Who Has Better TV Ads — Scott Brown Or Elizabeth Warren?

The Senate race is still too close to call. Maybe the TV ads will make the difference.

Who has the more effective TV spots — Sen. Scott Brown or Prof. Elizabeth Warren?

Let’s put aside philosophical and moral questions, like: Should 30-second ads decide the outcome of an important political contest? Should we judge whether an ad is “better” by whether it’s more persuasive; even if that means, more manipulative?

And let’s try to overcome bias. Chances are, if we like a candidate and that candidate’s message, we’ll like his or her TV spots. We’ll see sincerity where others see sophistry.

Strategy – Whose Ads Appeal To Undecided Voters?

According to polls, only about 8 percent of the electorate is undecided. Most undecided voters are “independent” in the sense that they try to base their votes on candidates, not parties. However, it’s not that easy to define or target undecided voters.

Some voters are non-political – they’re not interested in politics and usually don’t pay attention to political news coverage. Other voters are anti-politics – they might follow the news, but distrust or detest politicians of both parties. Still other voters are independents in the sense that they might cast “protest votes” for a third party — the Green Party, Libertarian Party, Peace and Freedom Party or Constitution Party.

While most candidates will try to appeal to undecided voters by sounding independent, Brown and Warren have very different strategies. Both tried positioning themselves as populists. At one point Warren tried to identify with the Occupy Wall Street movement by claiming that she laid the “intellectual foundation” for their protests against “the 1 percent.” And Brown demonstrated independence in the Senate, voting often enough with liberal Democrats to aggravate conservatives who had donated to his campaign in the special election.

A Scott Brown advertisement featuring Paul Walsh, a Democrat and former district attorney for Bristol County

Brown stresses that he is independent and bipartisan. His recent TV spots feature Democrats, like former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, singing his praises. But Warren has a very different strategy – she apparently hopes to ride President Obama’s coattails since he has a big lead in Massachusetts polls over former Gov. Mitt Romney. So her TV ads don’t claim that she’s bipartisan. She seems to advertise in a way that just reinforces her liberal Democratic base. In one of her recent spots Warren complained that the federal government didn’t spend as much on infrastructure as China. In a new spot she’s complaining that the federal government should spend more on student loans for college – an argument which doesn’t seem to expand the base for a Harvard college professor.

Elizabeth Warren’s ad on student loan debt

Which TV ad strategy seems more effective – pitching independents by sounding independent and bipartisan or trying to reinforce and motivate the Democratic base?

Personality – Which Candidate Seems More Appealing?

In the new Warren spot she says “our kids are crushed” by having to pay back their student loans, and assures us with certitude that “they haven’t gone on a shopping spree.”

In a new Brown ad he is again driving his truck, talking about his life – with headlines and photos reminding us that he faced a lot of struggles growing up.

This is where feelings get very subjective. Some people like Brown’s demeanor and consider him a “regular guy,” as Flynn called him. Others see him as a boring politician trying to pretend he’s non-political.

Views of Warren are equally varied: Some see her as an elitist scold, while others think of her as a friendly, confident teacher.

There seems to be some gender bias in this, not just ideological bias. For example, Brown speaks in a monotone in straightforward language – fans may think of that as reminiscent of Clint Eastwood, while non-fans feel it suggests a lack of smarts or sensitivity. Warren often speaks directly to the camera in her spots – coming across to fans as being assertive and intelligent, but striking non-fans as scripted and sanctimonious.

Production – Whose TV Spots Are More Creative?

Both campaigns have ample money for production. It’s foolish to spend tens of millions on air time, yet scrimp on shooting and editing a quality spot. It often pays to do a lot of videography in the hope of capturing a moment or two where the candidate seems really genuine in relating to voters or eloquent in speaking to an audience.

Brown’s spots have been more creative and interesting – less formulaic. There’s a flash of inspiration now and then. His ads with Democratic testimonials seem sincere; partly because the soundbites were apparently taken from conversations, but also because the interspersed shots of Brown talking and laughing with voters underscore the points made about him. Music is crucial; if you don’t notice it, but just feel it, the audio mix is right.

Warren’s spots seem like typical campaign ads: bland, two-dimensional and political-sounding. The “political-sounding” point will probably seem unfair to Warren supporters, since they feel she’s a well-meaning citizen activist, not a mere pol. But undecided voters are undecided for a reason – they don’t like, or sometimes even grasp, political language.

Undecided voters are looking for something they usually can’t quite express – maybe it is truth, justice, or the American way… but rarely is it an argument about what percentage of GDP should go to infrastructure investment.

Conclusion – So Whose TV Spots Are Better?

All three of the aforementioned criteria – strategy, personality, production – are arguable. We all have our biases, and what we like in a TV spot is pretty subjective.

But here is a question that might tell the tale: Whose supporters are happier with their candidate’s ads?

I haven’t taken a poll, but from conversations and news coverage, it seems that Warren supporters aren’t thrilled with the quality of her TV spots. She is unique; her ads aren’t. Brown backers seem happier with his ads – especially his most recent spots with the Democratic endorsements.

Maybe Warren’s problem is not merely that her ads are unimaginative and off-target, but that she can’t get the testimonials of any prominent non-liberals or non-Democrats. Indeed, she can’t even get the endorsement of the liberal Democratic mayor of Boston, Tom Menino.

Sometimes it’s not ads that make the difference. It’s the people who are not in the ads.

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  • SalveMe

    Somehow I always get the feeling that Elizabeth Warren is mad at me.

    If we recognize that the problem with Washington is ultra-partisanship and the inability to compromise, it is clear that Warren will only add to the problem. Brown is one of the few independents in Washington voting issues and not party.

    • Jaylopoe

       Pardon me,  but clearly you and thousands of prospective voters are unable to decipher the facts …
      1.  Scott Brown voted party line more than 87% of votes in DC
      2.  The times he did vote more independently and in respect for his constituents
            he did so only after holding out for changes in bills that will suit the wealthy.
      3.  Scott Brown has raised most of his campaign dollars from the uber Wall Street
            wealthy … 2 fund raisers to date both taking place in NYC.   The third fund
            raiser being a $5,000 plate event at NYC Bloomberg’s Mayoral Mansion.
      4.  Scott Brown’s common every day portrayal of himself …  is ridiculous and
            mostly laughable.
      5.  Scott Brown co-authored the Blunt Amendment which if passed, would have
             given PRIVATE insurance companies the ability to restrict and indeed
             prohibit reimbursement for various women’s services including birth control.
      6.  Scott Brown is the poster boy for the offensive … GOP agenda which if allowed
             to be enacted would …   destroy medicare, privatize Social Security turning it
            over to the very thieves who ruined this economy in 2008-2009  … as well
            as the adoption and expansion of more than 10 anti-women policies in the
             current house of representatives … setting women’s rights back 40 plus years.

      Pardon me … but SCOTT BROWN is a corporate elitist who is furthering the
      Millionaire/Billionaire WEALTHCARE club.

    • comment

      As Grover Norquist says “when one party wants to go east and other wants to go west…What’s to compromise?”

      “SalveME” you appear to have fallen for the Romney, Ryan, Brown
      rhetoric. What the real politicians want you to believe is how you have
      defined the “problem”.

      What is going on in Washington is a REAL difference in vision. It is
      actually not “ultra-partiship” whatever that is. Nor is it the
      “inability” to compromise.

      The stalemate that exists is due to a true difference in vision and a lack of congeniality.

      Do we want social programs gutted? Do we want corporate interests to rule? Do we want less environment protection, less investment in research, less investment in new technology? Or do we want more low wage jobs with little or no benefits and bad working conditions, while equity firms skim off the cream?

      Independent = Ineffective 


  • Pointpanic

    Um… talk about bias. Domke is an established conservative . as betrayed by the language he uses in this piece. But my question is where’s WBUR’s “independence”? You know, the kind it touts at every fundraiser. Why have they published this shill piece for Scott Brown and no counterpoint for Warren? Maybe MS Warren doesn’t speak of “bipartisanship” becaus e she knows that it ususally benefits the gOP.But we may never know that because BUR is shilling for Brown and his faux populism.

    • maryanne

      Hey Einstein, Payne delivers the democrat talking points.

      • Pointpanic

        WEll, Heisenberg, where are they?

      • Pointpanic

        Hey Heisenberg, where are they?

  • Theimmortals

    This is a biased piece of garbage. I came to the wbur website today with the intention of donating money. I think I will have to leave that for another day. Just look at the active links in this article. All of the links for Warren lead to negative articles about her while the links for Brown lead to pages that cast him in a positive light. The language used when describing Warren is often derisive while the language used to describe Brown is far more favorable. Bad show here WBUR. And “Salve Me,” your assertion that “Brown is one of the few independents in Washington voting issues and not party” is grossly mistaken. He has signed on for all of the Republican Party’s worst budget ideas and helps to promote policies that will destroy the middle class and the social safety net for the poor. 

    • Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

      LIE-AWATHA (D)

      Says it all. She pushes affirmative action, claims AA benefit, NO HARD-COPY PROOF.

      Fraud. Phony. BSer. Now, right up there with SWIMMER (D).

      Vote for her, for for the USA becoming Greece (D).

    • Pointpanic

      you’re right on the mark ,immortals. This is not the WBUR I camre to know and love in the 70s-an alternative to commercial corporate media. THis is a seriously biased piece with no counterpoint offered And complicity in Brown’s public relations campaign has displaced critical inquiry  into the accuracy of his “independent” label.

  • Bluefishpatty

    So far all I have heard from Warren is how she is going to spend my money.  I guess there are a lot of people out there that need my money…after all..why should I use it for my family…why should I plan for my children’s future?…  She needs my money so she can cast it around like “chum” in the water, Warren needs all the little fish to get excited so the big fish can come in and feast. The big fish are of course the Burecratic sharks who gooble up most of the money and leave the shreds for the little fish..  So, her plan is give your money to me…I will give it to big Govt agencies..and they will give it to those in need….  Did someone say “Hey Stupid?”
    Now, that would be a good title to her next TV spot….

  • Peter Amstutz

    Good grief,  the Scott Brown trolls can go back and hide under a rock.  Let’s discuss the article.

    Brown has adopted a conscious strategy trying to convince Democratic voters that it’s OK to vote of Brown because he’s (ostensibly) going to be a bipartisan moderate.  This “feel-good” campaign is probably his best bet; he won’t talk about policy because his actual record and positions are that of a toe-the-line Republican partisan that the majority of Massachusetts voters disagree with.

    I agree that Warrens ads are pretty terrible.  The production values not great, she talks too fast, and she comes across as a school teacher trying to fit a lecture into a too-small time slot.  She needs to slow down and run multiple ads that build around a consistent theme.  She needs to run on something other than “I’m going to clean up Washington” when every other politician in the country (including/especially the corrupt scumbags) is running on the same message .  In terms of production values, her ads are broadcast at a different TV resolution than the normal Channel 5 broadcast, which causes the adds to display in a letterbox that does not fill up the screen (this may be specific to certain TVs).

    I’m a Warren supporter, and her style of earnest advocacy is very appealing in certain media such as interviews, so I hope her campaign figures out how better to get her message out.

  • Unalaney

    My only thought when I see Scott Brown’s ad driving his truck is that he should keep his eyes on the road.
    Isn’t that called distracted driving?

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