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Guns Boom In 2014 Campaign Ads

Image from Montana congressional hopeful Matt Rosendale's campaign ad, in which he shoots what he calls a government drone out of the sky. (YouTube)

Political campaign ads come in many shapes and sizes. There's the gauzy candidate profile, and the blaring, biting personal attack. Some are amusing; many are just annoying.

Each year trends emerge. This year, lots of spots are hitting the air featuring candidates with firearms shooting at things: TVs, drones, thick copies of the Affordable Care Act.

The story about this crop of 2014 campaign ads seems to begin with this ad from the last midterm election season: Sen. Joe Manchin's 2010 ad "Dead Aim":

Manchin, the Democratic governor of West Virginia, was running for the U.S. Senate. He wanted to distance himself from an unpopular President Obama.

He mentions his National Rifle Association endorsement, and a close-up shot shows a bullet piercing a stack of papers. It's the cap and trade bill, a White House-backed effort to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

Manchin won the election. Veteran Democratic consultant Karl Struble, who produced the spot, says the ad was successful because "it was authentic. It's who Joe is."

But Struble adds that the campaign was careful not to go overboard.

"I think you need to be sensitive when you talk about a firearm and how to use it. We wanted to make sure we were using it appropriately. That it wasn't interpreted that, in some way, condoning firearms to oppose something politically. So we were concerned about things like that in how we portrayed everything," he says.

Guns as props are not new in campaign ads, but this was firing a shot to dramatically show how much the candidate disliked something.

That ad is still talked about. And in campaigns, like the rest of the world, imitation followed.

Here's an ad from Republican Will Brooke, who is running for Congress in Alabama:

In Iowa, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Joni Ernst fires away at a shooting range, while an announcer says she'll set her sights on Obamacare:

In another ad, Montana congressional hopeful Matt Rosendale shoots what he calls a government drone out of the sky:

And in Alaska, here's Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan taking aim at a TV:

And there's this one, from Democratic congressional candidate Estakio Beltran of Washington state. He blasts an elephant piñata:

Travis Ridout, a Washington State University political science professor who tracks campaign advertising with the Wesleyan Media Project, says these gun ads send multiple messages. "There's certainly that message that I'm one of you, I support gun rights. But there's also that message that I'm frustrated with what's going on in Washington, D.C., and there seems to be no one who can cut through that."

It doesn't work for every candidate. Manchin was well-known and the imagery reinforced who he was. But it's not so simple for political newcomers to use the sound and symbolism of firearms to take a shot and get noticed.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Political campaign ads come in many shapes and sizes. There's the gauzy candidate profile and the blaring, biting personal attack. And each year, trends emerge. Our National Political correspondent, Don Gonyea has noticed lots of spots featuring candidates with firearms, shooting at things including TVs and thick copies of the Affordable Care Act. All of these spots seem to be inspired by a single ad from a few years back.

Here's Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This story about this year's ads actually begins with this ad from the last midterm election season, in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD, JOE MANCHIN 2010 CAMPAIGN)

JOE MANCHIN: I'm Joe Manchin. I approve this ad because I'll always defend West Virginia.

GONYEA: Manchin was governor of West Virginia, running for the U.S. Senate. The ad shows him walking across a field, holding a hunting rifle. He loads a round into the chamber. Looking into the camera, he mentions his National Rifle Association endorsement, then the ad's real point - to distance Manchin, a Democrat, from an unpopular President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD, JOE MANCHIN 2010 CAMPAIGN)

MANCHIN: I'll take on Washington and this administration to get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets. I'll cut federal spending and I'll repeal the bad parts of Obamacare. I sued EPA and I'll take dead aim (sound of gunshot blast) at the Cap and Trade Bill.

GONYEA: He fires a single shot. A bullet pierces its target - the Cap and Trade Bill; a White House-backed effort to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

Manchin won the election. Democratic consultant Karl Struble produced the spot.

KARL STRUBLE: The reason why the ad was successful is it was authentic. It's who Joe is.

GONYEA: But Struble adds, they were careful not to go overboard.

STRUBLE: I think that you need to be sensitive when you're talking about a firearm and how you use it. You know, we wanted to make we sure were using it appropriately, that it wasn't interpreted that you know, in some way, you know, condoning firearms to oppose something politically.

GONYEA: Guns are nothing new as props in political ads, but this was firing a shot to dramatically show how much the candidate dislikes something. The ad was probably the most talked about from that year. It's still talked about. Imitation followed. Let's jump ahead now to this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD, WILL BROOKE 2014 CAMPAIGN)

WILL BROOKE: We're down here to have a little fun today and talk about two serious subjects - the Second Amendment, and see how much damage we can do to this copy of Obamacare.

GONYEA: That's Will Brooke, running for Congress in Alabama. He shoots in super-slow motion at a printout of the law. Elsewhere, in Iowa, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Joni Ernst fires away at a shooting range, while an announcer says she'll set her sights on Obamacare. In Alaska, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, with mountains as the backdrop, carries a handgun - oh, and there's an old TV perched on a rock behind him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD, DAN SULLIVAN 2014 CAMPAIGN)

DAN SULLIVAN: Millions of dollars of negative ads are flooding into Alaska, paid for by Washington special interests. Pretty soon, you're going to want to do this to your TV (sounds of gunshot blasts).

GONYEA: And there's this, from a Democrat in Washington State, who blasts away at an elephant piñata.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD, ESTAKIO BELTRAN 2014 CAMPAIGN)

ESTAKIO BELTRAN: My name's Estakio Beltran and I approve this message (sounds of gunshot blasts).

GONYEA: Travis Ridout is with the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks campaign advertising. He says these gun ads send multiple messages.

TRAVIS RIDOUT: There's certainly that message that, I'm one of you - I support gun rights. But it's also that message of - you know, I'm frustrated with what's going on in Washington, D.C. and it seems like no one can cut through that.

GONYEA: It doesn't work for every candidate. Manchin was well-known and the imagery reinforced who he was. Not so simple for political newcomers using the sound and symbolism of firearms to make a point, but especially, to get noticed.

Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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