VIDEO: The 10 Best and Worst Campaign Ads of 2014 (So Far)
What follows is a look at 10 spots from up to this point in the 2014 cycle. Five of them are good, and five of them have a serious flaw. There are plenty of great and terrible ads that didn't get included. These 10 spots were chosen because each offers a lesson in political messaging, and they are worth learning from.
Let's start with the above commercial, a spot that is almost universally mocked.
• MI-Sen: Terri Lynn Land (R): This may go down as the most memorable ad of the cycle, and not in a good way. Republican Terri Lynn Land decided to counter Democratic attacks that she favors policies that hurt women by ... drinking coffee. Seriously. Land concludes the ad by declaring that as a woman, she may know a little more about women than her Democratic opponent Gary Peters.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz memorably called it "the worst ad of the political process," and it's not hard to see why. The spot is trying to use humor to point out what it thinks is an absurd idea, that a woman could be part of a war on women. Only it's not at all absurd: Peters and his allies have attacked Land for opposing policies like equal pay for women and abortion rights. By saying nothing to counter the attacks in her spot, Land is actually giving them more credibility.
What we can learn: Don't just assume that voters will immediately take your side when you're being attacked, even if you think the attacks are ridiculous. Also, don't spend two-thirds of an ad doing nothing.
What we can learn: Ads featuring individual stories about how a candidate helped someone are nothing new, but they can still be incredibly effective. Little stories like these are easy to understand and offer something many voters can relate to.
What we can learn: Cramming too many positive ideas into one spot makes it very hard to really remember any of them, or allow the candidate to stand out from the rest of the field.
What we can learn: Zeroing in on one issue that's important to the electorate is often a very effective way to get voters to remember you, especially in a crowded race.
• AR-Gov: Mike Ross (D): Most of this spot is fine: Ross defends himself from a recent Republican attack on his ethics, before portraying GOP rival Asa Hutchinson as unethical.
However, the ad does one thing really wrong: It repeats the original accusation, with the narrator declaring, "There was never a Justice Department investigation." The big problem with this is it helps keep the original attack in circulation while it's trying to counter it. As Brad Phillips of Mr. Media Training put it in a very good article about these types of "quotes of denial," "The problem is that the defensive-sounding negative word or phrase tends to linger longer in the public memory than the word 'not.'" (See Richard Nixon's "I'm not a crook" for a famous example).
There are better ways to push back on these types of attacks. Had the narrator said something like "Mike Ross is always ethical," it would have been a good way to push back on the GOP attackwithout repeating it. However, viewers who had never seen the Republican ad are likely to start to wonder "What's this I hear about Mike Ross being investigated by the Justice Department?" and people who had seen it are likely to just have the Republicans' accusations reinforced.
What we can learn: When trying to push back on an attack, don't repeat it.
• IA-Sen: Joni Ernst (R): Ernst started the Republican primary as a little-known state senator, but this spot helped her get national attention. Ernst declares she grew up castrating hogs on a farm, so she'll know how to cut pork. Ernst then calls for cutting spending. Pretty much all the Republican contenders were talking about cutting spending, but Ernst was the only one who did it memorably: She easily won the GOP nomination.
What we can learn: When talking about an issue that every else is talking about, find some way to make it memorable.
• IA-Sen: Bruce Braley (D): Once Ernst won the Republican nomination, her Democratic opponent Bruce Braley had a variety of issues he could have hit her with. In a debate days before the primary Ernst voiced opposition to the Farm Bill, the Clean Water Act, and the minimum wage, and called for privatizing young workers' Social Security.
So Braley immediately attacked her on ... wasteful spending, completely ignoring everything else. To make matters worse, the spot weirdly compares Ernst to a bird. The Ernst team immediately accused Braley of sexism by calling her a chick. Braley has since gotten a new media consultant.
What we can learn: If your opponent has very controversial views, don't attack them on something much more mundane. Also, don't compare your female opponent to a chick.
• WI-Gov: Mary Burke (D): Using an opponent's own words against them is nothing new, but Burke does it well in her race against Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The spot features Walker pledging 250,000 new jobs, and saying he "absolutely" wants to be held to it. The narrator then describes the state's poor job growth. The spot seizes on an issue people care about and does a great job hitting Walker for not fulfilling it.
What we can learn: Hire a good opposition research team.
• VA-07: Eric Cantor (R): Almost everyone was caught by surprise when then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was unseated in his primary by little-known professor Dave Brat, but Cantor's team actually did see Brat as a threat months before the primary. However, their response may have done a lot more harm than good. Cantor ran a spot accusing Brat of being a liberal adviser to then-Democratic Gov. (and now Sen.) Tim Kaine. The evidence they gave was pretty thin: Brat served on the Council of Economic Advisers when Kaine was trying to raise taxes.
Cantor's team thought this was a good way to disqualify Brat before he could respond. However if anything, all they did was increase Brat's name recognition. The fact that the attack was so weak may have even made Cantor look all the worse. With Cantor so unpopular among voters, his campaign could have at least attempted to raise his approval ratings, but they didn't even try. Instead, all they did was provide Brat with more name recognition.
What we can learn: Always be careful when attacking a little-known opponent, as it can backfire badly.
• OK-Sen-B: James Lankford (R): Rep. James Lankford won a surprisingly decisive victory in the June Republican primary against former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon. There were a lot of reasons for Lankford's big win, but ads like this were a part of it. On paper, Lankford's service in the House should have been a liability. Congress is utterly despised and Lankford had taken some votes anathema to the GOP base like raising the debt ceiling. Shannon seemed to offer voters the chance to choose a Washington outsider over an insider. However, Lankford cleverly turned his time in Congress into a positive.
The spot shows Lankford saying good-bye to his family and leaving his Oklahoma home early in the day and driving to the airport, as the narrator describes how Lankford is going to Washington to fight the Obama administration. The ad does a good job depicting Lankford as a real Oklahoman who is leaving home to fight the good fight in Washington, rather than as a creature of the capitol. The narrator also has an effective final line that further turns Lankford's incumbency into an asset: "While other conservatives talk about what they would do, James Lankford is already doing it." It's a good way to remind primary voters that Lankford is already fighting Obama, their common enemy.
What we can learn: It's often better to try and put a positive spin on a potential liability rather than try and pretend it doesn't exist.
With Labor Day here, the campaign ads are going to start flying, and it's quite likely that some of 2014's most remembered ads haven't even been envisioned yet. But there's a lot to learn from these spots, both good and bad.