Down and Dirty

02.25.12

Michigan GOP Primary Campaign Advertising Is More Vicious Than Persuasive

The television advertising in the GOP Michigan primary is memorable for its viciousness and klutziness and only rarely for its excellence.

Can money really buy everything?

Well, if you’re talking about the hearts and minds of undecided GOP primary voters in Michigan, the answer is—sigh—“yes.”

Just over a week ago, Santorum was enjoying a 10-point lead in the Great Lakes State. But now, after Romney and the super PAC supporting his campaign have spent almost $4 million running television ads there—some positive, most scathingly negative—Santorum’s advantage has simply disappeared. (Latest polls indicate that he’s now 2 points behind Romney.)

Preempting the attack—albeit not quashing it—the Santorum campaign released an ambitious ad—at least from a production standpoint—Rombo. One of the first commercials this election cycle that has been shot entirely from scratch—not cobbled together using existing footage—the spot features a (bloated) Romney lookalike firing mud at a life-size, cardboard cutout of a smiling Santorum. The ad seeks to alert voters that “Mitt Romney’s negative attack machine” is “back. On full throttle.”

While it was very considerate of the Santorum campaign to raise awareness about the nasty tactics that the Romney folks have been using, running an attack ad to criticize your opponent for running attacks ad feels just as sleazy.

Another anti-Romney ad produced by the Santorum campaign, “Say What,” falls equally short. The all-type execution, punctuated with ominous sound effects, shows a series of very unconservative quotes issued by the former Massachusetts governor at various times of his political career: “I don’t line up with the National Rifle Association,” “I will preserve a woman’s right to choose,” and “I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t ask for federal dollars every chance I had.” (What’s not to like?)

Political views aside, this commercial fails miserably in its execution. The ad, relying solely on graphics with no voice-over, assumes that people watch television commercials using their undivided attention. Not so. Unless you’re a Mike Allen’s Playbook subscriber, the likelihood that you’re watching a political ad and not simultaneously folding laundry or reheating leftovers is pretty slim.

Perhaps, if Santorum’s people had a little more experience, they’d know that you have to be far more invasive to get through.

Evidently, this was not lost on the more seasoned ad makers at Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting the Obama campaign. This week, they began running, Bankrupt, a spot that attacks Romney’s opposition to the federal government’s auto bailouts. The ad begins with a clip of Romney “resolutely” declaring: “Let Detroit go bankrupt.” The blithe-seeming statement is echoed throughout the commercial while an accusatory voiceover attacks Romney’s much-maligned record in the private sector.

No matter what Michiganders are doing while watching this spot, I’d say the message will be received loud and clear.

Naturally, the Romney campaign and its allied super PAC, Restore Our Future, were not going to take the (inevitable) attacks lying down. After all, a loss in Michigan—the place he was born and where his dad was a three-term governor—would be near-fatal to his candidacy.

They began by running an ad called Growing Up. In this spot, the candidate reflects on his childhood in Michigan while driving around in a car, presumably made in the state. Romney uses the opportunity to speak of his opposition to the auto-industry bailouts while showing archive footage of great American cars from the '50s and '60s.

It’s a beautiful commercial but, ultimately, the success of this ad depends on where you stand on the auto bailouts. If you oppose them—as a reported 34 percent of Republican voters in Michigan do—you’ll probably like it a lot. If you don’t, you’re likely to change the channel.

On a side note: Anyone-But-Romneyers will be delighted to know that the Chrysler he was driving in the spot was made in Canada and the media made quite a fuss about it.

Interestingly, Romney stopped running this ad about a week ago. In its place, he ran a negative ad, Drowning, which frames Santorum as a Bridge to Nowhere-supporting earmarker—not exactly a nice thing to say about someone who prides himself on being a “true conservative.” Sorry, Rick.

Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Romney, joined in the Santorum-bashing by releasing Right Experience, an ad that berates the former Pennsylvanian senator for being the consummate “Washington insider.” From a stylistic standpoint, the ad is a complete mess. I wish they’d hire a graphic designer. Somebody?

And, just in case the bombardment by Romney and his super PAC was not enough, Ron Paul—Mitt’s unlikely new sidekick—has been running an ad that accuses Santorum of being a “fake” fiscal conservative.  Referring to him as a “dude” and calling his support “of the biggest entitlement scandal since the '60s … not groovy,” the ad definitely stands out. Fortunately for Santorum, I’m not sure in a good way.

‘Growing Up’ is a beautiful commercial but, ultimately, the success of this ad depends on where you stand on the auto bailouts.

Well, that is most of what’s clogging the airwaves in Michigan until the primary on Tuesday.

Who will win?

The candidate with the most merit? Or the most mud?

If Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida are anything to go by, we already know the answer.