Campaign ad watch: McCain and the use of humor

Jake Turcotte

Now that the first forum between the two candidates is over and we head toward the two conventions, will we see a change of tone in campaign advertising? Or will we see more of the same?

As part of a continuing series, we will speak to individuals from both parties and ask them about current campaign ads, trends and how they would advise the campaigns.

Up first, Dan Schnur. Schnur was the national director of communications for Senator John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. Schnur is now the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Q: Who is winning the advertising game so far?

Schnur: If you would have asked me three weeks ago, I would have said Obama but this latest round of McCain ads has really redefined the playing field.

Q: When you saw the first McCain "celebrity" ad, what was your impression?

Schnur: I will admit that I misjudged the first one, but when I saw the follow-up that talked about Obama's celebrity without the references to the two girls [Paris Hilton and Britney Spears], I realized how effective it was.

Personal criticism of your opponent is almost always going to cause a backlash unless you can find a way to link it to a policy matter. And these celebrity ads, particularly the follow up ones, have done an outstanding job of linking criticisms personally to Obama's policy credentials.

If they would have continued to run ads with Paris and Britney, it would have trivialized the point they were trying to make. But they used the two girls to grab people's attention and then shifted in the next ads to a more direct link between Obama's own celebrity and his lack of policy chops.

Q: How long do you think they can keep this up? Can it be an ongoing theme?

Schnur: If all they do is call him a celebrity, that's just name-calling. But if they link his fame and notoriety to his questions of substantive grounding, they can keep on this track for awhile.

Q: Did Obama wait too long to respond to the celebrity ads?

Schnur: Not really. If he had responded with the same type of ad of his own, it would have called even more attention to what the McCain campaign was trying to accomplish. They waited a little bit. Things settled down. Then they used the same celebrity hook to make a point about McCain that they've already been making.

Q: The use of comedy in campaigning. These ads are kind of wacky and zany. How effective are they?

Schnur: This is a way to grab voters' attention.There are so many things competing to catch the eyes and the ears of the voters. You need something that is a little bit different to cut through.

Humor is risky but when it works it is a very effective way of cutting through the noise.When it doesn't work you get egg on your face. That's why presidential campaigns don't do a lot of humor because it is so risky.

Q: Do you think that you can run humorous ads after the convention? Or does it get too dicey?

Schnur: Very good point. The closer you get to election day, the higher the stakes become for most voters. So humor becomes even more risky. In August, you can get away with more.

Q: What do you say to people who say nothing matters now because no one pays attention.

Schnur: Not right. Most normal people aren't paying attention yet. But the first concentric circles of impressions are being made. The political and media communities are watching very closely. So the groundwork for the impressions that the average voter develops in September and October are being developed right now.

Q: Most effective ad of the campaign so far?

Schnur: [Hillary Clinton's] 3 am ad. It cut through the noise. It was sufficiently dramatic to get voters to pay attention in ways they might not have otherwise. The McCain campaign may end up benefiting from the 3 am ad but they are probably not going to come up with anything better.

Q: You think we'll see any surprises at either convention?

Schnur: Yes, but I haven't the slightest clue what. There is probably more pressure on McCain to do something out of the ordinary than Obama. Obama's job right now is not to do anything risky. McCain on the other hand has to re-establish his maverick brand. Saying or doing something at the convention could be a good way of doing that.

Q: What are your thoughts of Obama speaking at Invesco stadium?

Schnur: Great for him if he can pull it off. You might as well play to his strength.

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