Campaign intelligence: Halloween comes early

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If the return of pumpkin spice lattés and supermarket candy corn isn’t enough to get you in the Halloween spirit, the answer may be to simply turn on your TV. With the general election less than 40 days away and outside spending ramping up, things are getting scary in the political ad world.

While fear mongering in campaign ads isn’t a new phenomenon (see the Lyndon Johnson campaign’s “Daisy” ad on LivingRoomCandidate.org), in 2014, Sunlight has witnessed an increasing number of third party groups using scare tactics in their TV and internet ads, which we follow through Ad Hawk.

New ad campaigns from well-funded groups like the National Rifle Association and NextGen Action Climate Action illustrate just how emotionally-charged campaign rhetoric can be.

In Louisiana, as Sen. Mary Landrieu struggles to distance herself from Democratic leadership on energy and environmental issues in the oil-rich state, she’s facing a new swipe at her conservative credentials from the NRA, in an ad that equates a vote for the incumbent with a vote against personal safety.

The senator is running neck and neck against Republican Bill Cassidy in a race that’s already attracted over $20 million.

The gun group’s new ad shows a mother and infant at home alone, at night, when an intruder breaks in through the front door of her home. A narrator cautions viewers:

It happens like that [door crashing open] the police can’t get their in time. How you defend yourself is up to you. It’s your choice, but Mary Landrieu voted to take away your gun rights.

The spot ends with the words “Vote like your safety depends on it” emblazoned in capital letters (so you know they’re serious) across a crime scene with flashing police lights.

But armed intruders aren’t the only thing voters have to worry about. NextGen Climate Action, the campaign arm of billionaire coal investor-turned-environmentalist Tom Steyer, has been running hard-hitting environmentally focused ads against Republican candidates in federal races across the country. The super PAC’s hit on Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who’s running to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, was one of its most dire.

With images of billowing smokestacks and a message that the colorado conservative would outlaw common forms of birth control, the spot claims Gardner, who has received plenty of campaign cash from oil and energy interests, would do away with all safeguards against pollution.

Cory Gardner wants it his way. No limits on polluters, so polluters and his big oil backers can dump and profit while taxpayers and our kids pay the price.

The super PAC also recently went live with an ad targeting Florida governor Rick Scott, peppered with images of rising water and extreme weather, in a tongue-in-cheek ad about a fictional ark the Republican was building for his campaign backers.

But while recent spots from NextGen and the NRA are some of the most recent examples of ads that take going negative to the extreme, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. In recent months viewers Arizona and Iowa have seen similarly charged appeals from groups like Americans for Responsible Leadership, which ran an ad featuring an appeal against Martha McSally, R, featuring the mother of a deceased victim of domestic violence and a spot from the National Republican Congressional Committee that told viewers that Democrat Staci Appel, candidate in Iowa’s Third District, supports “passports for terrorists” and is “dangerously wrong” for Iowa. And while emotional electoral appeals may run counter to the notion that voters should make their decision based on a rational, informed choice. This style of advertising has its proponents.

As Republican media consultant Fred Davis wrote in an article for Campaigns and Elections magazine, on what he deems “neuromarketing”:

The idea of neuromarketing is that the use of a base emotional appeal—love, fear, humor, anger—will be more effective than a factual appeal. It suggests that visuals are more readily accepted by the subconscious than words.

Neuromarketing is not magic. It’s not cheating. It’s simply marketing to people in a way that’s most effective. Use pictures. Use humor. Use comfort. Use the same emotions that marketers use each day to tell us about automobiles, beer and banks.

With total outside expenditures already eclipsing $300 million and over a month left until election day, voters in competitive districts should expect to be see plenty more of it.