By now you've probably seen the Obama ad that juxtaposes Mitt Romney's tender rendition of "America the Beautiful" against information about Romney's extra-national financial activities, including Bain Capital's involvement in outsourcing and the worldwide distribution of Romney's personal accounts. The ad has been praised for its skillful sound design and powerful message, so in attempt to hit back, the Romney campaign countered with its own ad featuring Barack Obama singing.
Unfortunately, the Romney ad is no longer viewable—it has been taken down because of a copyright claim, since Obama is seen singing a line from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." But it's pretty simple—it shows Obama singing that line, then displays information about Obama allegedly rewarding his political contributors and cronies with government contracts and such, while ignoring the middle class. They obviously put it together quickly, but nevertheless, the difference between the two ads provides an excellent demonstration of what makes some political ads effective and others complete duds. Let's look at some of the differences:
Good singing vs. bad singing. Yes, it's trivial, but when you hear Obama sing "Let's Stay Together," your reaction is, "Wow, he's not bad." When you hear Romney sing "America the Beautiful," on the other hand, your reaction is to laugh at how awful he is. So the Obama ad makes Romney look foolish, and the Romney ad makes Obama look cool.
Clear contrast vs. muddle. It's the juxtaposition of Romney singing a patriotic song with the information about him (allegedly) engaging in offshoring and (certainly) moving his money around to overseas accounts that forms the heart of the Obama ad and gives it its power. But what is the fact that Obama is singing supposed to tell us? I assume the Romney campaign put it there because Obama did his little number at a fundraiser, presumably one attended by rich cronies. But the ad never tells you that. All you see is him on the stage, and ordinary people aren't going to remember the event at which he sang. There's no jarring contrast to grab your attention.
Message coherence vs. incoherence. The Obama ad reinforces the broad overarching message of the Obama campaign: that Mitt Romney is an out-of-touch rich guy who doesn't care about ordinary Americans. It's given a bit of a twist in this case, but the picture of him destroying American jobs and moving his millions around to Switzerland and the Caymans is consistent with everything they've been saying about him all along. The Romney ad, on the other hand, offers an entirely new argument about Barack Obama. After spending months saying he's in over his head and is a failure, suddenly the Romney campaign is saying he's corrupt, which is entirely different. And it won't be easy to convince the public that this new criticism is true—Obama's administration has been remarkably scandal-free, and on the whole the voters think he does indeed care about people like them.
Now, for the reality check: There isn't much evidence that one particularly well-crafted ad can make an impact on the outcome of a presidential race. Instead, we tend to use those memorable ads as a way to impose our own post-hoc narrative on what happened during a presidential campaign. And what's "memorable" is what reporters find most interesting, the ads they continue to mention in their stories, regardless of whether they are the most persuasive. Ronald Reagan's "bear in the woods" ad was interesting, because it was entirely metaphorical. But did it actually change anyone's mind? Probably not. If Obama wins, his ad with Romney singing will be one of the ones that gets mentioned over and over, so it'll be one of the ones we remember. Nobody will remember the Romney ad as anything but a misfire.