Ads that use candidates’ own words to create a powerful impact
Hillary Clinton’s campaign ran an ad called “Mirrors” in late September. The ad shows young girls looking closely at each other in the mirror or on their cell phones. A piano melody accompanies the pictures. Then something surprising happens. Donald J. Trump says in his own voice, “I would look right into her fat, ugly face. … She’s a mess, she ate like a pig. … A flat chest person is very difficult to be a 10. … did she have a good body? No.”
Both campaigns used this Viva Voce advertising style this cycle. This may not come as a surprise as it appears to be effective in moving voters.
In “Mirrors,” the images of teenage girls assessing themselves continue to scroll until the last image begs a question – written, not spoken: Is this the president we want for our daughters?
“Mirrors” has aired more than 14,500 times since its debut, mainly in the battlefield states of Florida and Ohio, but also on national cable networks such as TRU TV, A&E and Bravo.
It’s a type of ad that the Clinton campaign did more than once.
John G. Geer of Vanderbilt University and I measure the effectiveness of these and other political ads by asking randomly assigned groups of people to respond and rate them year-round. (The project is called SpotCheck, and you can check out all of the ads we tested and see how people rated them here.)
We tested dozen of campaign ads broadcast by or on behalf of the two big party candidates since June. The viva voce displays stand out in many ways. More people (57 percent) say these ads are memorable compared to Ms. Clinton’s positive ads (only 45 percent). Likewise, 54 percent of those who randomly see ads like “Spiegel” and “Vorbild” see them as true, while only 37 percent believe this about the ads.
Fewer people say the ads using candidates’ votes make them happy (21 percent versus 49 percent) and hopeful (30 versus 54) compared to the ads, and more say they make them angry and concerned. Nearly 75 percent of people who have seen an ad in Mr Trump’s own words said the ad made them angry. Only 43 percent of those who saw one of Ms. Clinton’s advertisements felt that way.
Despite this new use of the genre, ads that use only an opponent’s recorded audio for voice overs are rare. The Clinton campaign has used Mr Trump’s own words against him on several occasions. A similar voice-over advertisement called “Role Models” ran during the conventions showing pictures of children watching TV while Mr. Trump overheard them say, “I love the old days. Do you know what they did to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They would be carried on a stretcher, people. “
He makes fun of a reporter with a physical disability and denigrates Mexicans. “Our children are watching” is the slogan. Ms. Clinton recently ran another of these ads, “America’s Bully,” comparing Mr. Trump to notorious film bullying.
Attack ads generally make people less happy and hopeful, while making them angrier and more concerned, so perhaps the emotional response to the Viva-Voce ads is to be expected. But Ms. Clinton’s traditional attacks were not rated as memorable or truthful as the attacks with the voice of Mr. Trump. This approach seems to get advertising locked in people’s minds (of course, it could also have to do with the things it says).
The ads with Mr. Trump’s audio also moved people’s reviews of him more than the other ads. These ads increased the proportion of voters who rated him negatively by an average of five percentage points. This is more than twice the effect of Mrs. Clinton’s commercials or traditional attack ads.
All in all, Ms. Clinton’s ads did more to improve her own positive ratings than these specialized attack ads, which makes them just as effective at influencing people as the Viva Voce attacks.
What is unusual about “Mirrors” and “Role Models” is how Mr. Trump delivers the entire spoken soundtrack. In 2012, the Obama campaign launched an attack like this against Mitt Romney, but instead of showing Mr. Romney speaking, it used his chant of a version of “America the Beautiful,” which he did at many of his rallies.
The Trump campaign doesn’t have ads like this against Ms. Clinton, although she recently used her own voice against her in an ad called “Deplorables”. In it, Ms. Clinton describes her concept of the “basket of the defendants” and the “half of Donald Trump supporters” that are in it: “the racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes, whatever,” she is heard say as the ad spokeswoman returns to remind viewers that she is talking about “you and you and … you”.
Deplorables was a huge hit when we tested it – largely because it boosted the percentage of voters who rated Mr Trump cheap by nearly double digits while also lowering Ms. Clinton’s stock rating as cheap by two percentage points.
The implications go well beyond the role of partisanship in shaping these views and, in many cases, are particularly noticeable among independent voters. Love them or hate them, these attack indicators, using candidates’ words in their own voice – often with no other spoken audio – prove to be effective at moving voters.