Attack Ads Lose Their Bite

Last week’s presidential election indeed proved to be a historic — or, as Jon Stewart facetiously put it during his telecast, “an” historic — night. A new American archetype, Barack Obama is preternaturally smart and seemingly unflappable. He also ran a stellar campaign. But that arguably had more to do with the president-elect’s oratory glory and his brilliant field operation than any actual TV advertising.

Interesting, then, that for The Selling of the President 2008, an unprecedented amount was spent on TV spots. In the last month of campaigning alone, Obama and John McCain reportedly were spending upwards of $20 million a week (combined) on TV ads. Yet traditional political ads have never seemed so irrelevant.

Can you think of one great, game-changing commercial that came directly out of any of the campaigns? Obama’s 30-minute infomercial springs to mind, but it stood out mostly for the audacity of the media buy.

For me, the most memorable ads of the entire, endless campaign boil down to two: Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m” and John McCain’s “Celebrity” — both of which were negative, both of which backfired, and neither of which got them to the White House.

Change has come to America. So, in that spirit, why not talk about packing in the attack ads? They seem increasingly outdated and ineffective in an age of multiple new media options.

Take the Clinton spot’s infamous line: “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Who do you want answering the phone?”

To begin with, it seems weirdly dated — as if a president has to go around with the “football” chained to his or her arm. Wouldn’t a Blackberry on vibrate be more like it?

Also, the stock footage of kids sleeping in metal beds — are they in an orphanage? a school ward? — looks like it was from the ’70s. Thus, the shot of Clinton all made up in her pantsuit, answering the phone, makes her look ridiculous, like the Headmistress of Hogwarts.

The spot’s biggest mistake was pounding Obama on his inexperience. All the fear mongering seemed obvious and manipulative, and, as it turned out, a 3 a.m. phone call wasn’t what voters were most concerned with.

While the Obama campaign produced its share of negative ads, McCain ran more of them. The thinking from the McCain camp was that Obama had so much money to sell his agenda that McCain had to make his own news.

One of the points of negative ads is to generate news coverage and Internet traffic. But McCain’s campaign proved that when the worst economy since the Great Depression is setting the agenda, nobody cares about who’s palling round with William Ayers or the Rev. Wright.

McCain’s “Celebrity,” though, first hit a nerve. Humorous, it also got good reviews and a lot of attention. The spot attacked Obama for his rock-star charisma at huge, dramatically staged rallies.

“Celebrity” played on this effectively. “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world,” a female announcer says breathily over shots of the huge crowds of Germans who came to hear Obama speak in Berlin last summer. (This did double duty as massive, adoring German crowds are still associated with Hitler.) The narrator asks, “But is he ready to lead?”

So far, so good. And even more genius are the little dissolves, so quick as to be almost subliminal, of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. (Put Hilton in a commercial and you’re assured millions of dollars in free media time on otherwise legitimate news shows.)

So while the comparison made no sense, it seemed to raise a legitimate question: What, exactly, were the crowds swooning about? Was there substance along with the glamour?

But what a difference 14 days can make. That spot and the buzz it created happened around mid-August, but some two weeks later McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vp. Within three days of his announcement, she and her family were on four magazine covers and she herself started hypnotizing crowds at pageant-like rallies.

The celebrity charge backfired, big time. By comparison Obama looked like a monk.

Before he died, Lee Atwater, the godfather of negative ads, disavowed his craft. And of course, other people over time have decried such nastiness. But it’s still believed that going negative works. Some posit that it’s because attack ads make potential voters so weary and cynical that they opt out and decide not to vote, potentially helping the second-place candidate. Clearly, the opposite was true this year, which saw unprecedented voter turnout.

The attention now is on the economic challenges the country faces. But before we get to the election of 2012, let’s take another look at negative advertising — and give it the change it deserves.