US presidential election 2016: how candidates are fighting an advertising war

Hillary Clinton: reminding voters that she's come through adversity
Hillary Clinton: reminding voters that she's come through adversity

As the race for the White House sees the Republican and Democratic candidates a week away from the next primary in New York, Marketing spoke to Benedict Pringle, founder of and adman, who chose his favourite ads so far from the various presidential campaigns.

The art of political ads, says Pringle, lies in confirming the existing ideas, thoughts or prejudices of voters.

"The real skill is to do it in a way that feels authentic from the candidate and is emotionally provocative. The following ads all, to some extent, succeed against that criteria."

Donald Trump - ISIS and immigration

Republican Donald Trump’s Isis/immigration ad positions hims as a straight-talking, no-bullshit kind of guy.

"The politicians can call it something else," the ad’s gravelly voiceover proclaims. "But Donald Trump calls it radical Islamic terrorism."

Clanging, scary music punctuates the action and rhetoric.

"That’s why he’s calling for a temporary shutdown on Muslims entering the United States until we can figure out what’s going on."

"Trump’s great skill is to take legitimate, highly complicated issues and propose simple and surprising solutions to them in ways that connect with his audience," says Pringle.  

"In this spot Trump successfully gets his constituency fired up with seemingly obvious, yet radical, ideas to save America from outside threats, whilst implying that other politicians are too worried about political correctness to do what’s necessary."

Bernie Sanders - America

Pastoral scenes and young people chatting in a coffee shop are some of the images in Democrat Bernie Sanders ‘America’, with the notion that he is not a communist cemented into the viewers’ consciousness with the folky chords and vocal harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel’s track of the same name.

"Viewers of this ad are rewarded for their patience," says Pringle.  

"About 30 seconds into the minute long ad, the editors have cleverly used a combination of uplifting crowd scenes and audio engineering to stimulate a sense of euphoria and ecstasy from the audience.  It’s quite an unbelievable feat of production."

"The patriotic feeling this spot evokes is designed to dispel attacks from Clinton that Sanders is a demon socialist intent on destroying the USA."

Hillary Clinton – Fighting for you

Hillary Clinton has always triumphed in the face of adversity (partly thanks to the philandering of her husband and former president Bill), and this is the message driven home in this ad for the Democrat.

She's fighting for all Americans, "no matter who you are, what you look like, what faith you practice or who you love..." she bellows stridently.

"Even Hillary Clinton’s most vitriolic attackers would have to acknowledge that she has demonstrated indomitable spirit in the way she’s fought back from some serious setbacks in both her personal and political life," says Pringle.

"This ad seeks to subtly remind people of the adversity which the candidate has faced, provoke self-reflection, encourage respect for Clinton’s tenacity and consider that such resolve might be useful in a President of the USA."

Ted Cruz – Invasion

In Republican Ted Cruz’s 'Invasion', the rhetoric warning voters of the threat of immigrants (from Mexico) is accompanied with shots of besuited men and women invading America, making the point that immigrants won’t just steal the jobs of blue collar workers, but of the professional classes.

"This spot contains the most brilliant piece of intellectual and strategic judo," says Pringle.  "It very cleverly calls out the liberal elite, despised by the audience that Cruz is courting, for ignorance and hypocrisy in a way that rings true.

"The drama of the action immediately hooks viewers in and the humour of the execution helps keep them on Cruz’s side whilst he makes some uncompromising policy statements."

Jeb Bush – Accomplishments

Jeb Bush’s ‘Accomplishments’ kicks off by decrying the lack of accomplishments of his political rivals, including Marco Rubio. The central message is that Bush, a Republican whose family are no strangers to the White House, likes to cut the taxes of the wealthy and reduce the number of people employed by the state.

"Rick Santorum is a figure of political fun and everyone, regardless of political persuasion, will enjoy watching him getting destroyed in a TV interview for nominating a presidential candidate who he clearly knows nothing about," says Pringle. "So this ad would be great if that was all it contained.

"But it is then followed by some high octane shots of Jeb Bush looking statesmanlike and showing off a record that seems hard to fault."

Pringle adds: "Jeb Bush was constantly accused of lacking charisma and being ‘low energy’; this ad was designed to counter those claims and position him as the only candidate with the experience required to run the White House."

John Kasich – Trump’s Dangerous Rhetoric

Republican John Kasich's ad uses a speech that targets Trump’s ‘dangerous rhetoric. "You might not care if Donald Trump says Muslims must register with the government, because you're not one," it says. "You might not care if Donald Trump says it's OK to rough up black protesters, because you're not one..." Depressing orchestral stings enhance the sense of oppression, like the chords from a sad scene in a Hollywood war movie.

"This is the closest any Republican candidate has come to landing a blow on Trump in an advertisement," says Pringle. "The Kasich campaign successfully paint the Donald as a vindictive bully and obliquely imply similarities with Hitler and other authoritarian regimes throughout history.

"Kasich doesn’t even feature in the advert and yet it clearly positions him as the sensible, respectable and moderate candidate in the race."

Marco Rubio – Crime Spree 

Republican Marco Rubio’s ‘Crime Spree’ highlights how after $22m was spent attacking him, the Washington Post revealed the "Marco Rubio Crime Spree" - a reference to his violating a municipal code at 18.

"But there’s more," the ad tells us, and then jokingly cites other so-called crimes that the candidate may or may not have committed.

"Marco Rubio double dips potato chips," says an actress in a rival candidate top. A Jeb Bush supporter bemoans Rubio’s angling exaggerations - "He once said he caught a fish this big". And a man waters his plants, while in the background looms a Ted Cruz poster, inscribed: "I once saw Marco Rubio jaywalk."

For Pringle, this ad sees Rubio trying to undercut his better funded rivals. 

"Marco Rubio’s campaign was widely reported as finding it difficult to raise funds," he says. "This light-hearted ad tried to remedy that situation by asking for donations whilst positioning Rubio as an underdog that was besieged by ridiculous accusations from rival, better financed, campaigns.

"In the weeks building up to the Iowa primary there were a 12 political ads an hour on local TV stations.  I suspect that this spot, which makes light of the ludicrous nature of some the claims being made, will have gone down well."

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free