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Column: Political Advertising 2020: The Good, the Bad and the Deceiving


The 2020 campaign is well on its way to breaking records: not just in terms of votes, but also in terms of money spent and television advertising broadcast.

More than 5 million campaign ads have already appeared on screens, more than twice as many as in 2016. TV and digital advertising spend nearly $ 8 billion.

In Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina and other states on the battlefield, television screens are flooded with non-stop campaign advertising for weeks. As election day approaches, campaigns are also being broadcast nationwide.

Joe Biden is so rich in cash that he bought TV time during the World Series baseball and NFL and college football games to reach out to male voters, a group that polls said favor President Trump.

In the age of social media, it may seem strange that campaigns should rely so heavily on a medium that has been around since 1952, when Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower unveiled the first political television commercial.

But strategists on both parties believe that television still works, especially when campaigns target “low-information voters,” a rude term for most of the undecided few.

It is questionable whether the ads are inexpensive. But running a high-stakes campaign is like an arms race: nobody wants to risk being over the top or being inferior.

“The amount of money that both sides have is so big that efficiency doesn’t matter,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former advisor to President Obama. “This is especially true in a pandemic, when large rallies and local customer solicitation are off the table.”

But the flood of advertising isn’t all bad. Like jazz, blues, and musical comedy, campaign advertising is a uniquely American contribution to civilization – just not as uplifting.

At best, commercials can be tiny works of art.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” advertisement, in which a child picking a flower superimposed on a nuclear explosion, was so harrowing that it only aired once. President Reagan’s 1984 Morning in America was a brilliant, winning message of optimism.

This year’s commercials might not be as memorable – maybe because they reflect the candidates they’re trying to sell.

Most of Trump’s ads were hectic, angry, and negative. Like his campaign, they have slipped from one embassy to another – first falsely claiming that Biden supported the definition of the police, then falsely claiming that the Democrat is a puppet of the socialists, and are now moving in the direction of an optimistic message about that Reopening of the economy.

Biden’s ads are quieter, more consistent, and full of feel-good images. They often don’t mention Trump at all – and when they do, it’s usually with the voices of common people expressing disappointment with the president.

Biden’s first World Series advertisement was an updated version of Reagan’s Morning in America, a paper-thin travelogue so crammed with Americana, one reviewer wrote, “that even apple pie could blush.”

That election was widely viewed as a referendum on Trump, but most of the advertising on both sides focused on the definition of Biden. The Democratic candidate is less known to many voters than the incumbent, whose antics have dominated politics for four years.

Biden’s commercials portray him as a sensitive leader who can put the nation back together. Trump’s ads seek to portray him as a weak career politician who would jeopardize the nation’s prosperity.

Here is my list of the most interesting ads so far.

Best positive ad, Biden: “Go From There”. The World Series commercial told in the syrupy, stretched voice of actor Sam Elliott. “Joe Biden doesn’t need everyone in this country to always agree,” he says. “Just to agree that we all love this country and move on from there.”

Best positive advertisement, Trump: “Great American Comeback”. An optimistic picture of Trump’s drive to reopen the economy despite the pandemic, with the warning that Biden would “shut it down”.

Best negative ad, Biden: “Donna”. A grandmother complains that the pandemic prevented her from seeing her grandchildren. “I don’t blame Donald Trump for the virus,” she says. “I blame him for his inaction.”

Top Negative Ad, Trump: “Break In,” a mini-thriller that features an elderly woman calling 911 to report an intruder, but all she gets is a shot. “Joe Biden wants to disappoint the police,” said the ad. “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” The accusation is wrong: Biden says he is against defusing police stations.

Self-inflicted wound: “Careful.” A Trump advertisement praising the president for “tackling the virus head-on, as leaders should be doing”. But it uses a clip from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, who deceptively made him sound like he supported Trump. When Fauci complained, Trump denounced him as “a disaster,” a jumble his campaign didn’t need.

Most likely to be remembered: “Mourning in America” ​​by the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans. A remake of Reagan’s 1984 ad in reverse that got under Trump’s skin and sparked a president’s killing spree on Twitter.

Rather effective: “It’s Okay to Change Your Mind” by another dissident group, Republican Voters Against Trump. Ordinary Republicans explain why they want to vote for Biden – a message designed to convince others to leave the president.

Best Senate, Republican: We Can Do Better, John James, Michigan. One GOP challenger admits 2020 was “terrible” and promises to be a change.

Best Senate Prop, Democratic: “Drain the Swamp,” Amy McGrath, Kentucky. A rude Trump voter condemns the votes of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for trade deals as “crap, in my book” and says he is voting against McConnell because “36 years is enough”.

Best advertisement in the House of Representatives: “Texas Reloaded”, Dan Crenshaw, Texas. A mock action film joins six Republicans for “Mission Impossible.”

Have fun watching.


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