Candidates try and make TV ads resonate

Steve Grossman (left) has run mostly positive TV ads. One spot emphasizes his support for universal pre-kindergarten in the state. At right, a Don Berwick ad, which his campaign said is set to begin airing Tuesday, shows two children, dressed up as Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman, who “play politics.”

Steve Grossman (left) has run mostly positive TV ads. One spot emphasizes his support for universal pre-kindergarten in the state. At right, a Don Berwick ad, which his campaign said is set to begin airing Tuesday, shows two children, dressed up as Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman, who “play politics.”

The TV is on in the background. Your cellphone buzzes with an urgent request from the boss. The kids are just coming home. The microwave beeps: Dinner’s ready. A political advertisement begins.

On Labor Day, the ceremonial start of the election season and eight days before the state primary, candidates and super PACs fighting it out in Massachusetts hope they have the answer to profoundly vexing questions: What won’t you ignore?


What ads will break through, not just all the other political spots but also the entire cacophony of modern life?

A spot that is believable, relevant, and tells a story that is simple enough to digest is most likely to begin to get your attention if it is repeated often enough, political analysts said. Bonus points go to the ad that’s entertaining and distinctive without being off-putting.

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Political ads must meet viewers — increasingly skeptical of politicians’ claims and disapproving of politics — where they are, in terms of substance and style, said Steve Murphy, a longtime Democratic media strategist familiar with the Massachusetts political landscape.

“They don’t want to be treated like idiots or children. They don’t want to be manipulated. And if you ever could, you can’t now,” he said. “They have a filter for political ads.”

Getting through the filter sometimes requires simplicity, sometimes humor, and sometimes an emphasis on a characteristic of a candidate viewers might already be inclined to suspect, analysts said.


“When you tell people something they already know and already believe,” said Republican admaker Rex Elsass, “it’s not propaganda.”

While analysts said no one TV ad in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race has stood head-and-shoulders above others so far, some thought a recent spot from a GOP-aligned super PAC attacking Democratic frontrunner Martha Coakley could be particularly effective because it plays up a familiar trope about Democrats.

The ad includes video of the attorney general incorrectly guessing the state’s $0.24per-gallon gasoline tax rate during a pop quiz on a TV show and criticizes her for supporting that tax’s automatic increase. The negative 30-second spot says she is “out of touch.”

John Carroll, a Boston University communications professor who has been analyzing political ads for almost three decades, said he thinks the ad “pushes the right buttons in the electorate” and works to paint her as an insider and tie her to “liberal tax-and-spend politics.”

It directly contradicts the way Coakley is trying to define herself, he added.

In her first TV ad, the attorney general links her work as the state’s chief law enforcement official to what she would do as governor. She portrays herself as a feisty outsider who fights the powerful on behalf of the powerless, taking on entrenched interests for the greater good. “The political insiders, the big-money super PACs, the old boys club — they’re all against her,” the female narrator says over photos and video of Coakley. “That’s OK. She’s not fighting for them. She’s fighting for us.”

Carroll said the Coakley spot’s message was easily digestible, a plus.

One candidate poised to use humor on TV is former federal health care official Don Berwick, one of Coakley’s two Democratic rivals, along with Treasurer Steve Grossman.

A Berwick ad, which his campaign said is set to begin airing Tuesday, shows two children, dressed up as Coakley and Grossman, who “play politics” and squabble on a playground.

“The choice is simple: people who play politics,” Berwick says, “or a governor who is a problem solver.”

Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president of Kantar Media Intelligence, which tracks political advertising nationally, said Berwick’s spot lines up with his position in public primary polls, which have consistently found him in third place.

“For a candidate like Berwick, who is the underdog, taking the high road, sounding the moral high note is not uncommon at all,” she said, adding that using children in spots is a way to put a gentle and even entertaining tone on ads that create a contrast with opponents.

Grossman, for his part, has run mostly positive TV ads. The first begins with a narrator asking who viewers trust to improve the economy as governor, “a proven jobs creator,” Grossman, or “a career prosecutor,” a reference to Coakley without mentioning her by name. The ad then frames him as “the right choice for a tough economy.”

Grossman’s second spot emphasizes his support for universal pre-kindergarten in the state. “They were the best arguments he could make,” said longtime Massachusetts Democratic consultant Michael Goldman, who is unaffiliated in the governor’s race. Goldman added that the first worked to bolster an important thrust of Grossman’s campaign: showing Democratic voters why he’s different than Coakley.

A pro-Grossman super PAC, which legally can’t coordinate with the candidate, has also aired an ad attacking Coakley. In news media accounts, the ad’s content was overshadowed by the fact that Grossman’s mother was a major contributor to the PAC.

More sharply negative ads from all sides in the gubernatorial race and other Massachusetts contests are imminent, operatives said. And that might help messages break through.

Negative ads tend to be more memorable and sink in more quickly, ad makers said.

“We have a tendency to remember negative information more than positive information, and that has nothing to do with political ads, but human nature,” explained Karl Struble, a longtime Democratic media consultant.

Still, he and other observers said, no matter how memorable a spot is, it has to show up repeatedly, and on the right voters’ TVs, to make a difference.

“The best ad in the world is not going to help you much if no one sees it,” said Wilner.

There will be plenty of repetition of ads, nasty and nice, with the approach of Nov. 4, when the Democratic nominee, either Republican Charlie Baker or Mark Fisher, and three independent candidates, Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick and Scott Lively, will face off on the gubernatorial ballot.

Super PACs; candidates for other constitutional offices, such as attorney general; advocates for and against ballot questions, like the repeal of the state’s casino gambling law; and ads from other races such as the one for the US Senate in New Hampshire are also expected to inundate the airwaves. The barrage means while it will be easier to ignore any single spot, political TV ads generally will be impossible to tune out.

Unless, of course, you stay away from your television until Nov. 5.

Joshua Miller can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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