During the presidential campaign, ads saturated the airwaves. The candidates pulled out all the stops — from using war stories to other languages to text messaging or whatever other symbols might work. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Journal’s resident scholar of spin, deconstructs the real messages behind these advertisements.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
‘Tis the season for images, and I’m not talking Oscars. Presidential campaign ads are saturating the airwaves. You’ve seen them. Clinton’s in Espanol, McCain’s POW ads, and Obama’s rock star videos. Each tells a story but there is more than meets the eye. What are they supposed to convey, and do they really move people the way their creators hope?
Tonight, we’ll take apart, we’ll deconstruct some of the images whose messages you may be receiving without knowing it. Here to help me is our expert discerner, our resident scholar of spin, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Are you ready?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I’m ready.
BILL MOYERS: I’m seeing spots before my eyes. I mean, Obama has spent– seven million dollars on cable and TV ads in Texas and Ohio. Hillary Clinton has spent four million dollars. According to the WASHINGTON POST this week, Obama has run 57,000 30-second cable and TV spots. And Hillary Clinton has run 31,000 cable and TV spots. Why so many ads when the object next Tuesday is to get out the vote? They seem still to be trying to get out their message.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, they’re trying to do both. And part of what’s interesting about those numbers is they obscure something that’s very important, that’s happening. Those numbers are talking about the old way in which we looked at politics. When we look at the National Annenberg Election Survey, which is the survey at the University of Pennsylvania, and we asked: In the last week, have you gone to YouTube to find political content? More than ten percent of the national sample says they have. YouTube, the Internet has become a major means of communicating about candidates, in addition to the mass media channels.
And part of what they’re doing on this channel is different, candidate to candidate. So when you look at the ads for Barack Obama across the recent primaries and caucuses, in some of those ads, you see an instruction that I bet went past you when you saw all those spots. And certainly, it passed me, until I asked one of the students what it was doing there. It says, “Text hope.” And then it gives you a number.
BILL MOYERS: Wait. Text H-O-P-E
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: H-O-P-E, the theme of the Barack Obama campaign and then, a number. That’s a communication to say if you have text messaging on your cell phone, text in “hope” and that number. And the Obama campaign begins to communicate directly to you. You’re putting in a zip code, and it tells you where the nearest rally is, when you’re supposed to be voting, when the caucus is being held.
And so, the channels of communication this year are highly diverse. And then there’s one more. I’m in Pennsylvania. We’ve been watching the internet communication that candidates deliver through email. Now, why would they want to text message, rather than email? Remember, Pennsylvania primary, 22nd of April– have been instructions about how to get together in order to be trained to participate in the volunteer pool to get people to the polls. That’s a form of advertising. Text messaging advertising, Internet advertising. And then, an unprecedented amount of money on the air. This is a year in which there’s been more communication than ever in the history of primary, to more people about candidates.
BILL MOYERS: Aren’t these text messages going to kids who aren’t old enough to vote?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: They may be. But they’re not going to people who aren’t old enough to volunteer. There’s no age barrier to volunteering. And what’s important also, in the advertising stream this year, is that there is advertising to the young about issues of concern to the young.
The Obama campaign has pioneered this. There is one Hispanic language ad for Senator Obama, in which a young person basically explains why it’s important to get your parents involved for Obama. We know there’s a generational divide. Older voters, more likely, particularly older women will be with Senator Clinton, younger, with Senator Obama. This is a trickle up theory. Get the young to influence their parents.
BILL MOYERS: I went online to listen to some the ads in Texas. And there’s one in Spanish for Obama that’s remarkable. It– a lot of young people are in it. And you hear this– this singer saying– “Como se dice, como se llama, Obama, Obama.” Which means, “Who is this, what’s his name? Obama, Obama.” It’s very effective.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There’s another that basically runs through every identifier you could possibly have if you’re Latino. So it basically says, if you’re from Brazil, if you’re from and then it lists one country of origin after another. And what do we have in common in this Spanish language radio ad? We’re all supporting Obama.
The level of communication to the Hispanic community this year is going to be higher than it’s ever been in history as well, in part, because that’s a voting bloc that is not only contested strongly on the Democratic side, with an early advantage to Senator Clinton. And Senator Obama would like to take that away. But also, that’s a voting bloc that is open for realignment. It could come to one party or the other this year over the immigration debate.
BILL MOYERS: What can ads do that speeches and debates and news stories can’t do?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Because advertising lets you speak in someone else’s voice, and speak with visuals and with audio materials and with music, ads are able to attach emotion to a story that tells voters who you are without making it look as if you’re self-aggrandizing.
BILL MOYERS: A biography?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: A biography. And back to the earliest days of politics, biographies– literally, print biographies were written and distributed to tell people who the candidate is who is contesting for the presidency. The biographical ad is a staple in political campaigns. And it’s important for a number of reasons.
First, we elect a person, not a set of issues. And we elect a person who will act in unanticipated moments. And you want to know, as a result, as a voter, who is it? Can I trust you? That on the attributes that are most salient in an election, does this person have them? And some attributes are a constant. Leadership is one of them. Some are actually featured in some elections and less so in others. Before 1976, candidates weren’t claiming that they were honest. They were presupposing that they were honest. After Watergate, Jimmy Carter built a campaign on it, as did then incumbent President Gerald Ford.
BILL MOYERS: And that’s BC, before Carter, right?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. And so, what a biography is able to do is to say this is where I come from, this is what motivates my candidacy, this is who I am. It also provides the rationale that links the person to the issue positions, and the person to the claim, I will keep my promises. So, for example, in the historic past, what you’ve seen is candidates who have tried to translate a moment in biography into a claim that that moment credentials them to be president. For Dwight Eisenhower, it was the hero of World War II.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And then, a biography tells you something you didn’t know. It fills in to create a rebuttal against something that might be a vulnerability.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: He’s the man from Abilene.
Announcer: The Man from Abilene! Out of the heart land of America out of this small frame house in Adeline Kansas, came a man Dwight D. Eisenhower. Through the crucial hour of historic D- Day he brought us to the triumph and peace of historic VE Day now another crucial hour in our history. The big question:
Reporter: General if war comes, is this country really ready?
Eisenhower: It is not. The administration had spent many billions of dollars for national defense, yet today we haven’t enough tanks for the fighting in Korea. It is time for a change!
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: So you don’t have to be afraid that the general exercised military power without respect for civilian roots — The Man from Abilene. And so, the ad that launched that candidacy took away the fear that a general might be too military, might be too high brass for the country. He was a civilian at core.
BILL MOYERS: As you speak, I’m reminded of an ad I saw of Obama’s this week. And there’s one line in it that struck me as eccentric. It’s a line in an ad where he says, “And my father left me when I was two years old.” And I thought, why does he want us to know that? No other reference to it. But it’s right there, prominent in the ad.
OBAMA: My parents weren’t rich. My father left me when I was very young. The one thing I was able to get was a great education. We should give every child the same chances that I had. By investing in early childhood education and recruiting a whole new generation of teachers.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think he’s saying that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We want to know where a president comes from. And there are two very different stories in biographies of presidents. There’s a president who overcame all odds to be in front of us as a prospective nominee. That’s Bill Clinton, that’s Jimmy Carter. That’s Barack Obama.
BILL MOYERS: The boy against the odds?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The boy against the odds. And what is a greater odd than a child raised with only one parent? And what does it say when Barack Obama features the fact that he was raised by his mother? The heroism of the woman. And by his grandparents. In his speech, he basically reinforces that. Raised by his mother and by his grandparents. But what did he have in both of these stories, what he tells in his speech and in the ad? He had access to education. Now, here the ad certifies the prospective presidency and ties to issues.
BILL MOYERS: Like Clinton goes off to Yale; Obama goes off to Harvard.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: He goes off to Harvard. He then comes back to serve his community. Both Clinton and Obama, in their life story, made a choice not to go on and become wealthy with their Ivy League law degrees. Instead, to go back and serve their community.
The Obama ad does something else. His ad tells you, and his speeches tell you that education is what made his life possible. And what does he want to do as a result? He wants to guarantee quality education. He wants to have high quality teachers. Now, a theme of the campaign, a promise in the presidency, is pulled out of biography and is given credibility for that. It’s motivated by the life story. That’s effective biography.
BILL MOYERS: Interesting. There’s one of Obama’s ads that I call the Woodstock ad. Let’s take a look at it.
OBAMA: I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message. We want an end to this war and we want diplomacy and peace!! Not only can we save the environment, we can create jobs and opportunity…
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: This is a momentum ad. Look at all of those people supporting me, and the music is underscoring that. But why would you call it a Woodstock ad? And do you think that makes any sense to anybody who’s under 50?
BILL MOYERS: No, but it makes sense in the cultural wars, because the conservatives will want to come after Obama the same way they came after Bill Clinton. Because he represents the drive, the leftist divide on the other side of the chasm of the 1960s.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What do you see in that ad that you hear as leftist divide?
BILL MOYERS: Well, stop the war, save the planet. The music, the massed– the thronged crowd.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: So what you’re doing is saying, I hear this message as a message like the message of the 1960s.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And I identify that with Woodstock.
BILL MOYERS: But I see it in terms of the conservative attack in the ’80s, and the ’90s, on the Clintons.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I hear that ad as the expression of all of the ideals of the young for a future that is different, in which we don’t assume that we can’t accomplish these large objectives. And we can envision a different kind of world. I see that as a mobilizing ad that is trying to communicate with its visuals that there is an army of the young ready to embrace this kind of change and help to work to make it possible.
But what that illustrates is, people create meaning out of messages based on their own repertoire of experiences. And some people will see an ad one way, and some people will see it in a very different way.
BILL MOYERS: But what I’m saying is that Woodstock, for conservatives, has a very negative connotation that they use against liberal Democrats of a certain age.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What Woodstock in that context, means, you know, sex, drugs, rock and roll. I mean, it’s like sex, drugs, and alternative music, challenge to the establishment, kinds of behaviors that would make, you know, the middle of America– some people of middle America being at Woodstock nonetheless– but would make them cringe. So that’s the symbolism wrapped up in Woodstock.
And it’s referenced in the Republican side when John McCain says that he wasn’t at Woodstock. He was, you know, tied up at that point.
RUSSERT: McCain spent five years, in a box. Baking in the heat.
ROEMER: Broken bones. Torture. Mistreatment. Malnourished.
BUD DAY: I took one look at him he weighed about 95 pounds and I said these people dumped this guy on me so they could claim that we let him die.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That’s a Web ad. And it was put in place not to be aired nationally, but rather, because in the South Carolina primary, an individual was making allegations about Senator McCain’s POW service. The McCain campaign edited this together as a rebuttal. Reporters were encouraged to go and take a look at it. Senator McCain never then had to put in place any of that in public.
BILL MOYERS: He didn’t have to answer it?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: He didn’t have to answer it.
BILL MOYERS: The ad spoke for him.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And the most powerful thing that can happen with any communication is that something emerges on your radar screen, and the audience draws in the rebuttal on its own. You never want to say, “I am the hero.” You never want to say, “I underwent all of this.” It sounds self-aggrandizing. You want someone else to say it. And you want the audience to fill it in on its own when the charge is raised. So someone else has to do this.
In the case of that Web ad, they have Tim Russert doing it, along with POWs who were there with him in the Hanoi Hilton. That’s a very effective use of the web. And it wouldn’t have been effective had it been mass mediated ad.
BILL MOYERS: If Obama’s biography in the ads you’ve been watching is the boy against the odds, what’s the biography you see in McCain’s ads?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: McCain falls into the other tradition. A person who came into a family with a long military tradition, and very distinguished military tradition. And has to make the decision about whether he’s going to be part of that tradition. He enters the military, he is shot down. And he has a chance to make the decision about whether or not he’s going to be released. Because his Vietnamese captors find out who his father is. And there would be propaganda value to them-
BILL MOYERS: His father’s an admiral.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: His father’s an admiral. His father actually has to make the decision about whether or not the site that the son is at is going to be bombed. And his father makes the decision that it’s going to be. Now you have the stuff of movies. This is a lot like PT 109 for John Kennedy. The natural narrative under this is almost filmic. The father makes the decision. The son hears the planes dispatched by the father. He might actually be killed in that bombing.
In that context, this is the story of the young man born to privilege who decides to serve, and becomes a hero. Because he suffers torture, because he does not take the release that is offered. And then, chooses to come back and represent his country. The natural extension of that is he continues to serve and he becomes president. And so, his story is one of the transformation that occurred in the Hanoi Hilton motivating a life of service that culminates in the presidency.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a subplot to McCain in the ads I’ve been seeing. And- it is this idea of the old soldier called back, you know, to serve his country again. Right? Do you see that in these ads?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The rebuttal for Senator McCain to the challenge that he is too old to be president– and interestingly, a Pew poll shows that when people are asked for open-ended responses to Senator McCain, old is coming up as one of those responses.
BILL MOYERS: Ageism– creeps in.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Or age as an issue comes in. The question then becomes, can your biography rebut that charge? The way Senator McCain tries to do that is 35 years of service starting with the the time I raised my hand to enter the military. And I’ve been there in every major foreign policy moment in between.
The underlying question then becomes, do you want all of that experience– that’s the pivot– or do you want the comparative inexperience of my opponent? Age translated into experience. Because the vulnerability for Senator McCain is not simply the question of age, which he tries to transform with that rebuttal from the biography. But rather, that people feature Keating Five.
BILL MOYERS: The Keating Five. That’s the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s, in which– McCain was implicated with one of his big contributors, right?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And not notice how, when I said Keating Five, you filled in a- story. The story that you filled in is a story that doesn’t help Senator McCain. And then, if you piece into that story his rebuttal to THE NEW YORK TIMES allegations, had him not meeting with someone he may, in fact, have met with, now you’ve begun to take a story into this narrative of heroism and principled determination.
BILL MOYERS: That undermines him?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That undermines him.
BILL MOYERS: Eats away at it?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Eats away at it.
BILL MOYERS: So Obama’s ads and McCain’s ads are telling us the life story in short verse, that Obama and McCain want us to know about? A biography being written in front of our eyes. Are you getting the same biography are you getting a biography from Hillary Clinton’s ads?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No. And very early in the campaign, Hillary Clinton said in her speeches that she was the most famous person you didn’t know. That would have been an invitation to create the ad that gave you the biography that wasn’t part of your public experience of the Clinton presidency.
Middle class girl from middle class family in Chicago. Father was a veteran. So what she needed to do at the very beginning of the campaign in an ad, was tell the biographical story that answered the question, who were you before you married Bill Clinton? Who were you in the White House? Were you a co-president or were you something else? What did you agree with? What didn’t you agree with?
BILL MOYERS: What we know about Hillary Clinton is what other people have told us.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What we know about Hillary Clinton is what we lived through in the Clinton administration, what we’ve read in the press. And it’s a very strong narrative that doesn’t create the coherent biography that she could be using right now to answer some of the charges to which she’s vulnerable.
BILL MOYERS: Hillary Clinton has what I think is an effective ad in which she presents herself– she’s not talking. She’s listening. You know that ad?
ANNOUNCER: For every soldier who served so bravely over there, but is ignored over here, she hears you. For every national guard and reservist who leaves their family behind, she hears you. That’s why Hillary Clinton reached across the aisle to expand access to health care for the national guard and is pushing to protect the bonuses of wounded soldiers.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There’s a story under that sense, of who Hillary Clinton is. Because that was the basic argument she made when she ran for Senate. Let me read you a line from THE NEW YORK TIMES, from March 6th, 2007, that tells you what one construction of Hillary Clinton is, as opposed to another. THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 6th, 2007. “As a Senate candidate in 2000, Mrs. Clinton embraced the role of an attentive listener. As opposed to the power hungry climber many have suspected.”
In Hillary Clinton’s biographical past is the health care reform efforts in 1993-94, in which she is accused of conducting a process that was closed door, that didn’t bring the friends that might have been there to help her, into the room to help work it out. Hillary Clinton, who is accused with Bill Clinton, of not working through the compromises with those who had legislation pending that might have worked with the Clinton proposal, to ultimately produce health care reform in spring of 1994.
So, closed, secretive meetings. Climber, aggressive, calculating. Hillary Clinton– Hillary Clinton, the listener. That campaign was built on it. There’s a ad in this election that reprises that theme. And if you’re gonna say you’re a listener, what does the ad have to do? It has to show you listening.
BILL MOYERS: It also reveals an empathetic person, – a woman with a- nurturing quality, right?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And if you have to do two things as a woman seeking the presidency, certify that you’re tough enough to be Commander in Chief, and at the same time, caring enough to be an authentic Democrat, and also to be an authentic woman. It’s important for Hillary Clinton to not lose track of that second message.
The attacks against her all go to that facet of her biography. They suggest that yes, she’s tough. But tough equals calculating. Tough equals secretive. Tough equals– and then fill in all of the stereotypic blanks, and also all the pieces of the biographical past that include closed door meetings on the health care reform initiative.
BILL MOYERS: There was an interesting appearance by her in Youngstown, Ohio, earlier this week, when she was given a pair of boxing gloves. And she turned that into a symbol, right?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The problem with boxing gloves is it’s the wrong kind of fighting. First, a woman’s naturally disadvantaged the minute you go to a boxing metaphor. But more importantly, that moves into a game reference point, not to the point that she highlights in one of her ads, in which she features the fighter theme, but she showed her identification with people who came back from the National Guard. And it identifies her with her issue position, fighting to get them benefits.
BILL MOYERS: There was a Hillary Clinton ad this morning, Friday morning, on THE TODAY SHOW.
ANNOUNCER: It’s three AM and your children are safe and asleep. But there is a phone in the White House and its ringing. Something is happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call. It is someone who already knows the worlds leaders, knows the military; someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It’s 3 AM and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?
CLINTON: I’m Hillary Clinton and I approve this message.
BILL MOYERS: So how do we measure the effectiveness of an ad?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: You measure the effectiveness of an ad by whether, after seeing the ad repeatedly aired, people are more likely to see as important the issue that is featured in the ad. Whether the attributes of the candidate that are being offered are more important to the voter than they were before. Whether the voter is able to feel the impulse to go into the voting booth and actually cast the vote.
Because there’s an element of emotion in all of this. And if an ad is successful, you come away confident that that’s the person you want in the unanticipated moment in the Oval Office making the consequential decision. Good ads actually manage to increase the likelihood that you have that feeling. Ads that don’t do that have largely failed to do what advertising is capable of doing, if advertising has a candidate with a strong biography and a strong record.
BILL MOYERS: Kathleen Hall Jamieson thanks for being with us.
This transcript was entered on June 13, 2015.