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What Makes a Good US Political Ad?

Joni Ernst US. senator Iowa cut pork ad.
Senator Joni Ernst, cutting the pork in Washington

In recent years there have been a range of political ads in all elections from State Legislatures to the Presidency. But what makes a good political campaign ad? What appeals to the American electorate? Well, there have been great ads that have swung elections, like the 1964 “Daisy” ad from LBJ’s campaign at the height of the Cold War and controversial ones like the 1988 racially tinged infamous attack against Michael Dukakis featuring Willie Horton.

But why do ads matter so much in US elections? Since the mid 20th century TV ads have been seen by an increasing proportion of the population and political campaigns have been lost and won by the ad agencies, although political themes have remained relatively constant.

This being America one of the most important themes is guns and the support of the second amendment. Candidates often appear at gun ranges – Ted Cruz, the failed 2016 Republican Presidential candidate, was featured firing an AR-15 assault rifle at a gun range, but in “red states” even Democrats will try to appeal to this large demographic. Dan Kander, Democratic candidate for Missouri, went on TV to assemble an assault rifle blindfolded in 15 seconds to make a point about tighter background checks. Adverts are also used to attack candidates over the same issues – in 2016 Clinton has been the subject of a National Rifle Association (NRA) attack, which aired in swing states and claimed that her anti-gun agenda was hypocrisy because she’d been protected by men with guns since being First Lady in 1992.

Another big theme of American campaign ads is Family Values, and candidates are often seen with a spouse and usually their children – often at schools projects. The image of being family oriented can inspire people to vote: Joni Ernst Senator from Iowa did this in 2014, running an ad saying “I grew up on a farm castrating hogs  – so I’ll know how to cut the pork in Washington”.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell NRA event.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell at an NRA event

Religion has also been an important factor in recent years , especially in red states across the “Bible Belt.” Proving how committed a Christian you are can be a winner, with religious freedom and abortion being perennial issues.  Rick Perry’s 2012 Presidential campaign featured him saying “Obama has a war on Christmas”: his objections to the lack of public prayers in schools were particularly strongly received.

So in the US political ads feature candidates defending the 2nd Amendment, supporting strong family values and a visit to the candidate’s church. To a British eye these may seem old-fashioned and off-putting, but in the states they are seen as essential, especially in a close race.