Send in the clowns
The Biden campaign targets battleground states with maybe the worst ad in the history of mass communication
The stronger the economy gets, the more gas prices fall, and the higher the stock market climbs, the worse Joe Biden’s approval ratings become.
According to 538’s latest calculation, the president has been hemorrhaging support since late September, and the White House’s zombified communications team clearly has no idea how to stop it.
My short, disillusioning experience working as a research consultant in Democratic and progressive circles illustrated for me that most of the people making big decisions about voter research and messaging within the party are incompetent — willfully blind to the last half-century of breakthroughs in behavioral economics, psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience.
Republicans have been onto this stuff for years. Meanwhile, Democrats’ collective understanding of how voters make decisions hasn’t evolved beyond Season Three of Schoolhouse Rock.
I want to review an ad that Biden has rolled out in battleground states as part of his re-election campaign. It embodies the stone-age attitude toward persuasion that holds sway inside the party.
Let’s look at “Your Family.” According to longtime Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, this ad “directly speaks to Trump’s new comments that he would end the ACA and build something new.” Does it, though?
It is hard to grasp how Rosenberg believes this ad speaks to Donald Trump’s new comments, given that it never mentions the name “Donald Trump” nor does it mention his new comments. In lieu of the name of Biden’s inevitable opponent, it substitutes the weasel words, “the previous administration.” Plus, I follow politics more closely than the average jabroni and I have no idea what Trump said recently about the ACA. This ad certainly doesn’t tell me.
I will juxtapose those 60 seconds of feculent vomit against a highly acclaimed spot from Democrat Andy Beshear, who in November won re-election as the governor of bright red Kentucky. Visually, there are some parallels, but the similarities end there.
The message hits you like an axe to the forehead — an incredibly powerful ad. Let’s examine why.
Hadley’s language is simple, concrete and emotionally gripping. (“I was raped by my stepfather after years of sexual abuse. I was 12.”) Now contrast that with the focus-group approved milquetoast text of the Biden ad:
- “We need more support. The policies of the last administration were so troubling.” What do you mean by “support”? What policies are you talking about? What do you mean by “troubling”?
- “Our healthcare system has become a business.” What do you mean by “healthcare system”? Normal people in everyday conversation don’t speak in generalities like this. People have experiences with doctors, nurses, and insurance companies. That’s what they talk about with their friends and family and that is what they think about. They don’t talk about “our healthcare system” as some ethereal entity.
- Plus, you are speaking in present tense. It “HAS BECOME a business”? The current president is the guy you are supposedly advocating for. Are you blaming him? Has he done nothing in three years to help? A careless and confusing lack of precision with language.
- “People are becoming billionaires off the backs of sick people.” Again, present tense. And who are these villains? How are they doing it? Tell me a story about that. Can you illustrate in clear terms what you are referring to?
- “I have seen the heartbreak when parents try to figure out how they are going to pay for a medicine.” I am sure you have. Tell us what happened. How did that feel for them? How did it feel for you? Make me feel something.
Research demonstrates that concrete language is more persuasive and confers more credibility on the speaker than abstract language. In that context, the Beshear ad is the stronger of the two by miles.
But the differences go further. Hadley‘s rage in the Beshear ad is almost a living thing. Her piercing eyes, direct gaze, and slightly quavering voice make her emotions jump right off the screen. Emotion persuades us and hers is impossible to miss.
In the Biden ad, Jody dutifully recites various bullet points about what the Biden administration has done but never clearly describes what she is feeling and why. What has she seen and experienced that the rest of us can grab onto and understand? There must be something, but she never tells us. She sounds like a 2-D cardboard replica of a human, not a real person who has experienced real-life heartache. That is surely unfair to Jody, but this flaccid copy does no justice to her experiences.
And finally, Hadley addresses Beshear’s opponent by name. (“This is to you, Daniel Cameron.”) There is a courage in that directness that is lacking in the Biden ad. Trump isn’t Voldemort. Why would you not use the name of the person you are trying to criticize, the guy who is beating you in almost every poll?
The Biden ad is one of dozens of ads that will breeze past you today for everything from paper towels to foot powder, part of the wallpaper of life that will be gone and forgotten 10 seconds from now. What a waste.
The Beshear ad is a story, and as my friend Kirk Cheyfitz has written, facts aren’t very persuasive unless they are presented in the context of a story. This spot has a protagonist (Hadley), antagonists (her stepfather and, more pointedly, Beshear’s opponent), it sparks emotions, and it changes abortion rights from a political issue into a personal one.
Most importantly, it makes you stop and think: Am I with this young woman or against her? What does my answer say about me? What does it mean for how I should vote? The message is one that can’t help but stick with you, as all good stories do.
It is hard to see how someone with any theoretical understanding of communication effectiveness could look at that Biden ad and say, “Yeah, this is good!” Eight half-asleep voters in some bullshit focus group probably all nodded their heads in approval, but this is simply terrible advertising by any objective professional analysis.
And it would be one thing if it was just this ad. Not every ad is a home run, of course, and ads are not the totality of a campaign. But almost all of Biden’s communication is like this — tangles of facts, abstract descriptors, and technocratic jargon with nary an emotional appeal in sight. It’s like sitting through a lecture from the most wooden, unengaged teacher you ever had. It’s how Kamala Harris speaks, too. It’s how Hillary Clinton spoke. And John Kerry. And Al Gore. And on and on. It is a Democratic affliction, as if you can move the electorate by boring it into submission.
People who support the party and the president deserve better. Democratic voters already have donated Brink’s truckloads of hard-earned money to help the Biden campaign, but it would be just as well if they wrapped that cash in a rubber band, drove into the forest, and stuffed it into a rotten log. Their donation would do as much good there as it does in the hands of Biden’s masters of messaging malpractice.