TV Spots To Soften Elizabeth Warren’s Image

Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren talks to the media after casting her vote on Primary Day in Cambridge, Sept. 6. (AP)
Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren talks to the media after casting her vote on Primary Day in Cambridge, Sept. 6. (AP)

Expect to see a new, improved Elizabeth Warren in her TV ads — a “warm personality” and less “preachy.”

Three weeks ago I wrote a commentary suggesting that Warren’s ads might not be as good as her opponent’s, Sen. Scott Brown. Well, the Warren campaign has snapped into action; they are having meetings to discuss their ads.

Frank Phillips reports in The Boston Globe:

Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren — amid growing unrest from party activists and leaders — is facing pressure to make a major shift in her television advertising with a new series of commercials that seek to soften her image, while focusing more directly on her GOP rival, Senator Scott Brown.

According to top Democratic leaders in Massachusetts, Warren campaign advisers are considering a new strategy that will be aimed at toning down what those leaders call the preachy tone that has dominated her ads until now….

The Warren campaign said Tuesday that no decisions have been made, but advisers conceded they have been feeling pressure regarding the thrust of the media strategy in these final weeks. Warren’s team — including media consultant and former Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald and top adviser Doug Rubin — has been huddled in meetings considering options.

Huddling to consider options? What has taken them so long?

Does the Warren campaign even have a strategy? I raised this question in a commentary on WBUR four months ago:

Will There Be A Campaign Shakeup?

[Boston Globe columnist Joan] Vennochi reported strong “strategy disagreements” between Warren’s local campaign consultant, Doug Rubin, and a Washington-based adviser, Mandy Grunwald. Surely the staff of the national Democratic Party committees must be concerned that Warren’s candidacy increasingly seems like that of Martha Coakley, the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Scott Brown in the special Senate election.

Warren’s consultant was not Coakley’s consultant. In fact, Rubin ran a Democrat against Coakley in that Senate primary, Steve Pagliuca. He came in fourth out of four.

The question in national Democratic circles is probably not whether the Warren campaign needs a new strategy, but rather: do they even have one?

How bad is it? Even liberal comedian Bill Maher, who gave $1 million to a pro-Obama SuperPAC, joked about it on his recent HBO show: “New Rule: (slide of Elizabeth Warren) Elizabeth Warren has to stop dressing like the ‘before’ woman in a beer ad. Granny glasses, check; hair in a bun, got it…"

Warren’s poor image explains why she’s running so far behind Obama in state polls, despite starting off with a positive reputation. Dan Payne, my Democratic counterpart, was on target in his new WBUR commentary when he said Warren needs to change ads, coaching and strategy.

I was critical of Brown’s early TV spot, but his campaign went on to produce effective spots where the focus is on the people in Massachusetts he’s trying to represent — fishermen, veterans, people who drive while not looking at the road.... You don’t have to like him to realize these ads have better production and persuasion values.

With only two months before the election, the Warren campaign has to shift mental gears to produce a new strategy and new ads. That’s not easy. It’s difficult to pull off a big change in how Warren is depicted, image-wise, without raising questions about her authenticity. Remember how Al Gore showed up in three different debates as three different personalities? The chameleon act didn’t go over too well. People mocked him — including on “Saturday Night Live” — for being too eager to please. And Warren likely would not be comfortable with reporters asking if she’s trying to do an Etch-a-Sketch.

To consider how tricky it can be to repackage a candidate who’s been too packaged in the first place, ponder the options…

Changing her image. It’s crass to suggest that voters can be swayed by something as superficial as a candidate’s appearance — especially crass because it’s true. But how can Warren change her hairstyle without it becoming a huge topic in news and conversation? It’s easy to imagine reporters asking her about it. “Professor Warren, we notice you have curlers in your hair. Does this suggest a transition in your image?” And it’s the same issue if she changes glasses. “Professor Warren, could you comment on your glasses — they look like Anderson Cooper’s. What fashion statement are you making now?”

Softening her personality. Some criticized her TV spots for having a complaining tone. They want to see a “warm personality.” How do you do that without seeming contrived? What if she held a kitten while talking about issues, patting him gently — maybe add a bit of purring in the audio. What kind of white cat did that guy have in “Goldfinger”? That cat was quite popular, and it might make some geezers nostalgic.

Evoking Massachusetts. Critics of Warren’s ads say they look generic, scenery-wise, rather than distinctly Massachusetts. Perhaps her advisers forgot Tip O’Neill’s adage that “all politics is local.” But how do they change the visuals without seeming too blatant? Perhaps the ads could shift focus gradually. First, we see her daring to jaywalk across a busy Boston street. Then we see her bicycling on the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge during drive time, whizzing by cars stopped in traffic, waving to aggravated motorists. And then, to top Brown’s spots where he’s driving his own truck, she is seen driving a Duck Tours amphibious bus, pointing out the historic sites to happy tourists.

These are just ideas, people. We have to wait and see what her advisers come up with.

This program aired on September 12, 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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