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Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Panel debates role, importance of campaign commercials in 2008 presidential race

A panel of experts debated the importance of political television advertisements and negative campaigning in presidential campaigns during a talk in Braker Hall yesterday.

The discussion, entitled "The Virtual Horse Race: Presidential Campaign Advertising and the New Media," first examined political commercials as a phenomenon, then focused on specific ads run during the 2008 campaign.

Television advertisements for the two major presidential candidates have been particularly prominent in swing states, and in the final weeks before the November election, many more will be added. The panel's four speakers discussed these commercials' effect and meaning.

The panelists compared the degree to which ads promote a candidate to how much campaigns use them to "play to voters' fears or anxieties."

Harold Kaplan, an advertising executive who until only days ago worked for the McCain campaign, explained that television campaigning typically follows an arc. "It has a sequence," he said. "You present your plan, an economic plan or to lower gas prices. The second step of the sequence is the plan versus plan — my opponent has his plan and I have this plan. The last stage is why my opponent has a terrible plan. We call it comparative advertising or negative advertising. That is where we are at now."

Dorie Clark, the principal marketing and management consultant with the Somerville firm Clark Strategic Communications, agreed that candidates often revert to negative campaigning after they have defined themselves to the public. "Most campaigns want to start positive, but closer to Election Day is when they make the decision to slam the opponent or not."

Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts political science professor, questioned whether television campaign ads are even effective. "Are ads influential at all? I would not assume political advertising is effective. But under what conditions are television ads influential in a presidential race or congressional race?"

Clark remarked that television advertising has been declining in the last ten years.

But Mark Tomizawa, president of SMASH Advertising, said that 30-second clips can have important effects on voters' opinions. "[The advertisements are] very pertinent because we have become a sound byte-driven and a photo shoot-driven society. These are complicated issues, but we train people to pick leaders through sound bytes," he said.

After some discussion, two commercials were shown on a large screen.

The first ad, which came from the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), aired nationwide this summer, drawing some criticism from Democrats. The spot branded now-Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as a celebrity who was not savvy enough to lead the country. Kaplan said, "Take the strength of an opponent and make it a weakness. I thought [the commercial] was well conceived. I thought the ad and then the response worked in McCain's favor. We saw the numbers from that ad change a lot of tides."

The second ad shown was Obama's response to the first one. It charged McCain with being a "Washington celebrity" because he was "lurching to the right then the left, [doing] the Washington dance."

The panel then discussed two more recent ads. The first ad charged McCain with befriending the CEOs of some of the major financial companies that are set to benefit from a $700 billion government bailout.

Berry said it was effective because it was true, but he still questioned what effect a commercial like that actually has on the success of McCain's campaign.

The second of the more current ads came from the McCain campaign. The commercial showed sound bytes of the debate Friday night when Obama agreed with McCain.

Tomizawa said that many campaign ads deliberately misconstrue opponents' statements. "What I find, repeatedly, is people will cut off words. They are effective in stirring it up and making a hornet's nest," he said.

He added that voters must take careful note of such wily truth-twisting. "There is no truth requirement in advertising; there is no penalty in outright lying or stretching the truth. This is something that we can examine. How do we want to judge our leaders?" Most campaign commercials are aimed at a very small population of independent voters in swing states, Kaplan said. "It is not a national election, it is a state-by-state election, and so you're going after voters."

The event, which took place at noon during open block, was sponsored by the Department of Political Science, the Communications and Media Studies Program and the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.


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