Full Flavour Behaviour!

Obama vs McCain campaign ads
posted Saturday October 4th @ 4:33pm

Not living in the USA I don't have the pleasure of seeing the TV campaign ads in their natural habitat. However, from the few that I saw floating about online I got the feeling that the McCain camp were spending an awful lot of time rubbishing their opponent and not a lot talking about their own candidate. Not only that, I got a very nasty taste in my mouth from all the personal accusations of being unreliable or careless - certainly getting their opinion across at an emotional level but hardly careful, factual critique.

Because I hate to spout off with only a vague opinion for backup, I did some research and watched every ad on the JohnMcCain.com video page. It took a long time - there are sixty-three of them - but I kept a tally of who the main focus of the ad was. To achieve this classification a name had to be mentioned more than once rather than just thrown up in passing. I also carefully considered the real subject of the ad - not always immediately obvious. For example, an ad that was ostensibly about the economy but included no hard facts and was focussed more on Obama having changed his mind a lot got classified as a "personal" subject, meaning the ad was a personal attack on his general character rather than a serious ad about fiscal policy.

The results were.. interesting. By far the most popular topic was indeed, and as I suspected, personal. Whether it was talking up McCain's war hero credentials or trashing Obama's lack of experience, 2 out of 5 ads were primarily about character. That's not leaving a lot of space for real issues. Not only that, I found that more ads talked about Obama than didn't, while McCain was discussed roughly 50% of the time. Wait a minute; that means that his campaign is (marginally, I'll admit) more interested in doing down their opponent than in talking up their candidate. Surreal.

What was really interesting however was doing the same exercise on the Obama website. I found his ads to be much more watchable, both practically (the website plays them in sequence rather than forcing you to skip back and forth between the video index and the player pages) and aesthetically, despite there being more - 74 in total. Obama himself expounds the details of his plans much more often than McCain and there was more of a sense of purpose when the ads were positive. However, what surprised me - and will surprise many, I'll wager - is that the proportion of ads that spent at least some time rubbishing McCain was much higher than for his opponent's ads. Not only that, the proportion of ads talking purely about character rather than specifics was roughly the same.

Some of Obama's ads are fashioned after classical Greek debate; they present one argument and then tear it down with their response. However, purely negative ads are just as commonplace as they are in McCain's playlist. Additionally, in "Low Road Express" there is a really weird juxtaposition: the first half denigrates McCain's personal judgment and then counters with the specifics of Obama's energy policy. Which doesn't really make a lot of sense.

I was very interested to see that the main accusation from each of them was borne out by their opponent's ad topic choices. Obama's tax policy, so viciously and repetitively attacked by McCain, seems strangely under-represented while McCain, so mercilessly rubbished by the Dems on the economy, chooses to go no closer to broad economics than condemning Wall Street. Good grief; does that mean that there might be some truth wrapped up in all this mud?!

Although both were flawed I got a much nastier overall feel from the McCain videos. Despite the statistic I chose to measure coming out the opposite way to my expectations, the insults from the Republican camp feel more strained, more carefully worded, as if they are skating very close to the edge of libel. The Democrats' mudslinging comes across more like the weary naysaying of a stressed parent. What sealed my loss of faith in the GOP tactic was the ridiculous "Where is Obama?", a documentary style ad which included very false feeling interviews, supposedly with Latinos in Illinois. "What has Obama done for Latinos?" they were asked. Well, maybe Latinos in Illinois don't need to be singled out for Barack's assistance, did you think about that? It's a leading, stupid question without some more context. At the end of a hard day's biased reporting our presenter says, "well, here we are back where we started. We worked our tails off, we're tired, I bet you are.. we didn't find Obama though!" Evidently they didn't find the book on continuity at film school either. They are in the same place, in the same clothes.. and sun is in precisely the same position.

Mouse over to see the Obama version of each graph.

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