How many times have you seen a political ad? If you're one of our American readers, your answer might be, "What time is it?" For other readers, the answers might vary from, "Every so often," to, "almost never".
Advertising has become a stock tool of the political trade, particularly television advertising. When a major election is on, it can be difficult to avoid political ads, unless like many people you've simply stopped watching television -- though even then the prevalence of online advertising is on the rise.
But let me point out one of the interesting things about political advertising by asking another question. When was the last time you saw a good political ad? Yeah, not so many hands on that one.
Common responses to a political advertising include: eye-rolling, groaning, a sudden interest in the state of the icecubes in your drink, the immediate need to speak with the closest human being about a matter of questionable importance, and channel changing.
As ubiquitous as political advertising has become, it is rarely very good. This is because most political ads aren't designed to be very good examples of the medium. Rather, political advertising's real purpose is to hit you over the head with a message as bluntly and as many times as possible.
Repetition, as they say, is the mother of learning.
So it was not without a sizeable amount of shock that I watched this recent Obama campaign ad, Firms, and thought to myself, "Wow, this is really good. In fact, this might be the best political ad I've ever seen!"
Here are some of the reasons why Obama's ad blew me away:
Good Use of Time: Television advertising is by design very fast paced. You generally have somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30-45 seconds to do what you need to do. Most political messaging is not very succinct and it can be tempting to try to cram as much into your 30-45 seconds as possible. Hit all the points.
This Obama ad specifically avoids doing that. Its message is structured so that it fits well into the 32 second time slot provided. There is no confusion about what you've seen by the time the ad is finished.
Simple: In addition to the simplicity of the message, there is also a simplicity of design that works really well in this ad. The whole aesthetic is pared down to the point of almost being minimalistic. It's not busy; there aren't a whole slew of different cuts; the text on the screen is concise and easy to read. The different scenes are very simply laid out and the whole thing is very easy to watch.
In that regard, the ad hits a compelling note. Its simplicity draws you in by utilizing the old adage: less is more. You find yourself unconsciously leaning forward in your seat because, "This isn't like any political ad I've ever seen."
Not Melodramatic: During the 2008 presidential election, one of Obama's nicknames was, "No Drama Obama". It would appear that name still applies.
One of the eye-rolling qualities of so many political ads is how shrill and dramatic they are. There is a seemingly placid beginning, then you hear some ominous music, followed by an ominous voice, that tells us how ominous your future will be if you vote for that person or don't vote for this person. None of that drama is present in this ad.
The background music is -- brilliantly -- Mitt Romney singing America the Beautiful, which achieves far more resonance than any scored music would. And the fact that Romney is not a very good singer plays into the use of his voice. The tonal dips and misses of Romney's untrained voice as the only real sound in the ad, again, draw you in and make you wonder, "What the heck is this?"
Additionally, the presentation of information is all very factual and straight forward. More about that below.
Location of Analysis: There is also a smart outcome that the Obama campaign achieved by using newspaper clippings for messaging. The location of the analysis for the ad falls outside of the campaign. Rather than coming up with their own headlines, Obama's people borrow already published headlines from major newspapers.
The campaign isn't a manufacturer of the analysis so much as a curator and the frame for the analysis is one of reporting instead of rhetoric. This really helps to ground what is being said and gives it an extra dose of credibility. This isn't politics, it's simple fact.
Use of Direction: Although the ad is quite short, it has a very strong sense of direction (something I felt was noticeably missing from Obama's ironically titled Forward video).
The ad starts out with Obama walking outside of the White House, along with the necessary note that he approves of the message. We then flip to the only picture of Mitt Romney we ever see, at a rally, singing the song. This is who the message is about.
Then come two scenes of empty factories along with the messages about Romney shipping jobs out of the US. Following the factory scenes we are taken to a corporate boardroom where Romney has continued his tendency towards moving jobs out of the country to his role as Governor.
Then we leave the US altogether and find ourselves overlooking a scene in Sweden, where we're told Romney had millions in Swiss bank accounts. Eventually, we wind up on the beaches of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, where Romney took advantage of substantial tax havens so as to avoid paying his fair share into the system he'd systematically dismantled.
The direction is subtle and yet entirely obvious: we start in the place that most accurately depicts the day-to-day life of the average American and we move steadily away from that reality until we're floundering on beaches of white sand and sapphire blue ocean. The message is clear: no matter what he says, Mitt Romney doesn't understand your life and the challenges you face.
Indeed, the closing text says as much, but interestingly without ever actually using those exact words.
Treats the Viewer With Respect: The thing I like most about this ad is that it assumes the average viewer is an intelligent person who doesn't need to be hit over the head with a message and can make up their own mind. As noted, this is exceedingly rare in political advertising.
The message to whole thing is clear, but also subtle. There are no over-the-top tips of the hat about the conclusions you're supposed to draw because you're, "probably too stupid to get it." The ad assumes, "you'll get it" and just carries through to the end with that assumption.
Going back to the final sequence, the choice of words is notable: Mitt Romney's not the solution, he's the problem. The "solution" and the "problem" aren't specifically indicated, those are conclusions for you to draw. And the rest of the content is flexible enough to fit into a number of different formulations.
While this is an attack ad, it presents in a way that gets you thinking and in a proactive rather than just a reactive kind of way. How often can you say that a political ad stimulates your thinking in the way that this one does?
All of those things, plus the clean, crisp, professional delivery of the ad make it a stand out from any ad I've ever seen and one I'll not soon forget. As a friend on Facebook noted, pundits are already likening it to the infamous Daisy ad from Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 campaign -- though, that speaks more to the Obama ad going down in history as Daisy goes in the opposite direction of so many of the things that I liked about Firms.
But enough about me, what do you think about Obama's ad?