McCain 'Celebrity' Ad Breaks the Rules, U.Va. Professor Says

Aug. 1, 2008 — John McCain's controversial television spot comparing Barack Obama's celebrity to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears has redefined the negative political ad, says a University of Virginia political scientist who studies political advertising.
Paul Freedman, co-author of "Campaign Advertising and American Democracy," said that in the history of American political advertising "it is rare to the vanishing point that one would attack one's opponent by calling him the top celebrity in the world and then showing almost 30 seconds of huge throngs of adoring fans, chanting your opponent's name while he looks presidential."

Freedman said that, on its face, the ad not only suggests a sense of desperation, but it also violates common sense in the world of advertising. "Can you imagine Pepsi talking about how everybody loves Coke and showing people drinking only Coke and saying how great it tastes?"

But while Freedman believes the McCain ad is a gamble, he says that political ads are not always directed at persuading people that you are the better candidate.

"Sometimes ads are aimed at your own base in an attempt to motivate the people who already support you, maybe even get them angry," said Freedman. "If he is concerned, for instance, that conservatives aren't as enthusiastic as they could be, maybe he wants to give them a reason to get enthusiastic by suggesting Obama is all style and no substance and that he's as shallow as Britney Spears. It's absolutely possible that that is what he's intending to accomplish with the 'Celebrity' ad."

In response, the Obama campaign countered immediately with a negative ad of its own, which Freedman said is straight out of the negative ad playbook.

"There are unflattering black and white images of McCain, ominous music, a female announcer berating McCain, and short quotes from credible sources making the case that McCain's claims about Obama are false," Freedman said. "The ad pivots midway through when it becomes colorful with very strong music and Obama proceeds to talk about his own energy policy. It is a classic negative ad format.

"What's interesting is that candidate of change has given us a very conventional ad while the candidate of old-style politics has given us a brand new type of ad that we've never seen before."

Both ads underscore changes that new technologies have brought to the campaigns. Not only are candidates better able to produce a 30- or 60-second TV ad in a matter of hours, but also YouTube now allows immediate exposure without bothering with the process of television ad buys.

Freedman, who is teaching a course on political advertising this summer, says that about a dozen of his students will produce mock campaign ads as part of the course, most of which will be technologically as good as those that the candidates are able to create.

Then there is the 24-hour news cycle of cable TV, Internet news sites and blogs where the more provocative an ad is, the more times it is shown, for free, and discussed by analysts.

"That's an important part of the strategy," said Freedman. "Candidates know that if they make an ad that is provocative enough it's going to get played. And I can't imagine something much more provocative than putting Paris Hilton and Britney Spears on the screen and essentially saying, 'My opponent is too popular. Vote for me.'"