you, Michigan and Florida? Hmmm?) As I am not likely to change my mind at this late date, the flurry of ads is more a nuisance than anything else, but I guess I’ll have to wait until November 5th to get some relief. Until then, thank goodness for TiVo: bleep-bloop!