What the TV ads in Iowa tell us about the 2012 Republican candidates: Gone in 30 seconds

Yahoo! News
The Ticket

By Seth Stevenson

The biggest surprise in the Republican presidential campaign in Iowa has been the relative sluggishness—until this week—of the TV propaganda battle. "The Iowa ads started later this year than last time around," Ken Goldstein, the president of Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, told Yahoo News. "Things are only starting to heat up now. This has been a pre-primary season driven by debates, not by ads, and the campaigns have for the most part been content to let it play out that way."

The sheer frequency of the debates has kept them front and center in the conversation. And the key turning points this fall happened either on stage (Rick Perry's deflating "oops") or in news reports (Herman Cain's losing struggle against the skeletons in his closet). Still, the ads the campaigns have launched across the Iowa airwaves offer insight into each candidate's strategic approach to branding. Just as corporate marketing departments seek to shape consumers' feelings toward products, political campaigns try to position their candidates within voters' minds.

Consider Newt Gingrich's sole Iowa TV ad this election cycle.

Titled "Rebuilding the America We Love," the ad steals its stylistic approach from the "Morning in America" ad created by the 1984 Ronald Reagan campaign. Both spots feature gentle, string-and-woodwind-driven scores, and scenes of waving American flags and suburban tranquility.

But while the Reagan ad celebrated an improving national condition, the Gingrich ad is displeased with the status quo and nostalgic for the brighter days of the past. It's a bit incongruous: If conditions are so dire right now (the Gingrich ad's mission statement--"We can and will rebuild the America we love"--implies that our country needs some serious refurbishing), why does the ad emit such a calm, upbeat vibe?

Gingrich needs to fight the impression, aided by a barrage of negative attack ads aimed at him by rival PACs and campaigns, that he is volatile and prone to zany proclamations. So it made little sense to re-introduce him to Iowa with a scaremongering ad full of bleak imagery.

Instead, the Gingrich we meet is almost grandfatherly. He is filmed in a warm light and smiles as he speaks in soothing tones. The financially outgunned Gingrich has used his precious paid TV time to paint himself as a cheerful, conciliatory man of reason. He even strikes a subtly inclusive tone: When his script refers to "respecting one another," the ad shows us a white woman and an African-American man walking purposefully together.

While Gingrich is costumed in a suit and tie amid the dark, wooden bookshelves of a den (perhaps meant to conjure visions of a President Newt toiling late at night inside the White House), Rick Perry has opted for open-collared shirts and canvas Carhartt work jackets. Perry's ad titled "Strong" shows him moseying along the grassy banks of a picturesque river.

Instead of penning up their candidate indoors and filming him in tight close-ups, the Perry team lets us glimpse the physically fit governor on the move, framing the shot to give us an eyeful of his impressive torso—right down to that macho silver belt buckle that fastens his jeans.

Amid a gaggle of candidates whose overarching policy themes can seem indistinguishable (cut taxes, shrink government, dismantle corporate and financial regulations), Perry has seized on a more personality-driven marketing strategy to differentiate himself from the pack. The "Strong" ad attempts to position Perry within two key psychological niches.

First, it depicts Perry as unabashedly, and unapologetically, Christian. Notice the choreography of Perry's right hand when he removes it from his pocket midway through the ad. Watch how he makes a pushing-away, "not for me" motion as he says "gays can serve openly in the military" and then turns open his palm as he says "but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas."

Second, by filming Perry in outdoor, non-work settings and in casual clothes, the ad makes a strong play for the want-to-have-a-beer-with-him voting bloc. Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul do not possess the informal charisma and guy's guy bearing that Perry pulls off effortlessly. The "Strong" ad (even its title is suggestive) puts forth Perry as the candidate you want at your barbecue—quaffing a brewski as he espouses traditional, small-town social norms.

Ron Paul is the demographic outlier in Iowa. In a field of baby boomers, the 76-year-old Paul can look a bit old and slight, overpowered by heartier specimens like Perry and Romney. His ad titled "Big Dog" (again, the title itself gives the game away) attempts to assert Paul's vitality and alpha status as a counter to his somewhat receding, less-than-domineering debate performances.

The visual scheme of the ad borrows heavily from a recent series of ads for the Ford F-150 pick-up, voiced by the actor Denis Leary. Note the similar deployment of bold, animated typography, coupled with an aggressive, almost snarly tone.

The Paul ad's language is bullying—referring to "sorry" politicians who act like "little Shih Tzus." Its imagery verges on the violent: Federal bureaus literally poof into smoke as the announcer assures us of Ron Paul's animosity toward government. A photo of a nerdy government worker is crumpled up and thrown into the path of a honking, rumbling 18-wheeler. The aim here is to appeal to the same sort of male, working-class voters who might be swayed by the Ford spots, while reshaping Paul's image as a take-no-prisoners tough guy who will rough up Washington elites. The ad never shows Paul himself—his comparative physical frailty would hinder the image-crafting effort.

The knock on Mitt Romney has been that he's a shapeshifter, scrambling his identity to align it with the fashion of the moment. Thus it's notable that the first sentence of his ad titled "Leader" has Romney asserting, "I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy."

The other personal quality Romney struggles with is his inability to connect with voters on a personal level. He can seem ill at ease, and voters seem to understand that while Romney is qualified to be president, they're just not sure they like him. To address this failing, the ad shows us a bevy of home-movie clips from the Romney family's archives. The voiceover eschews any mentions of policy positions or political bona fides. Instead, we see scenes of Mitt as a young dad and husband. There are multiple shots of his photogenic wife and children. The Mitt we see here, playing with his kids, is anything but robotic. The ad even allows in a verbal slip from Romney to make him seem less programmed. More recently, the campaign has let Mitt's wife, Ann, do his humanizing for him. (Now if only they could retool his campaign logo, which looks like the Aquafresh "nurdle" and thus raises unhelpful notions of the candidate as a commodity to be marketed and sold.)

It will be fascinating to watch as the campaigns mold their future advertising in reaction to the results from Iowa. When polls reveal why voters did or didn't tick the box for certain candidates, the campaigns will rush to throw up ads with new angles. And while there have already been many negative ads, there's always room for them to get more outrageously insulting. As the candidates get desperate the knives will come out. Sometimes, you learn more about a campaign from the manner in which it smears opponents than from the manner in which it talks about itself.

Seth Stevenson is a columnist for Slate and the author of Grounded.

Other popular Yahoo! News stories:

Want more of our best political stories? Visit The Ticket or connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.