The 2016 presidential race has begun in earnest, and as the field narrows, candidates will increasingly rely on political ads to set them apart from their rivals. In 2012, the Obama and Romney campaigns spent nearly $900 million on TV ads — more than 45% of their total expenditures. The numbers are likely to be much higher this year, despite the fact that many of the candidates who’ve spent the most money so far are doing poorly in the polls.
The ads themselves are usually overly solemn, factually vague and creatively bereft, leaving viewers to wonder, "What were they thinking?" We wondered that, too.
We asked five strategists at five different agencies to give us their professional opinions on the latest political ads from the five presidential candidates who ran TV ads in the last two months. Here’s what they had to say.
Ted Cruz, "Scorpion"
First aired: Sept. 16, 2015
Market: Ran on CNN in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada during the second Republican debate and on Fox News in the same markets during the post-debate coverage
Bonnie Wan, Group Brand Strategy Director and Associate Partner, Goodby Silverstein & Partners:
Is it for Ted Cruz or Terminix? Confusion is the only clear takeaway from this ad.
For political ad junkies, this spot clearly pays homage to Ronald Reagan’s legendary "Bear In The Woods" ad, which warned against the looming threat of Cold War-era Russia. But while Reagan’s threat was obvious, the threat here is ambiguous. Does the desert refer to Mexico or the Middle East? Does the scorpion represent ISIS, Iran, illegal immigrants or Syrian refugees? Perhaps the intent is to leave the door open as a fill-in-your-fear tactic.
The differences between the two are subtle, but the impact on message comprehension is actually big. Reagan hits some hard political points and leaves viewers with an impression of strength. Cruz raises more questions than answers, which unfortunately robs viewers’ attention from the candidate and keeps them guessing (that is, if it keeps them at all). The audience is left with no better or worse impressions of who Cruz is or what he stands for.
Comprehension aside, this ad does succeed on one thing. For a limited media buy of $33,000, it generated quite a lot more attention than it paid for. Coverage from the NY Times; Washington Post; and, most notably, Stephen Colbert proves that borrowed equity can pay off … especially if you ride the coattails of an icon.
Hillary Clinton, "Admit"
First aired: Oct. 6, 2015
Background: This is Clinton’s first national ad, although she ran seven others ads in Iowa and New Hampshire in August and September.
Robb Henzi, Senior Director, Strategy, We Are Social:
This ad rubs me like a classic establishment political ad — a deep voice refuting items ripped from the headlines and landing on bright candidate imagery and messaging. Is more "establishment" branding what Clinton needs? Probably not.
Here, with mentions of equal pay and affordable health care, she's trying to connect with two key constituencies: women and middle-class voters. She can’t lose the female vote, period, and some middle-class voters are questioning their support due to her emails or Benghazi and, as a result, some are flocking to Bernie Sanders.
While the ad doesn’t really elevate her message, it does strike while the Kevin McCarthy iron is hot — the House Majority Leader is on the tip of everyone’s tongues after shocking the political world with his withdrawal from the messy speakership race, and he just had an "emperor has no clothes" moment by admitting that the Benghazi hearings were more political theater than anything else.
Was this the best first national ad for the Clinton campaign? Probably not. But she took advantage of an opportunity to nip the Benghazi campaign drag in the bud, which could definitely pull some voters back into her camp.
Chris Christie, "Every Life"
First aired: Sept. 2, 2015
Market: New Hampshire
Laura Janness, Chief Strategy Officer, Barton F. Graf 9000:
Just when I thought Chris Christie was going to launch into a traditional pro-life message, he starts talking about county jail and winning the war on drugs. It’s a jarring, confusing pivot. It’s a failed attempt to broaden the definition of what it means to be pro-life.
Here’s how I would advise Mr. Christie: He’s being outspent and outperformed by his Republican counterparts. It’s too expensive and too time consuming to try and redefine what it means to be pro-life. He can’t afford a confused message. He can’t afford to tailor his campaign for every individual market (in this case, New Hampshire). And, as a Republican underdog, he can’t afford people passively nodding and knitting along at public speaking events.
To compete with the big guys, Mr. Christie needs a clear, powerful, single-minded idea that’s flexible enough to support the national issues. And maybe most important of all, he needs to inspire action. A muddled message combined with a passive audience doesn’t leave you feeling like you are in the presence of a true leader.
Laura also provided a convenient slideshow of what she feels are the most salient points of Christie’s ad:
Rand Paul, "Real Conservative"
First aired: Sept. 16, 2015
Market: CNN during second Republican debate in states with early primaries
Enslow Kable, SVP Group Strategy Director, FCB Garfinkel:
Rand Paul is a straight-talking conservative with a strong point of view that government should be small (and get out of the way).
The ad targets people who consider themselves "real conservatives" and believe in small government and extreme financial conservatism. But the talking head to camera is extremely expected and isn’t likely to get people’s attention. Free of fluff and niceties, it does reinforce Rand Paul’s straight-shooting "real conservative" message and tone.
This message is unlikely to affect poll numbers. This ad conveys a specific message for a specific audience and does nothing to broaden Rand Paul’s appeal beyond his conservative base.
Jeb Bush, "I’ve Delivered"
First aired: Sept. 8, 2015
Market: New Hampshire and broadcast stations in Boston
Background: This is Bush's only TV ad so far. The campaign paid $500,000 to run it for three weeks in September.
Matt MacDonell, EVP, Director of Brand Planning, Doner:
We’re a long way from November 2016, but Jeb Bush finds himself in a bit of a spot right now. He’s a legacy in a moment of upheaval, a reserved voice in a loudmouth’s conversation and a logical choice in a time of intra-party chaos.
In "I’ve Delivered," Bush figuratively raps his glass with a spoon and calls for a return to sanity. He declares himself a man of action unlike the "self promoters" (Trump) and "D.C. politicians" (Rubio, Cruz), tapping into frustration with empty promises and a do-nothing Congress that carries a 14% approval rating (Gallup 9/15).
He also presents his conservative bona fides — laying claim to cutting taxes, reducing spending and balancing the Florida budget. In effect, he is telling both the Republican base and the compromise-averse party fringe, "If you want what you say you want, I’m clearly your guy."
It’s a rational (and reasonable) argument, and perhaps in the long run it will prevail. But this is neither a rational nor reasonable moment. Whether you’re brand or a politician, you always have to remember you’re inserting your message into an ongoing conversation. Maybe this ad brings the Republican conversation to its senses, but at this moment, it’s seems more likely it gets out shouted.