Muted Ad Messages in Vogue

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2007

Mitt Romney talks about bringing up his five boys.

Rudy Giuliani says he's not perfect.

Hillary Clinton is praised by a grateful man for saving his son's life.

In a recent spate of campaign commercials, the leading presidential candidates have tried to send reassuring signals, deflect criticism or denigrate their opponents by relying on code phrases and images, rather than explicit language.

"It's the psychological mechanism known as inoculation," says Shanto Iyengar, a professor of communication at Stanford University. "You give people a small dose of the virus, in the hope that later on, when opponents start bashing you on family values or whatever, viewers will have enough of the defense to resist the incoming attacks."

In multi-candidate primaries, analysts say, attacking rivals on the air is risky business and raises the possibility of a voter backlash against negative tactics. So candidates tend to draw contrasts indirectly, often without mentioning their opponents.

In one ad, Romney appears at a kitchen table with his wife, Ann, interspersed with quick footage of some of their five sons when they were young. "You teach kids about what TV to watch," the former Massachusetts governor says. "You teach them how to read. It's just essential to have a home where faith, where love of country, where determination, where all these features that are so much a part of American culture are taught to our kids."

On one level, Romney is simply showing off his model family. But Ken Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin political science professor, says Romney is drawing a subtle contrast with his rivals who have been married more than once -- especially Giuliani, who underwent a nasty public divorce while he was New York mayor.

"He's not going to put out an ad saying, 'Rudy has had three wives, and his kids don't talk to him,' " Goldstein said. "Instead, it's, 'I've got lots of cute kids who look really good in khakis.' It's an attack on other people in the GOP primary who don't have as solid a family life as Mitt Romney."

By using the word "faith," Romney is also communicating to voters who may be wary of Mormons -- or simply not know much about the religion -- that he is a down-to-earth family man. "He's clearly making it seem as if he's as mainstream as it gets, and the fact that he's Mormon should not detract from his basic commitment to America and apple pie," Iyengar said.

Giuliani, in his first two ads, stressed his record as a mayor and prosecutor, while including one telling phrase. The American people, he says, "are not going to find perfection."

That, analysts say, is a clear allusion to his messy personal life, as well as such professional missteps as his close association with Bernard Kerik, the recently indicted former New York police commissioner. They say Giuliani appears to be signaling that voters should assess his entire record and not hold him to an unrealistic standard.

Polls show that Clinton is viewed as a strong and experienced candidate but not a particularly warm person. One way to combat that is to have another person testify to her passion.

The New York senator does not appear in a spot in which a nurse named Joe Ward describes his son's need for a bone-marrow transplant: "We called Senator Clinton and asked for help. Her office called the next day, letting us know that the hospital was going to absorb the cost of the transplant. . . . I trusted this woman to save my son's life, and she did."

The unspoken message, Goldstein said: "She's a fighter and will fight for people like you, like she did for that kid." Clinton consulted with Medicaid and insurance officials and helped persuade a Minnesota children's hospital to assume the remainder of the cost.

The ostensible focus of one recent Barack Obama commercial is his detailed plan to shore up Social Security. But just as telling is the Illinois senator saying the country needs "a real honest conversation" on the subject. "I don't want to put my finger out to the wind and see what the polls say; I want to bring the country together to solve a problem." That echoes his criticism of Clinton as a cautious Washington insider who avoids offering specific solutions -- without mentioning her name.

Clinton is also the target of a John McCain ad attacking pork-barrel spending, as symbolized by her effort to obtain a $1 million grant for a Woodstock museum. McCain doesn't say a word about having been a prisoner of war in Vietnam; he doesn't have to. The Arizona senator is seen joking that he missed the 1969 music festival because he "was tied up at the time." At that moment, the screen fills with a grainy, black-and-white image of the wounded young pilot lying in a Hanoi hospital bed.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company