Here in the UK our campaigns are fairly sedate. Back in 2010, Cameron’s sly smile became more notorious for being defaced rather than the message of the ad itself. In typical British satirical style the rather serious “We can’t go on like this” was, of course, finished off with “with suspicious minds”. But not so in the big old US of A. It’s on those same billboards and TV screens that their leaders fight it out tooth and nail. Often the single largest expenditure in a campaign, it’s quite literally, to use a well-coined phrase, mad money.
And by this we’re talking millions. So far – and note the election is not technically until November – the presidential candidates and their supporters have spent a total of $138.6 million dollars. That’s twice the amount we spent on the Arts Council last year, or roughly the equivalent of UK government spending on the Environment Agency, or half our payout in maternity leave pay. It’s not a small figure – it’s one that can make a huge impact. It’s the power that makes every penny worth it. Americans believe it is a game changer. Massive ad buys are taken in key states. Since the campaign started they’ve been concentrated heavily, by all camps, on Florida and Colorado. Why? Here issue driven politics can make an impact.
There’s something about American politics that we Brits just don’t understand; it’s the emotion. Romney and Obama are currently running a series of tear-jerking ads. You’ll shed a tear at the tale of steelworkers losing their jobs because of Romney’s mismanagement a few years back and your eyes will well up at the persistent unemployment talk of the troubles under Obama.
But what the campaigns try to do, and do best, is create hope. “Change you can believe in” was the message last time around and this time Obama seems to have settled on the message “Forward”. Short, sweet and full of that trusty American optimism. American presidents, and hopefuls, look to the future.
Romney propels “A chance for every child” alongside his “`Day one of a Romney Presidency”. “Day One” runs through his first day plan. It gives viewers hope, reassurance and the feeling of an individual keen to hit the ground running. Ending the era of big government, standing up to China and repealing job-killing regulations – they know what their new President will do.
However, over at the Obama camp, they have hope locked up. It was what saw them through last time. A series of ‘Letter to the President’ ads stir hopeful emotion like no other. Mothers speak of desiring a world for their children where contraception is available to all and a college student speaks of how federal grants and loans helped her to go to college and overcome her disability from a tragic car accident. Obama consistently speaks to the middle class – to the deep American desire to work hard and be comfortable. ‘Hope’ for Obama is giving everyone an equal level on which they can excel with hard work.
Just as gutsy are his forthright stands on LGBT issues – notably the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. The Obama campaign is pushing these ads right now, with the President having recently come out in favour of gay marriage. Romney and the Right have little but negativity to respond with. Whilst Obama supporting Americans proudly sport ‘I’m Out for Obama’ T-shirts, Romney can only refute this gay pride.
Yet negative campaigns are increasingly a feature of American politics. It’s easy to score points by shooting one at the other side. An analysis of the top messages used in ads since the campaign started ranks anti-Obama messages at second, just pipped to the post by government spending. It’s not until the sixteenth place that pro-Obama messages appear. Over the course of the campaign so far the proportions of positive and negative ads are shocking. Just 32 percent of ads have been positive so far. In the run up to Super Tuesday this dropped to to just 11 percent positive. But, between the 13th and 19th of February, an all-time low was reached when 100 percent of ads run were negative.
But beneath this nastiness, American ads are inspiring and enjoyable. They embody the American spirit laced with red, white and blue, complete with triumphant and inspiring backing tracks. Stale British politics could do with being injected with a little stateside soul.