In the 2012 presidential campaign, it is estimated that nearly 1 billion dollars was spent purchasing :30 and :60 second advertisements on behalf of the candidates by their parties, their re-election committees and their Political Action Committtees and Super PACS. 80-90% of the total was spent on negative or attack spots.

It’s a deplorable way to decide the occupant of the most powerful position in the world, but the evidence suggests that, despite what the electorate says about its dislike for and disgust over the quantity and the approach of attack ads, volume and negativity work. (It’s sort of like the way movie goers despise “tell-all” trailers, despite all the evidence which shows that they are more likely to see a film the more they know about it!)

In today’s post I wanted to consider two of the most talked about and widely aired :30 spots from the campaign and propose some answers to the question: why do people love movie ads and hate campaign ads? The two ads, seen above, are my “representative” sample. The first, Romney’s “Doing Fine,” contrasts the president’s remark about the state of the private sector, that it’s doing fine, with a description of then current economic suffering. The conclusion it draws is that the President is out-of-touch, even cavalier about the actual experience of the American People

In the Obama ad, Romney’s record–whether as a lavishly compensated private equity executive, or as Governor of Massachusetts–is used to impugn his ability to tackle the problems facing the American economy and her people.

Let’s start by considering how political ads for candidates and tv spots for entertainment products are similar.

1. Formally– both kinds of ads use clips (footage), copy, music, voice over, graphic design, information, provenance [who paid for the ad], rhetorical means of argumentation and persuasion, and emotional appeals. Both are propagandistic. They are, after all, advertisements intended to induce the performance by the recipient of an action desired by the client who paid for them.
2. In terms of content, both are concept driven and creative short films. They are often hosted–at least implicitly in the requisite approval by the candidate–and typically story-driven and narrative. They have protagonists, conflicts and ideal resolutions.
3. They both rely on clever taglines, turns of phrase, figures of speech, repetition and positioning of the “product” within the mind of the audience.
4. Campaign ads, like trailer, offer a sample of the “product,” that is being advertised or critiqued. We see the candidate in action and learn about his or her actions and policy decisions, often with likely consequences enumerated or displayed for our consumption.
5. Both campaign ads and trailers are time sensitive and awareness oriented. Timing, scheduling and repetition are essential for the work of both.
6. Both TV spots and campaign ads can provoke audiences if they are seen too often. Trailers, by contrast, are almost never watched to excess, since movie-going patterns don’t encourage it, and on the internet, they have to be watched by choice.

Now, let’s consider the many ways in which campaign ads and trailers are distinct outcomes of marketing creativity. (The indulgent reader will excuse any exaggerations of my own in service of a more readable and entertaining post.)

1. Perhaps the chief reason that campaign ads and tv spots elicit such different receptions is that politics, unlike entertainment, is not a welcome or comfortable subject. Campaign ads are agonistic and oppositional. TV spots are aggregative and communal. Political disputes can ruin a dinner party or football game! Our entertainment choices are similar to taste in food. We’re very tolerant of diversity and difference.

2. The advertisement for a movie or tv show has no real-world correlate. It’s not a person, a policy or a party, but rather an entertainment, a story with little or no consequence for our lives. The stakes for a Campaign Ad are different and consequently the emotional investment and potential risks are greater.

3. TV spots are typically pro product.
Campaign ads are more often than not contra-product.

4. Campaign ads are comparative. TV spots are accretive and appositive. You can like this and this and this, rather than you can like this or this.

5. Campaign ads enter a reception space that is generally adversarial. The advertiser knows that a significant segment of the audience will not only be not receptive but actively critical.

6. Campaign ads are unwelcome, even among partisans of the candidate being described and praised. Americans hate politicians, but love their entertainment!

7. Ads are Argumentative and “fact” oriented. There is presumption (often just a pretense) of logic and rational debate. This requires work on the part of the viewer.

8. TV spots are narrative and/or impressionistic. They work on emotion, sensation, aligning themselves with leisure and enjoyment rather than work and thought.

9. Everyone knows that beneath the guise of logic and measured evaluation that a campaign ad adopts, the reality is finesse, spin, exaggeration, and misrepresentation when not downright deception. The viewer experiences this disconnect between seeming and being as anxiety.

10. TV spots are produced to delight and please. The actual product is understood to be an entertainment (whether fictional or reality based) whose truth–whatever it may be– is nonetheless subsumed to our enjoyment.

11. Ads are hectoring (even if it’s your candidate). Ads are educational. Ads are preachy. Like a documentary, they feign objectivity, using dates, references, quotes, verbatim remarks, etc. Ads are BORING!!!

12. TV spots are informative and entertaining; they promise even more enjoyment in the theater or on your television. They speak your language, approve your lifestyle and your way of thinking about the world. If they don’t, they’re easily ignored as meant for some other viewer.

13. Campaign ads leave Little room for participation/ engagement/ identification. Unlike a TV spot for a fictional product, they aren’t open ended; they don’t invite you to enter into the persona of an interesting character, explore a mystery or experience an unanticipated pleasure.

14. TV spots play. Campaign ads work!

DAISY – 1964

I have written this post partly as an elaboration of my own thinking about campaign ads and tv spots. My initial suspicion was that they are more similar than they are different and that the perceived contrast is more a function of habit and tradition than anything inherent in the nature of a person as a product. Indeed, it seems to me that Campaign Advertisers could benefit by a close study of their counterparts in A/V entertainment advertising. Heck, it seems that the makers of the notorious anti-Goldwater ad, “Daisy,” understood nearly 50 years ago that stories and emotion and impressions trump data, charts and logic.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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