Political scare tactics are so common because they’re so effective. But sometimes an ad is so blatant in its fear-mongering, so successful in reframing an issue and beguiling voters that it requires begrudging applause amidst the gnashing of teeth.
In Houston, an equal rights ordinance banning discrimination based on factors like race, age, religion, sexual orientation and military service was repealed by voters earlier this week after the Campaign for Houston rebranded the law as the "Bathroom Ordinance," playing on fears that adult men would take advantage of the gender identity protection to stalk children in women’s bathrooms.
The ad’s depiction of a faceless man "claiming to be a woman that day" demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings of topics like science and empathy. But the spot deftly avoids any issues actually covered by the law. With it, the Campaign for Houston reduced the entire debate to a single slogan: "No Men in Women’s Bathrooms," though the words "bathroom" or "restroom" don’t appear anywhere in the text of the law.
The mind behind the ad is Jeff Norwood, a Republican media consultant and founder of Austin-based Anthem Media, which has created ads for conservative politicians like Cathy McMorris Rodgers, congresswoman from Washington State and now the chairman of the House Republican Conference. The company’s work is typical political fare, peppered with references to American values, maternal wisdom and God.
Astute viewers will note that the ad Norwood produced for the Houston vote relies more on visual and visceral cues than any intellectual arguments. It lacks any statistics or appeals to Constitutional legitimacy. There’s a little girl and a scary man — literally a black-and-white argument.
"Fear is an incredibly powerful motivator, and this could be Exhibit A," said Bill Hillsman, founder of North Woods Advertising, a politics and public policy ad agency in Minneapolis that has created ads for Democratic and independent politicians like Paul Wellstone, John Hickenlooper and Jesse Ventura. "It pushes all the right buttons: women's safety, children's safety, and would be highly-effective as well with men who want to protect women and children. And production-wise, it's very well-done."
That’s an approach simplified from previous political battles championed by social conservatives. In the 2008 fight over California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in the state, pro-8 ads warned that children and churches would come under fire from liberal educators and wedding-hungry couples alike.
In this "Yes on Proposition 8" ad, concerned Millennials describe the impending death of liberty:
Norwood himself compared his ad to Lyndon Johnson’s "Daisy" from 1964, but a more appropriate association might be the "Willie Horton" ad from 1988, run on behalf of the George H. W. Bush campaign. "One really good ad can win, or completely change, an election," Hillsman added.
Whatever the superficial differences between the ads or the factual errors and distortions in them, they all accomplished the same thing. They worked.