CORRECTION: The original version of this column misrepresented the cost of Mitt Romney’s ad. It was President Obama's ad that cost $400,000, not Romney's.
Call me old-fashioned and a soft-touch, but I loved the 17-minute “The Road We’ve Traveled” campaign ad that the Obama campaign released last week.
It is narrated by actor Tom Hanks and produced by Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim, who also did An Inconvenient Truth. The ad is obviously a gauzy, 100-percent pro-Obama view of the last four years, but it offers people inclined to vote for President Obama a reason to do so, and provides some food for thought for the undecided voters who will determine this election. It’s also representative of the almost-lost art of positive, long-form advertising that gave people a reason to vote for a candidate rather than the negative ads designed to tear a candidate down.
To be sure, the Obama campaign can be expected to run some spots that are mean-spirited and tough, and that occasionally cross the line of fairness. So would Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum or anyone else seeking the GOP nomination. The Romney campaign has run some positive films, notably one 3 minute, 44 second spot, “A Love Story,” featuring the candidate’s wife, Ann Romney. It wasn’t as ambitious an effort as the $400,000 Obama ad, but both are excellent and a tonic to our now-steady diet of poisonous negative ads.
When I first got involved in politics in the 1970s, it was not uncommon for campaigns to commission filmmakers to produce 15-to-30-minute, documentary-style positive ads of this kind. When I had extra time, I liked to rummage through closets in the office where I was working, looking at old campaign ads that people had thought important enough to save for posterity. At that time, I had never heard of the legendary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim (Davis Guggenheim’s now-late father), but his work became my favorite. He had a knack for telling a compelling story about his Democratic clients, some of whom I had never heard of. He had the ability to almost bring a viewer to tears and could convince almost anyone that his candidate was someone completely deserving to represent us, whether in Washington or in a state capital. I was lucky enough to meet him several times, and it always left me with the feeling that I was dealing with an enormously talented artist or craftsman.
When I attended my first Republican National Convention in 1984, the 18-minute film preceding President Reagan’s acceptance speech, which featured the first political use of Lee Greenwood’s amazing song “God Bless the USA,” evoked the same emotion, as did the follow-up “Morning in America” ads that persuaded voters to vote for him, not against Walter Mondale.
The late House Speaker Sam Rayburn used to say that “any jackass can kick a barn down, but it took a carpenter to build it.” That’s my view toward many negative campaign ads. Some are obviously more effectively and artfully done than others, and some even manage to use humor in making a negative—excuse me, “contrasting” point. But most of these ads simply don’t require the talent, or employ the craft of telling a story that moves people emotionally like the Guggenheim political films or the work produced by the Reagan campaign ad makers, the Tuesday Team.
Negative ads are here to stay, largely because they work. It is said that voters are much more likely to recall the content of a negative ad than a positive ad, perhaps because they are more likely to believe something nasty said about a politician and more skeptical of anything good said about them. But the cumulative effect of these ads is horrifically destructive to the system and makes it more difficult to govern once a candidate takes office. The winner is viewed as the lesser of two evils rather than someone deemed by voters to be worthy of serving in public office.
The compromise might be to turn the clock back a decade or so, when candidates would use ads to lay down a positive groundwork, saving the blistering ads until later in the campaign. Today, many of the 30-second positive ads that air insult the intelligence of voters and aren’t particularly effective in establishing a narrative and a bond with voters. Candidates should ask themselves and their campaign consultants: Is this ad really going to persuade the more skeptical, independent voters who don’t naturally like politics or politicians? Does it create a bond, a personal connection with the voters? It can happen. It just usually doesn’t.
This article appears in the March 20, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.