Ad It Up

Making Sense Of Campaign Spots

Marisa Demarco
20 min read
Ad It Up
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Nothing creates voter apathy like the unceasing fusillade of candidate-endorsed commercials. But there’s serious satisfaction to be had in picking them apart.

Which knife should do the carving? Depends on who’s wielding it. I asked critics of many backgrounds to try their hands at cutting apart the same political TV spots, all of which were produced by campaigns and not fringe groups.

Aaron Hendren , a local filmmaker, uses his visual sense and his wit; Tim Krebs , a poli-sci professor at UNM, his experience. Chris Woodworth of Guild Cinema attacks with free association. UNM communications professor Olaf Werder uses classifications developed by G-Man Marketing (see sidebar). Alibi Staff Writer Simon McCormack teases the ads apart using his knowledge of this year’s races. And Andrea Quijada and Jessica Lopez of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project ask their standard deconstruction questions: Who is the target audience? What is the subtext? What techniques of persuasion are used?

The judges make their incisions, and the guts are obvious. The
Alibi is eternally grateful to these experts for being a part of our chop shop. What have we learned? That no matter how you slice it, there’s always more subtext.

Martin Heinrich: Holding Back

Voiceover: "George Bush and Darren White’s energy policies are a drag on America’s economy. Tax breaks for big oil and record gas prices are holding America back.”

Martin Heinrich: "I’m Martin Heinrich, and I’m running for Congress because George Bush and Darren White are wrong on energy, and it’s holding America back. In Congress, I’ll push for an Apollo project to make America energy independent and create good-paying jobs in New Mexico. I’m Martin Heinrich, and I approve this message."

Oil guy: "Yeah, but I don’t."

The USA is dragged down by Big Oil, symbolized by a cigar-smoking tycoon in a garden wagon, in its race against other countries. Heinrich solves this problem just in the nick of time. By also tossing in a rather obscure reference to a program that deals with jobs, environment and energy security (Apollo Project), he aims to demonstrate issue competence. Humorous, full of symbolism and a twist on this complex issue.

Werder, communications professor

This makes high gas prices fun again. Heinrich has always had an icy public persona, and this commercial is meant to show he has a sense of humor. It’s nice to have a lighthearted ad mixed in with all the dull and serious ones, but it doesn’t really do much to stamp out the notion that Heinrich is as stiff as a board. His ribbon cutting is mechanical and forced, and even though everyone around him is having a blast, he stays serious. Still, it’s a goofy commercial that doesn’t seem negative, even though it heavily criticizes Heinrich’s opponent.

McCormack, news reporter

The first part of this ad targets White’s positions, including tax cuts for oil companies. The second part discusses Heinrich’s various positions. Overall, the ad expresses the differences between the two candidates (no doubt distorting somewhat White’s positions) in a humorous fashion.

Krebs, political science professor

T his one gets off to a perfect, on-message start. But then Heinrich starts talking about the moon explorations that will jumpstart us with future green (cheese?) econo shares. Muted wah-wah-wah trumpet underscores a non-punch line joke in the end. Oh, by the way: garden shears = plants = growth = appropriate tool for snipping of tied-down consumer so he or she can stand in line for rocket trip down south. Heinrich should study and learn from White’s "Just Say No!" 1991 jam-out, also available for your perusal on White’s website.

Woodworth, cinema buff

Heinrich is targeting men and Olympics fans in his district. Possible subtexts include: America is No. 1; all oil tycoons wear hats, smoke cigars and are overweight white men; oil tycoons can be stopped with garden shears; and Heinrich is related to Edward Scissorhands. Techniques of persuasion include: analogy (the oil crisis is an Olympic race), simple solutions (garden shears will solve American’s dependence on oil) and symbols (such as national flags, Olympic-sounding music, rope being cut with garden tools and the Sandia mountains).

Media Literacy Project

Darren White: The Mcgrane Family

Darren White: "I’m Darren White, and I approve this message."

James McGrane: "I heard the pounding at the door, and I looked through the blinds, and I saw Darren and three deputies. And I knew, I knew exactly what happened. Our son died doing his job."

Rita McGrane: "Jimmy would have laid down his life for anyone, and that’s how Darren White is."

James: "I know Darren White. He loves his officers. His officers love him."

Rita: "Martin Heinrich is despicable."

James: "Martin Heinrich, you should be very ashamed of yourself. You don’t have a clue of what these officers have to do."

White’s ad is a response to a Heinrich ad that suggested the wives of state police officers didn’t trust White when he was New Mexico’s public safety commissioner. Through footage of White as Bernalillo County Sheriff attending the funeral of a fallen officer, Jimmy McGrane, it attempts to debunk this message and show White is loyal to his officers, that he is a strong and caring leader. It uses McGrane’s parents to send the message, which adds to the emotion of it.

Krebs, political science professor

It seems this other ad got under White’s skin, as White’s response serves no purpose other than to correct an image about White as sheriff—not as a candidate for Congress. White was thrown off-balance. By becoming defensive and countering charges he probably never imagined anyone would toss at him, he wastes valuable time and energy.

Werder, communications professor

It’s powerful to see two parents who have lost their son come out so strongly in favor of a candidate. On the surface, it makes Heinrich appear insensitive. Still, it’s possible that the following two assertions are true: White could put his men in danger and care deeply for all of them. It’s also unclear whether White’s camaraderie with his officers would necessarily translate into the sheriff being a good leader in Congress.

McCormack, news reporter

Too many Americans are ill-informed about the people who want to represent them in local offices. I am one of those Americans. I know two things about Darren White, and they both come from this ad. The first thing I know about White is that he would lay down his life for anyone. The other thing I know is that if he knocks at your door at three in the morning, he’s bringing bad news.

Hendren, filmmaker

White is targeting police officers and their families. Possible subtexts include: White knows everything about being a policeman and nothing else; Heinrich is out of touch with reality; Heinrich kills police officers; and only White can effectively deal with our city’s violence. Confusion is the overarching subtext most people will experience in viewing this ad. Techniques of persuasion include: cause vs. correlation (there is no link made between Heinrich’s experience and the killed police officer), fear (police officers are being killed) and diversion (look at this bad thing that happened—now vote for me!).

Media Literacy Project

Steve Pearce: Nuclear

Steve Pearce: "It may not be politically correct, but nuclear energy is a sure way to America’s energy independence. Nuclear power can make America free from Middle East oil cartels. Nuclear can keep energy costs low, America prosperous and keep American jobs from going overseas. Tom Udall won’t stand up to the far-left environmentalists. I will. I’m Steve Pearce, and I approve this message because we need to invest in nuclear power and drill for domestic oil."

It’s a great idea to use the phrase "politically correct" in a negative sense. People don’t mind being told they’re politically incorrect, and they’re probably drawn to someone who feels the same way. This will make anyone even the least bit concerned about expanding nuclear power nervous. But a lot of people are worried about their jobs, so it will speak to them.

McCormack, news reporter

This ad uses both a distortion and a finger-pointing approach. It asserts that somewhere in New Mexico there are groups of far-left environmentalists who are more powerful than New Mexican politicians such as Udall. The complex discussion on nuclear energy and oil is reduced to sound bites, all positive, of course, in favor of the promoted two energy sources. Woven into these arguments are other fears (or hopes) of Americans, such as dependence on foreign oil, jobs and an improved economy to avoid real discussions and facts about these topics.

Werder, communications professor

It may not be politically correct, but tremendous strides have been made in dentistry. Pearce may want to chew the fat on the glories of nuclear power and drilling for domestic oil, but all I see is a man nibbling up the political ladder and into my heart. Clearly, this is not just another talking head flapping his gums. What’s up, doc?

Hendren, filmmaker

This ad tries to express a sense of the candidate’s style —that he is not going to be tied to “politically correct” positions if such positions aren’t for the good of the country. Overall, the ad would benefit from more specific content about Udall’s positions and where Pearce disagrees.

Krebs, political science professor

Smile! Let’s get to work, NM!   I’ll put my back into the plow, but just make sure to dangle that nuclear carrot in front of my donkey, err … pachyderm. Udall just won’t admit that nuclear energy is the greenest type there is. The future looks so bright I gotta go watch Woody Allen’s Sleeper for the umpteenth time just to look at the oversized nuclear vegetables. Hallelujah!!  Oh, Steve, may I call you Stefan?

Woodworth, cinema buff

Pearce is targeting nuclear power supporters, factory workers, farmers, polluters and haters. Possible subtexts include: Nuclear power solves all problems; environmentalists are ruining the American economy; not being politically correct is acceptable when it gets you votes; being politically correct is bringing us down; and the far left is destroying our freedom. Techniques of persuasion include: glittering generalities (virtue words like “free” and “independence”), fear (Middle East oil cartels are controlling the United States) and charisma (he’s firm, bold and not scared to take payoffs from the nuclear power industry).

Media Literacy Project

Tom Udall: What’s Right

Voiceover: “His grandmother was born in Luna, New Mexico, in 1893. Her family drove cattle through the mountains down to the railroad at Magdalena—perseverance that lives on in Tom Udall; as a congressman fighting for new counter-terrorism jobs at Los Alamos and helping save Cannon Air Force Base; before that a federal prosecutor and attorney general, where Tom Udall helped to pass a tough anti-stalking law and a landmark DWI law with a lower blood-alcohol limit and more prison time for repeat offenders. The integrity to do what’s right for New Mexico.”

Tom Udall: "I’m Tom Udall. As attorney general, when I prosecuted corrupt elected officials, it didn’t matter to me that they were in my party. And in Congress I wrote the legislation requiring utilities to use more alternative energy. It didn’t matter to me that the special interests didn’t like it. I approve this message because I think the job of a U.S. Senator is to do what’s right for New Mexico, no matter what."

Who is this glorious man scaling the mountains near Magdalena? This Adonis is common folk just like me—all in his jeans and Southwestern gear. Wait! Where’d he go? Oh, there he is. He just has his suit on. He’s gone again! I’m scared. No, he just has his jeans on. I feel safe again. The job of a U.S. senator is to do what’s right for New Mexico, no matter what. Sometimes that means walking atop mountains in jeans. Sometimes that means wearing a suit.

Hendren, filmmaker

The Udall spot uses positive advertising that focuses on good characteristics, the steady character and personal traits of independence, bipartisanship and care for the people of New Mexico that are said to have been characteristics of his career. Given his lead in the polls, this makes sense, because the leading “brand” usually does not have to compare itself with the followers but must highlight the reasons why it is the leading brand.

Werder, communications professor

It’s hard to sum up a candidate’s life, career and ancestry in 60 seconds, but this gives it a go. Still, most voters are probably familiar with Udall, so a "get to know the candidate" spot is unnecessary. Every left-winger who runs for office has to have at least one "tough on crime" reference in a commercial. This ad has a couple, and those should help reassure middle-of-the-road voters that Udall’s not going to coddle criminals.

McCormack, news reporter

He’s about as exciting as a bag of nails (only sharper), so this ad relies on the Udall team’s mastery of glowing serif fonts, just in case you forgot that it’s meant to look like a trailer for a Hollywood superhero blockbuster. Hey now, in these times aren’t we all swallowing bitter pills?

Woodworth, cinema buff

Udall is targeting people who are afraid of stalkers, drunk drivers and terrorists. Possible subtexts include: counterterrorism and spying are not stalking; drunk drivers are terrorists; and doing what’s right means doing whatever he does. Techniques of persuasion include: cause vs. correlation (Udall’s grandmother drove cattle through the desert so he can herd people into prisons), plain folks (just a small-town boy born and raised in South Detroit, or in his case, New Mexico) and expert (he’s been a congressperson, federal prosecutor and attorney general).

Media Literacy Project

John Mccain: The One

Voiceover: “It should be known that in 2008, the world will be blessed. They will call him The One.”

Barack Obama: "A nation healed, a world repaired. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for."

Voiceover: “And he has anointed himself, ready to carry the burden of The One. To quote Barack, ‘I have become a symbol of America returning to our best traditions.’ He can do no wrong.”

Interviewer: "Do you have any doubts?"

Obama: "Never."

Interviewer: “Can you see the light?”

Obama: "A light will shine down, from somewhere. It will light upon you. You will experience an epiphany. And you will say to yourself, I have to vote for Barack."

Voiceover: “And the world shall receive his blessings.”

Obama: "This is the moment when the rise of the oceans begins to slow and our planet begins to heal."

Moses (from The Ten Commandments ): "Behold his mighty hands."

Voiceover: “Barack Obama may be The One, but is he ready to lead?”

They sure got this one backward. Is there something actually wrong with soaring rhetoric? Have they forgotten those thousand points of light? Maybe it’s because McCain’s speaking style is so narcoleptic that they feel they have to portray that as normal. Most importantly, comparing Obama to Charlton Heston’s Moses probably has precisely the opposite effect with the McCain/Palin’s gun-toting conservative base than the campaign intends. Who among them would speak ill of Chuck?

Woodworth, cinema buff

This ad attempts to illustrate through biblical imagery that Obama thinks of himself as a “savior” figure. More generally, it expresses the view that Obama is pretentious and not ready to lead the nation despite rhetoric to the contrary. Stylistically, the ad is a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, I think it reinforces for religious conservatives the view that Obama considers himself the chosen one. It also has racial undertones in that it is attempting to say that a Black man cannot be self-assured, a trait we usually desire in political candidates.

Krebs, political science professor

McCain wants to hammer home his assertion that Obama thinks a whole lot of himself. The ad drips with mockery and then closes with McCain’s central attack theme—that Obama isn’t ready to lead. It’s a bit odd that McCain is never even mentioned. This commercial is intended to get people to vote against Obama rather than for McCain.

McCormack, news reporter

John McCain has learned a valuable lesson about what the American people want to see from politicians in ads vying for the presidency: Barack Obama. If only McCain could look like, speak like and have the same political standpoints as Obama, he would be a shoe-in. At least McCain can please the voting public by putting Obama in his ads. Hang on. Was that Charlton Heston?

Hendren, filmmaker

McCain is targeting conservative Christians. Possible subtexts include: Obama thinks he’s the Chosen One/Jesus/the Messiah/Moses; Obama is a false prophet; Obama can part seas but may not be fit to be president; Obama is magic, magic is scary and we should be fearful of Obama. Techniques of persuasion include: intensity (large biblical font and use of film footage), symbols (light streaming through clouds) and fear (a Black man with power).

Media Literacy Project

Barack Obama: Still

Voiceover: “1982. John McCain goes to Washington. Things have changed in the last 26 years, but McCain hasn’t. He admits he still doesn’t know how to use a computer, can’t send an e-mail, still doesn’t understand the economy and favors $200 billion in new tax cuts for corporations but almost nothing for the middle class. After one president that was out of touch, we just can’t afford more of the same.”

Barack Obama: "I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message."

Being retro is so ’90s. Shame on you, Sen. Obama, for showing McCain amid images of disco balls and the Rubik’s Cube. McCain should be shown amid images of dinosaurs and cavemen holding the patent to the wheel. I, for one, am getting sick of hearing about McCain not knowing how to use a computer or being out of touch with the status of the economy. Let us never forget that McCain is an experienced leader who was there when humans invented fire.

Hendren, filmmaker

This negative ad showcases McCain’s position on taxes and the economy and attempts to link him to President Bush. It’s more effective than the McCain attack spot against Obama because it provides specific quotes from news reports of McCain. These are harder to take out of context and more concrete in terms of the everyday lives of Americans.

Krebs, political science professor

This ad clearly “says boo!” [see below] about McCain. In a slick twist, it connects McCain’s age and technological inabilities with his policy agenda and closeness to President Bush. The retro shots from the ’80s might especially speak to younger tech-savvy generations who are dumbfounded as to why anyone would not understand technology. In those earlier campaign days, the link of McCain’s position to the president’s (“the same”) was made more directly than it is now to serve as a deterrent.

Werder, communications professor

Rubik’s Cubes!  I really dug watching nine 30-year-olds on "That’s Incredible!" having marathons solving this perplexing piece of plastic. 1982. Obama … in a dorm … sneaking a cool sixer … rotating, twisting the cube. Think pull tabs, Pac-Man. McCain … hopping a giggling grandchild on his knee with aforementioned puzzle in hand … rotating, twisting the cube. Think sweaters, Boggle.

Woodworth, cinema buff

Obama is targeting a young, computer-literate, tech-savvy, middle-class demographic. Possible subtexts include: McCain still hasn’t figured out the Rubik’s Cube; Obama is like a new G3 iPhone and McCain is an old PC; Obama’s use of campaign funds is questionable with this low-budget production; and McCain’s inexperience with both e-mail and the economy will lead him to give American funds to a Nigerian prince. Techniques of persuasion include: nostalgia (images and symbols of 1982), new (McCain is old, Obama is new) and cardstacking (McCain doesn’t understand the economy and computers, and, therefore, Obama does).

Media Literacy Project

Tricks Of The Trade

While there are many approaches on how to analyze political advertising, for the purposes of this article, I use a short and simple classification developed by G-Man Marketing in Los Angeles. According to G-Man, four typical applications are found time and again in negative campaign ads.

1) Finger-Pointing

This is also known as the “misdirected blame” ad. It is identified as taking the shortcomings of oneself and accusing the opponent of those very same failings.

2) Saying Boo!

In this style, the message focuses on something people fear and then associates the opponent with it. Simplicity counts.

3) Make a Dollar Want to Holler!

This approach uses statistics in such an insidious way that the resulting fiscal figures appear frightening for many. The purpose simply is to cloud people’s minds.

4) Let’s Do the Twist!

This final style is a more general version of the third. The ad takes something the opponent says and simplifies it until it’s short, sweet, shocking and wrong. This approach banks on the notion that the electorate is usually not willing to learn about complex issues and hence can be expected to believe the distorted but simpler version.

—Olaf Werder, communications professor

If, someway, somehow, you’ve managed to escape these ads, watch them at

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