BOULDER, Colo. — When it comes to those dreaded political ads, my colleagues who teach advertising want the public to know: They don’t condone this sort of stuff. And they don’t like it any better than the rest of us.
Today’s two zingers aimed at women are cases in point. Melinda Henneberger already pointed out the problems with “The Breakup,” brought to us by the Republican National Committee. That ad features an RNC staffer portraying the whiney girlfriend calling quits with President Barack Obama (not that this staffer ever was “with” him in the first place).
Then there's “Boyfriend,” from Independent Women's Voice, which may use the word independent but is actually a conservative group. Their ad features one woman sharing her “boyfriend” disillusionment (Obama, again, conservative minds think alike?) with a girlfriend. Because really, we women spend the bulk of our days kvetching about relationships.
Neither of these ads appears to recognize that while their target may be women, the demographic isn’t monolithic. There are plenty of women who might be pushed in the opposite direction by these ads. Women who don’t want to be portrayed as “the girlfriend.”
And neither ad considers the long-term relationship the customer.
But that’s par for the course in political advertising, says Melinda Kiger Cheval, a former senior partner at Ogilvy & Mather who now teaches with me in Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“I think it is important to understand that a consumer brand is in it for the long haul,” Cheval recently e-mailed in discussing political advertising. “Politics have a short window and you either win or you are out.”
Cheval notes than when the ad community is involved in political advertising, the quality is better. She points to “Morning in America,” the 1984 Ronald Reagan classic written and narrated by Hal Riney, No. 30 on Advertising Age's top 100 people of the 20th century. Now there's a classic — uplifting, artistic, speaking to everyone.
In Colorado, as in other swing states, we’re besieged by these ads on television everyday. My non-TV watching students are subject to them before watching YouTube or Hulu videos. There is no escape. When Cheval talked to my class Wednesday (we’re working on a project about TV ad spending in Colorado), the students expressed displeasure with the negativity and outright lies coming from ads for both sides.
There’s no escape because political advertising falls under the First Amendment’s free speech protections. Commercial advertising is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission — there are rules that prohibit false claims, for instance.
Meanwhile, commercial interests — think Ford or Toyota — want to project a positive view of their product. The best way to do that is by promoting their own virtues, not tearing down competitors.
Don’t expect political campaigns to employ such a strategy anytime soon. Unfortunately, negative ads work — they get our attention, we remember them more than the positive ads.
The girlfriend vs. boyfriend ads are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s plenty more where they come from — a Campaign for American Values ad deriding Obama’s support for same-sex marriage, for instance.
But when those negative ads portray a certain demographic — women say — in a way many of us don’t see ourselves, well, just don't expect the voting customers to feel too loyal to the brand doing the portraying.
Sandra Fish teaches journalism at the University of Colorado and has reported on politics in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @fishnette