It is easy for political reporters to become inured to seeing new political spots on YouTube. Without boring you with my memories of the Coolidge campaign, I do remember the era when you had to go to a campaign office to screen the ads or beg a friendly staffer to send you videocassettes. But there has always been something disembodied about seeing campaign ads in isolation rather than being subjected to them unawares, like typical voters. Inevitably, political commercials seem far more compelling and convincing on YouTube than they do when viewed in context.
In the real world, though—and especially as the campaign cycle unfolds—there will be the unavoidable problem of ad clutter, as presidential spots get mixed in the rotation alongside commercials for congressional races and state contests. About a week before the 2010 elections, I sat in a hotel room in Louisville and counted 30 separate political spots (15 minutes in total) during the hour-long local news broadcast at 5 pm. These cookie-cutter ads—only the candidate names and offices seemed different—lost much of their potency by dint of their placement amid a cavalcade of “vote-for-me-the-other-candidate’s-worse” hucksterism.
A constant danger in political coverage is to accept the premises of the campaigns about the merits of their strategy. Most television ads that air in a presidential race, when voters already have so much pre-existing information about the candidates, have scant influence on the outcome. But most of the media discussions of the negative spots that aired this week begin with the assumption that the ads are convincing to voters. In truth, with the ads just showing up on television screens, there is no way to tell if they will be as devastating as the 2004 Bush mockery of Kerry’s wind-surfing, or just visual wallpaper.
The Crossroads GPS ad can, for example, be portrayed as a devastating put-down of Obama’s economic stewardship. But TV viewers may also click on the mute button as soon as they hear the narrator’s snide male voice, an unmistakable signal that, “Here comes a political attack ad.” Both the Obama and Priorities USA Action commercials use blue-collar figures talking to the camera to depict the callousness of Bain Capital under Romney. These negative testimonials may boast convincing legitimacy—or they may come across as bland and repetitive.
A few weeks from now, it may be possible to get a handle on whether these particular ad campaigns are working. Not by obsessively watching the gyrating poll numbers (Shazam—Wisconsin’s in play!), but by actually doing the non-glamorous journalism of talking to swing-state voters in restaurants and strip malls about their views of Romney and Obama. You can tell, if you talk to enough voters, whether catch phrases from TV ads are popping up in their conversation. Or whether they look blank when you mention Bain Capital or Obama’s “broken promises.”
With record amounts of money sloshing through politics, this will be a presidential campaign of wretched excess on both sides. A billion-dollar TV onslaught is the predictable way of trying to win the hearts and minds of a nation of couch potatoes. But even in an era of parsimonious travel budgets and ubiquitous YouTube ad clips, it is folly to believe that a reporter can cover the ad wars solely as a journalistic couch potato.