Dumb and Dumber

Why are campaign commercials so bad?

This year, once again, a huge number of Americans will experience their most tangible encounter with politics not at a campaign rally, debate, or meetup, or even on the evening news, but by being subjected to a televised political advertisement. And then, very likely, another and another and another ...

Election seasons flood the airwaves with ads. By a wide margin, campaigns are now spending more on advertising than on anything else, and with each cycle the amount they spend grows dramatically. The Campaign Media Analysis Group, a private firm that tracks televised political ads, counted a total of 1,497,386 spots aired in the nation's top 100 markets in 2002. And that year, even without a presidential election, the cost for the first time exceeded $1 billion. In the Boston market one station alone, WMUR, broadcast 17,328 ads. This year those numbers will easily be eclipsed.

Being on the receiving end of all this can feel more like punishment than politics: not only do these ads arrive at an unrelenting pace, but they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Every year, like clockwork, the same shopworn phrases are intoned against a flow of stock footage in identical, shoddily produced attacks ("My opponent says he's against terrorism—so why did he cut funding for our troops?") and counterattacks ("We need progress, not divisive attacks"), all narrated with the same portent-of-doom voice-over implying that a miscast vote for first selectman could imperil the republic. Most people would agree that televised political ads, almost without exception, are remorselessly bad.

This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that commercials for consumer products actually tend to be quite good, and the TV-viewing public is exceptionally savvy about advertising. Consumer ads regularly warrant their own prime-time TV specials, and have become such a staple of our popular culture that Super Bowl hype now derives as much from the debuts of high-profile ad campaigns as from the game itself. So it's strange that the commercials that seek to influence the most important "brand choice" any of us can make—for the leader of the free world—so consistently lag in quality and imagination behind those intended to influence our choice of light beer.

From his Pittsburgh office in the stylishly renovated headquarters of what was once the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, the Republican media consultant John Brabender struggles against this sort of mediocrity. Brabender, forty-seven, is a floppy-haired man distinguishable from his fellow Pittsburghers only by his adman's black suit. He is as kinetic and subversively funny as his product. Just inside the door of BrabenderCox visitors are greeted by what appears to be an authentic electric chair, complete with restraining straps—a prop from a recent spot. It sits below a faux movie poster with a mock critic's endorsement for the firm: "You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll get elected!"

When I paid him a visit in April, Brabender ushered me into his studio and joined his creative director, Ron Dylewski, in a tutorial on what makes a successful political ad. It required little in the way of explanation. On a giant-screen television Brabender first played "Waste," which he created for Rick Santorum's successful 1994 challenge to Senator Harris Wofford, of Pennsylvania. It opens with a hand daintily snipping a sliver of paper with red kiddie scissors. "This is how serious Harris Wofford is about cutting government waste," begins a gentle voice, over the lilt of chamber music. Cut to another pair of hands as a chain saw tears through an enormous stack of paper. The voice becomes a bellow fit for a monster-truck-show announcer: "And this is how serious Rick Santorum is! In the last term of Congress he introduced more original bills cutting government waste than anyone else! Join the fight!"—a boxing glove smashes through the screen—"Santorum for Senate!" Memorable and funny, the whole ad lasts just fifteen seconds.

Brabender then played "Ski Patrol," which was created with the Bush campaign in mind but never had a chance to air. It begins with a shot of blue sky and pristine alps. "Howard Dean was granted a deferment from the military after showing up at a recruitment office with an x-ray indicating he had a bad back," the voice-of-God narrator says. Suddenly a skier shoots off a snowy precipice and slaloms expertly down the mountain. "That very same year, Dean went on to ski eighty times—eighty—helping him to become an expert skier and the perfect commander in chief ... if we ever go to war against Switzerland." Brabender played more ads, none of which looked anything like the ones most people are accustomed to seeing. "Garden State Strikes Back," from the 2002 New Jersey Senate race, was a faithful and clever knockoff of the Star Wars sequel, in which the "USS Forrester" attacks and destroys the Death Star-like "Torricelli." The ad is entirely computer-animated, and on a par with any popular video game.

"There's a stifling sameness to what we do," Brabender laments. Unlike consumer-ad makers, political campaigns are inherently cautious. Brabender faults the consultant culture that has infected modern campaigning, wherein pollsters, campaign managers, and very often the candidates themselves demand to have creative input. "Everybody wants to play Siskel and Ebert," he told me. "Candidates ride around all day coming up with ads in their heads." He cited the tale of the former New York senator Alfonse D'Amato's last stand: "D'Amato once said to me, 'Where's my line-item-veto ad?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Don't you understand? People all over this country are sitting at their dinner tables at night wondering why we don't have a line-item veto.'" Even now Brabender looked incredulous.

Design by committee, Brabender says, stifles creativity and produces lousy ads. Less is often more in a visual medium like television, but many pollsters and campaign managers seem blind to that: they try to cram as many issues into an ad as they can. If someone throws five tennis balls at you, he points out, it's tough to catch any of them. But with a single ball it's easy. The effectiveness of ads like "Ski Patrol" lies in their simplicity.

Such quality is the exception. More often, Brabender says, the creative process goes something like this: "Say a candidate is vulnerable on Social Security and needs an ad to turn things around. The pollster will say, 'You must say these four things: We're not going to change the rules, we're not going to raise taxes,' and so on. So every candidate is basically saying the same four poll-tested things." No wonder viewers can pretty much recite them in advance.

Ad makers have developed a kind of visual shorthand to communicate with viewers at a level of minimal consciousness. "When you want to signify that your candidate is good on jobs," Brabender says, "you shoot him in a hard hat, pointing at a steel beam. That's the universal code for 'jobs.' When you want to reach seniors, you shoot him in a nursing home, smiling gently at older folks." To link him with education, multiracial kindergartners are the norm (teenagers might look surly); for Middle American wholesomeness rolling fields of wheat are reliable; and especially since 9/11, the universal signifier for strength and patriotism has been "flags, flags, flags." In 2002 one political-consulting firm, Politically-e, dispensed with any illusion of originality and offered pre-taped political commercials that campaigns could buy and tailor to the candidate, like off-the-rack suits. "It's a lot like fast food," Brabender says. "It's cooked up and served the same way every time, and it leaves you unsatisfied and probably with a bit of indigestion."

In 1975 a cut-rate electronics chain in New York launched what would become a legendary ad campaign. The low-budget spots featured a frenetic pitchman dressed in outrageous costumes who always signed off by waving his arms and shrieking, "Crazy Eddie's prices are insa-a-a-ane!" The ads aired mainly in the dead of night, but Crazy Eddie took off nevertheless. Today it is hard to find any decent-sized American city that does not have at least one local retailer whose commercials feature a zany pitchman hawking mattresses, used cars, or furniture.

A similar dynamic has shaped political advertising. Last year William Benoit, a professor of communications at the University of Missouri, published a paper in the journal Advertising & Society in which he traced the emergence of the major themes in political advertising. After enduring some 2,027 presidential-campaign spots dating back to their earliest use, in the 1952 race, Benoit established that most of the formats used by today's campaigns originated in the 1950s. Even the snide tone that is now de rigueur dates back decades. A 1968 Hubert Humphrey ad titled "Weathervane" is a fine example. "Ever noticed what happens to Nixon when the political winds blow?" asks the narrator, as a weathervane in Nixon's image (with elongated nose) spins wildly in the breeze. "Which way will he blow next?" Switch "Nixon" to "Kerry" and the ad could easily feature in the current campaign.

In these early ads Benoit also discovered many other familiar techniques, including the biographical ad, the negative attack, and the practice of using an opponent's words against him. "Most of these are time-honored formats," he told me recently. "There hasn't been much innovation." Indeed, political ads have remained strikingly similar since the 1950s, even as consumer ads have evolved dramatically. The difference seems to be that consumer advertisers prize originality, whereas political advertisers prize conformity. In that regard political ads function as a microcosm of politics generally—characterized by frequent and dramatic hyperbole, but resistant to all but the most incremental change.

Scholars have devoted considerable attention to this subject, and from their work one can piece together a scientific rationale for why most ads are so lame. Benoit's own research is a good place to start. Several years ago he posited a "functional theory of political campaign discourse," which argues that a candidate can do only three things to make himself look better in voters' eyes: praise himself, attack his opponent, or defend himself from attack.

In Seeing Spots: A Functional Analysis of Presidential Television Advertisements, 1952-1996 (1999), Benoit provided statistical evidence supporting Brabender's complaint that pollsters confuse viewers by jamming more and more issues into political ads. Benoit found that from 1952 to 1996 the average number of issues covered in Republican ads rose by 115 percent, and in Democratic ads by a kamikaze 519 percent.

Roderick P. Hart, a professor at the University of Texas, has documented what seems to be a competing trend over roughly the same period. Even as they were including more issues, political ads were using fewer words. Hart found that the average number of words per spot had decreased from 210 in the 1960 election to just eighty-six in the 1996 election. He also discovered—no surprise here—that the incidence of negative advertising had grown from around 11 percent to 43 percent in those years. In other words, over time political ads have become more confusing, shorter, and more malevolent.

In possibly the most negative race of the most recent election cycle, for property-value assessor in a Kentucky county, an ad by the incumbent stated that her opponent had been arrested or charged fifty-six times for infractions that included drunken driving, felony assault, and terroristic threatening. "In a drunken brawl," the ad's narrator declared, the opponent "bit a man's ear completely off." The challenger responded in kind, with an ad accusing the assessor of appearing in a pornographic video.

This type of negativity is one of the most frequent complaints about political advertising—a criticism campaign professionals privately dismiss. There is ample scientific evidence that, despite widespread public distaste for them, negative ads are the most effective kind, because people are more apt to remember negative information than positive information. Television ads are a particularly cherished vehicle for disseminating such information. As Lynda Lee Kaid, a telecommunications professor at the University of Florida, explains, people tend to expose themselves only to information they agree with, but because political ads fill the airwaves, it's almost impossible to shut them out completely. "The research tends to show that people often are persuaded," she says, "even without cognitively or openly choosing to be."

There's another reason campaigns are so quick to employ, and often abuse, negative ads. Unlike Bud Light, which seeks to maximize its public appeal, political campaigns can afford to alienate the more sensitive members of the electorate and are perfectly happy to drive down turnout—as long as they win votes from a plurality of those who do show up. In fact, one reason campaigns bother running positive ads when a race turns nasty is to ensure that their negative ads remain effective. This is known in the trade as "running a positive and a negative track." Craig Varoga, a Democratic consultant, says, "If people feel somewhat good about you, they're more likely to believe the accusations you make against the other side." No surprise, then, that campaigns are willing to go for blood.

Kaid has charted this phenomenon among female candidates. In the early 1990s, when women began running for office in greater numbers, their campaigns rarely went negative. Sometime around the middle of the decade, that changed. "Women realized they couldn't be demure and genteel and expect to win," Kaid says. "So they adopted the same style and strategies as men." Today research shows that women actually use negative campaign ads more than men do.

But not even the rewards of going negative account for the preponderance of lousy ads. If it seems like you're seeing more of them than ever, that's because you are—many more. Media consultants measure the amount of voter exposure to ads in something called "gross ratings points." One hundred gross ratings points means that on average 100 percent of the people watching television will have seen an ad once. Twenty years ago the standard "buy" for a political ad was 400 gross ratings points, meaning that on average people would see it four times. "Today," Varoga says, "the rule of thumb is that you need to do a thousand points a week—more when you're in the heat of the campaign."

The reason is that political advertising is becoming less effective. In 1972 a General Electric study of televised advertisements found that the average person had to view an ad three times for it to sink in. This number is known as the "effective frequency." Over the years, as cable television and the Internet have flourished, viewers have become more difficult to reach, and advertisers now have a harder time getting them to remember ads. The effective frequency for consumer ads is now around five or six viewings. But political ads are even harder to remember—presumably because of their poor quality. Their effective frequency can run as high as twenty viewings. "That's forcing us to run a thousand, fifteen hundred, even as high as two thousand gross ratings points behind a single spot," Brabender says. Rather than come up with ads that are more memorable—more like consumer ads—campaigns have decided to pound viewers into distracted submission with the same mediocre product.

After an election somebody is out of work. When we met over lunch, Brabender realized that these all-or-nothing stakes would offer a vivid way to illustrate the difference between consumer and political ad campaigns. "Can you imagine if there was going to be a vote in November and there would only be one light beer?" he mused, seeming to relish the prospect. We considered how the conventions of negative campaigning might apply. ("There they go again. Flip-flopping Miller Lite says it's 'less filling' and that it 'tastes great.' So which one is it? We're Bud Light, and we approved this message.")

The conventions of commercial advertising, on the other hand, could do a great deal to improve political ads and brake the slide into bludgeoning repetition. This is the triumph of Brabender's work: it brings the humor and irony of a beer commercial to the overmanaged world of political campaigns. Ads like "Waste" and "Ski Patrol" are nothing if not negative—but that's not the first thing you notice about them.

Brabender's results are a persuasive argument for quality and creativity. Rick Santorum was such a long shot to win his congressional race in 1990 that the Republican Party declined to support him financially. Santorum upset the heavily favored incumbent in part because his ads stood out against the clutter. "He came through to voters as young, fresh, and bold," Brabender says. "His advertising supported that kind of brand image." Jesse Ventura and the late Senator Paul Wellstone, both of whom hired the consultant Bill Hillsman to produce their ads, are two more examples of challengers who have won with creative ads. The financial benefit is obvious: campaigns would spend a great deal less money if the effective frequency for their television spots was anything like that of consumer ads.

There is reason to be mildly optimistic. The Internet has become the hot new medium for political ads, many not intended for television. This has fostered more imagination, even among hidebound presidential campaigns. Earlier this year the liberal organization MoveOn.org held a contest to design the best anti-Bush ad. It drew more than a thousand submissions, mainly from amateurs who created ads on home computers. The best ones aired on television. Either trend—a fresh medium or a fresh approach—could eventually provide the impetus to break the consultant stranglehold. But not soon enough.