The Art of the Message

To take a more fine-grained look at three of the spots in the JWT survey, I examined two primarily “emotive” ads, Hillary Clinton’s “Proud” and Mitt Romney’s “American Family,” and one that was more issues focused, John McCain’s “Love America.” I looked for what story they were trying to tell (the take-home message); how effectively they reinforced or tried to dispel positive and negative aspects of each candidate’s “brand”; and how successfully they got the voter to feel what they were trying to induce the voter to feel.

Clinton’s “Proud” ad, which focuses on her connections with her mother and daughter, is strong for multiple reasons. One of the primary negative narratives about Clinton is she’s cold and uncaring, and this ad shows family is important to her. It also emphasizes a traditional aspect of her femininity—images of her as a proud mom book-end the spot—while emphasizing that she’s just like many women: She works, and she loves her child. Voters want to be able to identify with their president, and this ad fosters that identification.

The spot, however, has a flaw. The sentence, “Hillary’s mom lives with her,” is superimposed over a shot of Clinton and her mother, a clumsy and obvious effect that can activate the “Hillary is calculating” story.

Romney’s “American Family” does what Romney has tried to do from the start: It presents him as the natural successor to Reagan, from his slightly tilting head to his themes and way of speaking in broad generalities about American values.

The spot starts effectively with Romney sitting in a living room, surrounded by people. Uplifting music conveys strength and warmth, much as Reagan’s ads did. He hits his major “family values” theme in the The ad’s key sentence, which he begins by enumerating with his fingers (while the camera focuses on his gold wedding band): “It’s just essential to have a home where faith, where love of country, where determination”—accompanied by an image of a boy, presumably his, running bases in the quintessentially American, and masculine, sport of baseball—”… are taught to our kids.” The sentence is also accompanied by images of people listening to him in the living room and multiple images of children (e.g., pledging allegiance to the flag, with the superimposed phrase “Pro-life”). Like Clinton’s ad, however, this one may go slightly over the top in that it covers virtually every possible “values issue” of the Republican base.

McCain’s issues ad, “Love America,” appeals to both the heart and mind, which is generally a good strategy. But it covers too many issues. In it he says he’s made a lot of people angry in Washington and proceeds to count the ways, which starts to feel like a laundry list. This competes with the central narrative that has made him a front-runner: He’s a courageous straight-shooter who speaks the truth. It was precisely his temporary abandonment of that narrative—saying things he didn’t seem to believe, e.g., Jerry Falwell was something other than the “agent of intolerance” McCain had once branded him—that earlier almost ended his campaign.

The ad is nonetheless effective in its central aim: to rebrand McCain as a man of courage and conviction. After flashing the word “Service” against a background of a billowing American flag, he says, “I didn’t go to Washington to win the Mr. Congeniality Award. I went … to serve my country.” This not only tells the story he wants to tell, but addresses a narrative his rivals have tried to focus on: that McCain is a Washington insider.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is a professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University; the founder of Westen Strategies, a political and corporate consulting firm; and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.