Firm picks political ads that stand out even amid $733m barrage

“Stage” was part of a series of commercials attacking Mitt Romney’s business background.
“Stage” was part of a series of commercials attacking Mitt Romney’s business background.

Like an arthouse movie playing a limited engagement, “Stage” has reached only select audiences — in Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, and a few other states. But if there were an ­Oscar for political commercials, advertising analysts said, the anti-Romney ad featuring a worker laid off by Bain Capital would be a serious contender.

The 60-second commercial that first aired in June topped a survey by Ace Metrix, a firm that studies advertising effectiveness and deemed the spot this election cycle’s top ad, quite a distinction, considering the campaigns and their supporters have spent $733 million and counting on a never-ending barrage of commercials.

These commercials, aimed almost entirely at just a handful of states, have made swing-state viewers irate, football games unwatchable, and political consultants wealthy. They may also have produced a distinctive feature of this campaign: two parallel political universes, one full of voters who can probably recite the commercials from memory, whose children cry over yet another mention of “Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney,” and another that has no idea what the “coffin ad” is.


The fusillade of negative ads is even one of the theories for the apparent discrepancy between Mitt Romney’s standing in national polls, where he is roughly tied or slightly ahead, and swing-state polls, where he tends to trail by a hair, perhaps because of the relentless tide of anti-Romney ads that have been pummeling him there for months.

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Whether television ads are that effective in the age of technologies like DVR is disputed by political scientists. But both sides this year have raised more than $1 billion, which they have spent on hundreds of ads, some of which have been contributions to the art form.

Several anti-Obama ads made Ace Metrix’s top 10, including “Missing Workers,” by Let Freedom Ring, a super PAC that opposes Obama. Another top-rated ad, “Working Hard,” by a group called Public Notice, is not explicitly anti-Obama but echoes GOP criticisms of Obama’s fiscal policies.

Still, it’s the coffin ad, “Stage,” that seems most likely to join the pantheon, company that includes Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” ads in 1984 and the “Daisy” ad of 1964 that helped Lyndon
B. Johnson portray Barry ­Goldwater as an unhinged ­extremist. The ad was part of a series of commercials attacking ­Romney’s business background produced by Priorities USA, a super PAC backing Obama.

In the spot, a worker from Indiana, Mike Earnest, narrates how he was asked to build a stage at his paper plant. The stage was for Bain Capital executives visiting the factory, to ­announce it was closing. “It was like building my own coffin,” he said.


“ ‘Stage’ was a devastatingly effective ad,” said Jonathan ­Symonds of Ace Metrix, which also rates ads for carmakers, retailers, and internet companies and bases its scores on panels of at least 500 viewers to gauge the impact of ads. Political ads generally receive low marks, and some, like the Obama campaign’s much-derided “Big Bird” ad, have gotten scathing reviews in the firm’s surveys. But “Stage” was an exception. “It is a very good ad, by any estimation,” he said.

The most effective anti-Obama ads, Symonds said, have had a gentler touch than the anti-Romney ads. He points to ads run by Americans for Prosperty, a right-leaning super PAC, as the most effective with viewers. While no single ad stood out the same way “Stage” did on the Democratic side, the Americans for Prosperity ads had been consistently effective, he said. “Their portfolio of ads has been tremendously successful at positioning Obama as someone who, while it’s OK to like him personally, it doesn’t mean you have to reelect him,” he said.

The bottom line, he said, is despite complaints from viewers, attack ads work. “We’re not going to see fewer attacks ads in the next cycle,” he said. “Attack ads can be effective.”

According to a running tally by the Washington Post and Kantar Media/CMAG, the two sides have run a combined $147 million in Florida, $131 million in Virginia, and $128 million in Ohio.

Meanwhile, the candidates and the committees supporting them have spent a combined total of $0 in Texas, Arkansas, Rhode Island, Washington, Montana, Idaho, and a half-dozen other states deemed unimportant. About $19 million worth of presidential ads have run in Massachusetts, but only to reach voters in southern New Hampshire.


Symonds said his firm had not studied the effectiveness of ads in previous elections, and had no baseline to compare this year’s crop to. But John G. Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt who has also conducted ­focus groups of this year’s ads, panned them in comparison to past campaigns, and had a much dimmer view on their overall effectiveness.

“These ads on both sides have been consistently uninspired,” he said. According to his focus groups, Geer said, ­Republicans liked the ads for Romney, Democrats liked the ads for Obama, and undecided voters were not swayed either way. Geer said he believes the campaigns know that the ads are essentially pointless, but have to keep running them to prevent the other side from gaining an advantage. “You couldn’t unilaterally disarm,” he said.

Super PACs are also playing a larger role. That has led to a large-scale redistribution of wealth from aggrieved billionaires to the broadcasting industry, but Geer said he suspects many political funders will take a step back after the election and question whether the money was well spent. “There’s going to be a lot of people who spent a lot of money asking what they got for their dollar,” he said. “I don’t think the answers are very compelling.”

“The American public,” he said, “is often a little savvier than we give them credit for.”

Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at