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.

This program aired on October 25, 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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