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.

This program aired on August 20, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Todd Domke

Todd Domke Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.



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