The best type of advertising is advertising that “goes viral.” Yesterday, when the uncharacteristically aggro Romney campaign released the ad “History Lesson.” we can assume that it well understood this fact. The commercial, which uses a clip of NBC’s then-anchor, Tom Brokaw, condescendingly reporting on Gingrich being found guilty of ethics violations on the day of the verdict, Jan. 21, 1997, was all over the blogosphere long before brunch.
Despite the use of the archive news footage technically not being a violation itself, the Romney campaign probably anticipated that the network and Brokaw would act is if it were.
NBC was incensed, calling for the ad’s immediate removal. And Brokaw was outraged, sanctimoniously releasing a statement saying he does not want his “role as a journalist compromised for political gain by any campaign.”
As you can imagine, the Romney campaign was tickled pink.
It has little intention of stopping the ad or the ensuing dialogue that’s surrounding the use of the footage. As a senior adviser on the campaign, Eric Fehrnstrom, smugly conveyed: "We believe it falls within fair use. We didn't take the entire broadcast; we just took the first 30 seconds.”
Not only have they succeeded in continuing their Gingrich smear campaign, but they have also hogged precious airtime that the former speaker might have used—if he were as savvy when he’s not debating as when he is—to launch his own media-attention-grabbing offensive.
While talk of this commercial has taken center stage this weekend, in Florida and the rest of the country, both candidates and even some liberal groups have invested heavily in Florida media, running a plethora of ads—some more virally contagious than others—to make their respective cases before the primary on Tuesday.
Mitt Romney is enduring attack ads, accurate and otherwise, by the Gingrich campaign and the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future; he is also the target of a six-figure radio offensive launched by Priorities USA, the super PAC supporting Obama, the Service Employees International Union, and a television spot produced by AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
But the Romney campaign being the Romney campaign—proactive, prolific, and bottomlessly pocketed—was not caught unprepared. In tandem with his own indefatigable super PAC, Restore Our Future, the former Massachusetts governor has been running ads in the state for weeks.
Even with the influx of funds from the Gingrich-supporting billionaire Adelson family, Romney and his super PAC are outspending Gingrich and his super PAC by a ratio of almost four to one. And, as recent polls indicate a clear Romney lead in Florida, we can assume that the frequency and content of Romney’s ads—in conjunction with his much-improved debate performances—are responsible.
Between the commercials produced by the Romney campaign and those aired by his super PAC, Romney—not necessarily by design—has evolved a three-pronged approach to winning the state and improving his chances in November. Prong one, aggrandize Mitt. Prong two, attack Newt. And three, attribute every woe this country has been feeling lately to Barack Obama.
While the Romney super PAC is running ads stylistically similar to the ones it ran in Iowa and South Carolina, the commercials released by the Romney campaign are more thoughtful and artfully executed. For example, the anti-Newt ad “Florida Families” feels more as if it’s been designed by a groovy art director obsessed with typography than a political consultant proficient with PowerPoint. Using a chunky, contemporary font over gently faded images of Romney’s opponent, the ad tastefully reminds foreclosure-freaked Floridians that Gingrich was “cashing in” while they were moving out of their homes.
Similarly, the ad “Welcome to Florida” seems to have the fingerprints of an experienced advertising professional. Set to a brooding track, the commercial shows a series of frustrated Floridians addressing the president: “Dear President Obama,” they each intone sarcastically, “welcome to Florida.” Speaking directly to camera, they each convey the story of “what’s really happening” in the state as grim statistics about the Florida's economy appear. This commercial feels far more objective and single-minded than those we’ve seen during the primary race so far. It’s a style that, I imagine, will have much more resonance with the (presumably) battle-fatigued audience in Florida right now.
The anti-Newt ads “Unreliable Leader” and “Undisciplined” are equally powerful. Former Gingrich colleagues from the House of Representatives provide stone-faced testimonies about his precarious record while unflattering shots of the former speaker are intercut throughout. Simple yet convincing, these ads are sure to have an impact.
In contrast, the anti-Romney commercials being aired by the Gingrich campaign are far more complicated, gimmicky, and petty. And, as such, they are bound to be less potent.
“What Kind of Man,” the ad produced in response to Thursday’s debate, opens with a clip from a Mike Huckabee commercial—apparently without his permission—produced in the 2008 election. The governor proclaims: "If a man's dishonest to get a job, he'll be dishonest on the job." The ad then cuts to an extremely out-of-focus shot of Romney while a voiceover asks: “What kind of man would mislead, distort, and deceive just to win an election?” Romney’s image very slowly comes into focus as the question is answered: “This man would.” The commercial then proceeds to provide a laundry list of Gingrich’s most recent gripes about his opponent using an assortment of graphically discordant shots and typefaces. The execution of this ad is lacking in a grand vision, as is its message.
So, what did Newt’s super PAC spend the Adelsons’ $10 million on, you ask?
A bunch of stuff. A trailer for yet another anti-Romney film, called “Blood Money.” The slick commercial attacks Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital but this time focuses on claims that the private-equity firm was involved with a company accused of Medicare fraud. The production values are so high that you’d expect it to have a cinematic release.
The positive ads would be more positive if Gingrich didn’t have such an indelibly sketchy past. And the negative ads would be more negative if Romney looked less like a seasoned Ken doll and more like Mitch McConnell.
All in all, both Team Romney and Team Gingrich are making better ads with higher production values. And, as the Republican primary race continues to unfurl, it is becoming plainly evident that whoever wins will not necessarily do so based on his own merit but more on the talent of the professionals behind his campaign.