The Good, Bad, And Ugly Of This Year's Campaign Ads

As the election season ends, so does the ad season. With close to a billion dollars spent on presidential TV ads and more than a million spots, do any ads stand out as memorable? Well, they certainly don't do what "Morning in America" did for Ronald Reagan. So while negative ads may be effective — and therefore plentiful — they're unlikely to stick in the mind.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Forty-five thousand ads against Sherrod Brown alone, and it's not just Ohio. Across the country, Americans suffered through more than 1 million presidential TV spots, most of them remarkably negative. And so TV lovers take heart, the end is near. But first, a quick look back.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, this election cycle may have been big on quantity, but election experts say it was woefully short on quality.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Just think. If you're lucky to live in a state like Iowa or New Hampshire, one with an early caucus or primary, you've been watching presidential campaign TV ads for more than a year. The campaigns and outside groups have spent, according to NPR's tally, $936 million on TV ads. What do they get for their money? John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, was not impressed.

JOHN GEER: I think in general, the ads were what I would term uninspired. They seemed to be rushed. They're just trying to respond to the message of the day rather than trying to speak to an overall theme. And I think that's a big problem.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Vanderbilt had an online ad rating project. Geer said one spot, which voters found memorable, was an Obama campaign ad which attacked Mitt Romney. It featured footage of Romney singing "America the Beautiful" at a campaign rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

MITT ROMNEY: (Singing) O beautiful for spacious skies for amber waves of grain...

NAYLOR: The graphics charge Romney with outsourcing jobs to Mexico and China and having, quote, "millions in Swiss bank accounts." One notable feature of this year's campaign was the amount of spending by outside groups on the presidential election. American Crossroads and its affiliate, Crossroads GPS, founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, spent nearly $170 million on ads attacking the president, like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Poverty, unemployment, fading hopes. That's not the change we voted for. There is a war on women in America, and it's hurting real women every day. We just can't afford another four years.

NAYLOR: This ad also fit into both campaigns theme of a war on women. The Obama campaign used ads attacking Romney's stance on abortion and contraception, while Republicans focused on how the poor economy hit women especially hard. Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a fellow at the University of Texas, says the Crossroads ad is a twofer.

DR. VICTORIA DEFRANCESCO SOTO: It highlights the groups that were most affected by the recession who also happen to be the staunchest supporters of President Obama, so African-American women and Latinas. So they're saying to these groups of women, they're saying: Hey, you had it the worst. Give us a try. We can help you out.

NAYLOR: The onslaught of spots featuring scary music and unflattering pictures of the candidates does not impress advertising professionals. Claudia Caplan is with the RP3 Agency based in Bethesda, Maryland. Caplan's agency does not do political ads, and she's not much impressed with the spots she's seen.

CLAUDIA CAPLAN: They certainly aren't artful. One of the things that we all think back on is the Reagan "Morning in America" spot and that that really didn't necessarily feature President Reagan. It featured ideas and thoughts about this country, and it was quite beautiful. And it really used all the best principles of consumer advertising. I honestly don't think we've seen anything like that since.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MORNING IN AMERICA" POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four, short years ago?

NAYLOR: Caplan says that spot, which ran some 28 years ago, is still remembered because of the emotional chords it struck. But this year, campaigns were much more interested in, as John Geer puts it, carpet-bombing viewers with ads rather than appealing to emotions other than fear. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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