TV Ad War — Brown Vs. Warren

In the Senate race, we’ve seen countless TV spots by Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren. The ads have had an effect: Voters are united in not wanting to see them anymore.

Given the unprecedented spending, it’s remarkable how uncreative the ads have been. And it doesn’t seem likely that new ads in the final days will have much impact.

A new WBUR poll gives Warren a five-point lead over Brown. But the X factor in this race seems to be how the presidential candidates will fare in this state. If President Obama doesn’t go over 60 percent, that would be good news for Brown — he could win enough ticket-splitters to prevail. But if Obama wins with high 60s percent, Brown will probably be caught in the undertow.

Still, the TV ad war between the Senate candidates tells the tale of how the race evolved.

Competing Campaign Strategies

We are all experts on TV spots. We know when an ad inspires or depresses us. But to judge the effectiveness of ads we must consider them in the context of campaign strategy. An ad can be slick and impressive but if it doesn’t convey the right message, at the right time, to the right audience, it can be a waste of money and even counterproductive.

At the beginning of the contest, Brown and Warren tried to position themselves as the authentic populist in the race — the candidate who grew up on “the ragged edge of the middle class” and was now, as a success story, the true champion for the middle class.

And beyond economic self-interest, both candidates tried to frame the choice in political terms. Brown stressed that he was independent, bipartisan and pro-small business. Warren emphasized that she was pro-consumer, pro-women’s rights and anti-Republican.

Each candidate tried to control the agenda and define the choice. Brown argued it was about character — advertising that Warren “is not who she says she is.” Warren contended the contest was about which party would control the Senate.

Brown, as a Republican, needed to persuade a higher percent of the electorate — not just independents, but conservative, traditional Democrats as well. While Warren, as the Democrat in this Democratic-leaning state, had less need to persuade than to reinforce the liberal coalition that elected and reelected Gov. Deval Patrick. So her strategy was to invest more in organization, ride Obama’s coattails, and turn out her voters.

Brown needed his TV spots to be persuasive. Early on, he seemed to have that advantage. His ads were more creative.  They had better production values and were more appealing to swing voters. Warren’s ads were conventional, formulaic, and many Democrats voiced concern that they made the candidate seem to be always complaining and/or lecturing.

Shift In Strategies

About a month ago, there was a change in Warren’s ads. In the new ads, others did the talking while the candidate was shown listening. Democrats who had been worried about Warren’s persona and image felt that the new ads were significantly better.

Meanwhile Brown’s ads became increasingly negative, attacking Warren for past legal work for large corporations. The tone took a toll on Brown’s likability. And they failed to do what the ads were intended to do: put Warren on the defensive in news coverage and cause her to make mistakes that could be exploited in new controversy and new ads.

Brown’s ads were not as appealing as his early ads. They were typical attack ads — ominous music, somber voice-over, animated graphics, and innuendo. And Warren was quick to rebut his ad about the asbestos case with an ad featuring family members affected by the case, with one concluding that Brown “ought to be ashamed.”

The Brown attacks came at a time when voters were somewhat numb to new charges. Earlier, the ads would have stirred more interest. But after months of overwhelmingly negative ads in the presidential race, voters have been tuning out nearly all political ads.

Recent ads from Brown seem to be following a try-everything approach. He has a spot hitting Warren on another case of representing a large corporation, but is recycling some of his earlier spots too. The mixed messaging seems to suggest that the Brown ad team is trying to figure out a closing argument.

Warren’s ad team must be pondering whether to close by reminding voters that if elected she’d make history — becoming the first woman senator from this state. They know that didn’t work for Martha Coakley against Brown, but given that they’ve focused on young, single women as the swing voting bloc, it’ll be surprising if they don’t end on that note.

Brown’s advisers have likely decided that it’s not TV ads that can give him a late surge, but rather the last debate on Tuesday. If then he manages to score well with a “moment” — a revelation about Warren, or poignant pitch for himself — expect to see it in a TV spot.

Todd Domke is WBUR’s Republican analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.

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  • Judah the Kidd

    Spot on!

  • John Y.

    It is amazing that this summary does not list the completely misleading and distorted ad about Brown and women.  It portrays his “choice” supporter as anti-choice.  It portrays this person who clearly believes in equal pay for women as a dinasaur regarding women’s pay.  If Elizabeth Warren is able to distort his views this way, it says little about her “character”.

    Do we really need a fierce liberal in the Senate to represent us or do we need someone who can reach across the aisle and work with the other party to end the gridlock.

    • JD

       Perhaps like saying Warren worked against victims even though that has been proven to be a lie? Or his service in Afghanistan claim? Get a clue T-bagger

      • John Y.

        Yes, they both have distorted the positions of the other.  Name-calling however, is hot helpful in political discussions.

        • JD

           How is calling a Tbagger a Tbagger name calling? And you say he supports all these women’s rights but yet he votes against them? Just like Mitt will work for the middle class if he gets elected, right? That is what he says so it has to be true no matter what his actions are.

          • JD

             Facts too hard to take?

          • John Y.

            Brown’s votes:  You have to look beyond the distorted statements made in the ad.  Brown voted against the women’s equal pay bill because it would have extended the statute of limitations so far back in time that no fair trials would result.   His vote against the supreme court nominee had to do with her limited experience and judicial philosophy.  It had nothing to do with Rowe vs Wade.  (He does believe in “choice” you know).  He voted against the bill requiring  “insurance” companies to provide contraceptives and abortion coverages because it had no adequate exclusion for the Catholic church.  It was a question of “freedom of religion”, not anti-contraceptives.  

          • Sinclair2

            The Catholic Church as an employer has nothing to do with freedom of religion and everything to do with employment laws.  They are no different than any other employer.  They have no right to practice their religion directed toward non-Catholics.

            Elena Kagan is hardly a lawyer with limited experience.  Brown declared Antonin Scalia his favorite Supreme Court justice.  That says it all!

          • John Y.

            I don’t know how you would know if I was an independent, Republican or Tea Party follower.  Thus I assumed that you used the name Tbatter as a pejorative, thus “name-calling”.  BTW I am an independent.

        • JD

           Also, it is funny that now you say they both have done it but you failed to mention his character in your post.

  • Benmartinez

    Obama needs to get 60 percent in Mass to create enough of an undertow to drown Brown? If that’s true, Brown can turn the lights off and lock the door to his campaign headquarters right now. I hear a fat lady, and she’s singing.

    • Grogan

      What Domke says above is that under 60 Obama # guarantees a win for Brown.  I would wholeheartedly agree.  But Domke also says a high 60s would guarantee a win for Warren. Also likely. They grey area between those two scenarios is the tough call. The fat lady isn’t even warming up yet.

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