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What The Lincoln Project Advertisers Learn About Voters (And What The Demes Don’t)


How did a renegade super-PAC manage to trigger Trump and his allies so thoroughly? Part of it is certainly the frustration that a group of Republicans fully endorses Joe Biden. Part of it is skill: the Lincoln Project’s ads are slick, quick, and full of scathing quotes and unflattering photos. But part of it could just be that Republicans are better at this than Democrats. Trump may feel that these ads are particularly dangerous because they have an emotional impact and use images that are meant to evoke fear, anger and fear – and are aimed at the very same voters who were driven to him by the same feelings in 2016. And history, even science, suggests that it might actually be – that Republicans have a knack for scaring people, and that makes for some strong ads.

Not every Lincoln Project video instills fear. Some are traditional political ads that are overzealously produced and applied to issues that could anger the president: Democrat Steve Bullock’s support for the US Senate in Montana, attack on Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Some are 30- to 60-second versions of the kind of schoolyard mockery you might expect from Trump himself. In “Shrinking,” released after the president’s disappointing rally in Tulsa, a female voice mocks the size of the crowd: “You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected.”

However, the group’s most memorable ads are those that are self-serious and brutal. Within days of news that Vladimir Putin paid the Taliban to target American soldiers, the Lincoln Project posted two ads hammering Trump as a henchman to foreign enemies, using a language that Republicans combined might have used another year to make the Democrats look weak. “Betrayal” features Dan Barkhuff, a former Navy SEAL, who explains that “any commander in chief with a backbone would just stomp the living shit out of some Russians – diplomatically, economically or, if necessary, with some kind of asymmetrical warfare”. they send our children home in body bags. ”“ Bounty ”begins with images of coffins draped with flags and the sound of beating drums, and then turns to a standard attack promotional ploy: carefully spliced ​​clips of Trump and Putin at joint press conferences that The action is drawn out so long that every smile and every handshake looks doubly scary.

Stirring fear is a tried and tested political advertising tactic that dates back to the 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaign anti-Barry Goldwater ad “Daisy”. But many of the most indelible are from the Republican camp and have become more and more blunt over time. Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Bear” commercial used a grizzly as a metaphor for the Soviet nuclear threat: “Isn’t it wise to be as strong as the bear – when there’s a bear?” This ad inspired George W. Bush’s 2004 Wolves, which accused John Kerry of being soft on terrorism. George HW Bush’s infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad linked Michael Dukakis to a prisoner who had committed brutal crimes on a weekend pass and flashed the words “kidnapping,” “stabbing,” and “raping” on the screen. (The ad has since been despised, not only for exploiting racial stereotypes, but also because it paved the way for tough bills with lasting social implications.)

The secret to scare tactics is willingness to go, and this is where the Lincoln Project Republicans could have an advantage over Trump’s leftist opponents. The founders of the group do not target their advertisements on a democratic basis that distrusts the military, penetrates in nuances or shies away from offending. That leaves a lot of room for dog whistle symbols, which range from clichés to horror movie tropes: An advertisement accuses Trump of being played by China and ends with the image of the White House, the entire screen tinted red.

Research has shown that these ads could be effective with Republican voters: Conservatives are a particularly fearful group. In a 2008 article in Science magazine, researchers exposed a group of adults with strong political beliefs to a series of startling sounds and graphic images. Those with the strongest physical reactions were more likely to support the death penalty, defense spending and the war in Iraq. A 2011 article in Cell magazine found a link between conservative tendencies and the size of the right amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions in response to anxious stimuli. In her book Irony and Outrage, Professor Dannagal Young of the University of Delaware points out that liberals and conservatives react differently to entertainment rhetoric: Liberals are more tolerant of overt ambiguity, while conservatives seek graduation and want to solve problems.

This research helps explain why some attack indicators move the needle in the right populations – and why some, with hindsight, don’t. Take Hillary Clinton’s election campaign, “Mirrors,” which aired about a month before the 2016 election. Hailed as an instant classic in certain circles, it featured a number of young girls looking at their own reflection in the mirror while Trump’s voice played in the background saying things like, “I would look right into her fat ugly face. “Mother Jones thought the ad was” powerful “; Bustle called it “brilliant”. But she did not convert the white suburban women Clinton’s advisors were sure to want to reach because she not only preached to the choir but also spoke in the language of the choir. It was too subtle, Young might say, asking viewers to connect the dots instead of hammering in a dramatic point. And it played on voters’ consciences and values ​​- the things that voters need to think about – rather than their raw emotions.

In comparison, Trump’s ads required little thought; the dots are pre-connected with thick sharpie ink. His first ad in 2016, “Great Again,” advertised his willingness to utter the words “RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM,” which the ad showed in capital letters over pictures of masked fighters and photos of San Bernardino riflemen. (The same ad promised that Trump would “cut off the head of ISIS”). including Fox News, refused to run it.

The Lincoln Project also knows how to convey an unsubtle message, and Trump has given it useful raw material. The latest news material makes him look weak and discouraged when he stepped out of a helicopter after his rally in Tulsa and found a MAGA hat hanging from his hand like a dead trout. (The Lincoln Project ad sets the scene with the theme music, “Jurassic Park,” being poorly played on Melodica.) The image of Trump holding up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, intended as a metaphor of strength , is now rendered shorthand for deaf insincerity. Another ad, “#Trumpisnotwell,” mixes the latest video of Trump carefully walking down a West Point ramp with footage from 2018 of him climbing Air Force One, apparently with toilet paper stuck to his shoe. On a line straight from the Trump playbook, the ad suggests that the media is hiding information about his health. “The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, inept, shaky president,” says the narrator about the tones of slasher film music.

It is enough to inspire a tweet storm or six from the president. Recently, Trump and his deputies have tried to fight back by naming the founders of the Lincoln Project “RINOS” and calling the group an elite that Trump fans consider deplorable. Trump has offered counter-images: this week he retweeted a meme of himself in a Uncle Sam pose and pointed menacingly at the camera between the words, “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way. “

But the genius of the Lincoln project advertising is that they are purposefully after Trump, using his own preferred tools of shamelessness and scare tactics, and turning them away from their source. Who knows? It could actually work.


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