For the last three months, student researchers in the Reporters’ Lab have watched hundreds of campaign commercials as part of our Duke Ad Watch project.
The goal was to save time for fact-checkers. The students watched ads for the presidential, senatorial, congressional and gubernatorial races and identified claims journalists at PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and other organizations could check.
Students also wrote blog posts throughout the semester, analyzing different trends that cropped up again and again in campaign ads.
With Election Day fast approaching, Bill Adair, the director of the Reporters’ Lab, sat down with the Duke Ad Watch team to discuss what it’s been like to watch hundreds of campaign ads.
He spoke with student researchers Hank Tucker, Amanda Lewellyn, Julia Donheiser, Asa Royal and Sam Turken, along with project manager Rebecca Iannucci. Here is an edited transcript.
Bill: When you tell people, “My job is to watch campaign ads all day,” and they say, “Wow, what’s that like?” — what’s your response?
Asa: It’s fun! Some of the ads are well-made, some are corny and some are horribly misleading, but almost all of them are worth watching. Eventually, you can predict what you’ll see in an ad just by seeing who’s made it and who’s mentioned in it.
Rebecca: For me, it’s two things. On one hand, it’s actually helped me to be more informed, because I’ve found myself researching whether or not the claims in these ads are true or false. I feel like I’ll be walking into that voting booth on Nov. 8 with a pretty clear picture of who these candidates really are. But it also makes me sad to watch so many attack ads. I know there are so many people being influenced by these ads, for better or for worse, and they’re blindly believing false claims. And just watching these politicians attack each other for months, instead of focusing on why they’re good for the job or what difference they would make in office — it can be really disheartening.
Julia: It makes you a little crazy and very frustrated. I say crazy because campaign ads are the epitome of low production value. But the frustration comes from the claims that campaigns and PACs continuously make, and the way that candidates and their opponents are characterized in the process. The people making these ads are only concerned about whether their candidate — and quite frankly, their party — wins. It leads to a “gotcha” style of attack ads.
Bill: So, you’re seeing the same candidates using the same ads. But are you seeing the same candidates using the same lines?
Amanda: A lot of candidates use the same B-roll. You’ll see a kind of mix-and-match between advertising. They’ll use [Republican Chuck] Grassley [of Iowa] shaking hands with people outside of a small business in different ads. And Americans for Prosperity and J Street put together multiple ads [in different states] that were pretty much the same, just with a different candidate in the hole.
Rebecca: Yeah. They were identical. I haven’t seen a lot of candidates across different states saying the exact same lines, as if they were reading from a script that was just given to a bunch of different states.
Rebecca: I’ve just seen the same type of factual claims get said. But from state to state, I don’t see identical scripts being used.
Sam: Also, they all respond to each other now. Or at least, a lot of them do. There was one [series of ads] where you had this bicycle delivery guy. I forget who that was for, but then the opponent introduced another bicycle delivery guy in their ads saying, “That first guy’s wrong.”
Amanda: Katie McGinty.
Rebecca: Shady Katie McGinty! [Laughs]
Hank: And Ted Strickland’s response to [Rob] Portman [of Ohio]: “He criticized me for draining the Rainy Day Fund, but it was raining pretty hard!”
Rebecca: He admitted that!
Asa: I think that ads have gotten repetitive, but that’s probably what candidates want. If a message gets played once, people will forget it. If it’s played twice, attentive people will remember it. If it’s played 40 times, nobody is going to forget it.
Bill: Does seeing all these ads make you more cynical about politics?
Hank: [immediately] Yeah.
Hank: You’ve heard “race to the bottom” a lot in the presidential campaign, but I think that’s what all the campaigns this year are getting to be. I don’t think there’s any ad that is all positive about their candidate. They can be half-negative, and then they pivot to the positive. Or a lot of them are just all negative. But there’s always an attack. It’s not like they’re running on their positions and their values. They’re saying, “This person screwed everything up, so you should vote for me.”
Julia: It’s hard not to think that politicians treat campaigns and policy like a game when you’re constantly seeing them attack their opponents with falsehoods. The political climate is so bad right now that most of these political ads seem like they could be from a comedy show. And the voters that these ads are meant to target aren’t always going to go to PolitiFact or Factcheck.org. The campaigns know that, and they take advantage of it.
Rebecca: I have found I’m also very cynical about what on Earth gets done in Washington, after seeing all these different races. If you focus on [Democratic Senate candidate] Catherine Cortez Masto, she tried to tackle sex trafficking in Nevada. But then you look at the Senate race in another state, where a different candidate talks about sex trafficking, and they couldn’t get anything done, even if Catherine Cortez Masto made a little bit of progress. You look at how many people are running for so many different offices, and you think, “What’s the point of any of this?” They go into Washington and they’re up against such partisanship, they’re just pushing their own agenda — what on Earth is actually getting accomplished there? Despite how important my one vote is said to be, that’s not always how I feel. I feel like no matter what we do, nothing is going to get achieved, because of watching all these ads and seeing how everyone is so conflicted in what they want.
Bill: What’s the production quality of these ads? Are they good? [to Rebecca] Now, you’re the former TV writer. Do you feel like they’re well-produced?
Rebecca: [Laughs] No. I don’t feel that way.
Sam: Some of the graphics are kind of cool.
Rebecca: Some of the graphics are interesting. Those are very creatively done sometimes. The ones that make me cringe are the ones where the candidates themselves show up, and they do some cheesy little skit with their constituents, or with a friend, or their husband or wife. There was one recently with [Sen.] Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and he used his grown daughters and his wife. The women say to each other, “We didn’t want him to run for another term, but now we’re glad he’s doing it. You need help in there, honey?” And Ron Johnson is changing his grandson’s diaper in another room, and the grandson pees in his face. Then at the end, he comes in with the baby, and he dunks the diaper in the trash can, and they’re like, “Nice shot, Dad!” It’s so painful to watch. Those are the moments when production value is bad; it’s so cheesy. Why on Earth would you try to be relatable in this way when it makes you look very awkward?
Sam: The one with Kelly Ayotte playing baseball.
Amanda: Oh my God.
Sam: She’s like, “Oh, I smacked bills out of the park just like balls.”
Hank: Total pandering.
Amanda: With her Sox cap on.
Julia: The only ads I’ve seen with good production value either come straight from the campaign or are really, really weird.
Asa: As far as bad production value, I’d focus on a big bulk of ads that I just call “exceedingly mediocre.” Joe the Plumber/Doctor/Construction Worker appears on the screen, talks down on one candidate’s record, talks up another candidate’s record and then concludes the ad with a tagline. The only thing that can make an ad like that worse is if Joe never appears and you’re just forced to listen to a monotone narrator for the whole ad.
Amanda: Then there’s an ad for [Iowa Senate candidate] Patty Judge where you can tell it’s important, because she’s got the guy who voices Prairie Home Companion [Garrison Keillor] in there, and they’re challenging [Grassley] to a debate. But it’s such terrible quality. It’s tilted. It’s just an iPhone video. And you compare that to Trump or Clinton, who are never going to release something along those lines.
Bill: How are the presidential ads different? It used to be that campaigns would put out dozens and dozens of individual ads, and I don’t feel like we’ve seen that many different ads from the Trump and Clinton campaigns, have we?
Hank: There aren’t that many Hillary ads, but she knows which ones are working. We’ve seen [Trump] attacking the veterans, and one of Hillary’s ads shows veterans watching what Trump says about them. It’s also easier that they’re running against a very unusual candidate who might not be as sophisticated as a lot of presidential candidates. You can just keep doing the same things. He’s said a lot of stuff. It’s working.
Bill: What’s the best Trump ad?
Amanda: They just throw out words: “Power.” “America, great again.” That’s it.
Sam: There’s no policy. No policy.
Rebecca: The only ones that did have policy were the series of ads called “Two Americas.” One was about immigration, one was economy, one was veterans. And they all say, “In Hillary Clinton’s America, it’s more of the same… but worse.” [Bill laughs] “But in Donald Trump’s America…,” and it gets happy. But there’s no specific numbers. It doesn’t really say how he will go about doing anything. They’ll just say, “Everyone gets more affordable child care. Everyone gets more this or that.” And that’s it.
Bill: What’s the best ad?
Amanda: I got teary-eyed at one the other day. I don’t even remember what it was — [to Rebecca] — but I remember I told you about it.
Rebecca: The bully one. From Clinton.
Amanda: The bully one! She mixes in clips of Trump speaking and bullying people with bullies from movies. The guy from Back to the Future…
Rebecca: A Christmas Story, Regina George from Mean Girls…
Amanda: And then it flips to a young girl asking Clinton what she’s going to do about bullies in America. And then Clinton has a heartwarming response. It’s really cute.
Rebecca: I would say the series of ads that Clinton put out — like you were saying, Hank — with the kids watching the TVs, veterans watching the TVs. There was one specific ad where they actually interviewed one of those veterans and did a full minute-long ad with just him. He talked about how the horrors of war still stick with him, and he started crying and saying, “How dare Donald Trump say that he can relate to this.” I found all of those really emotionally stirring. It’s one thing to see the clips of Trump over and over, being such a jerk and saying all these things, but to see those people react and be so sad and scared — that’s what really gets me. And the “Mirrors” ad that Clinton put out, too. That was probably the most effective.
Sam: Yeah, the Hillary ads that just have Trump clips. It’s so easy to do, so easy to put together, and the message is just so clear. You really don’t need anything more complicated than that. It just reinforced everything, all the negative things he’s said.
Bill: What’s the worst ad? I’d be particularly interested at the state level — worst for production value, most annoying. What’s the worst one?
Rebecca: Oh my gosh. I have to think about this. I’ve seen so many bad ones.
Sam: That comic one with Hillary.
Bill: What was that one?
Sam: It was this weird comic thing. She was a cartoon. Everybody was a cartoon. Talking about Russia.
Rebecca: She went to go visit Putin and handed over uranium, and the whole thing was voiced by impersonators of Putin and Clinton. It was so weird! It was so weird.
Asa: I wish this weren’t so easy. Donald Trump’s attempt to appeal to the BJP Hindu vote in America. If the ad was supposed to make me cringe and laugh, I guess it worked. If it was supposed to appeal to my half-Indian identity and make me think better of Trump, I don’t know what to say.
Hank: There was one that was just goofy. [Christine Jones] was running for Congress, a Republican businesswoman. There was a white background where she was standing, and there was a crowd of old white guys around a microphone, and she says things like, “I’ve never taken funding from special interests. Can they say that?” and they all start chanting, “More, more, more!” Just weird.
Rebecca: That’s the vibe I got from so many of these cringey, I’m-embarrassed-for-you kind of ads. You laugh at them, and then you remember: These are people running for office. They are running to be in the Senate. They’re running to be in Congress. And — [laughs] — it’s just so stupid!
Amanda: It makes you take the race less seriously, and the position itself.
Hank: There’s another ad that weirded me out. It implied that parents of young children would be dying. [Everyone groans and laughs, recognizing the ad] It showed this picture of a mom in her bed with her young daughter, and then the mom vanishes. Fades into nothing. And then there’s a dad with his daughter, who’s wearing a wedding dress. And they’re standing together, but then the dad vanishes and it’s just the daughter alone. And then there’s a dad with his kid on a tricycle… but then the kid vanishes.
Rebecca: You think the dad’s gonna vanish, but then the kid has died!
Hank: And then it says something like, “Pollution creates so many premature deaths every year. Senator Ron Johnson voted against the clean energy something-or-other. Don’t vote for him.”
Bill: So if he gets re-elected, people are going to die.
Rebecca: Yep. That little 5-year-old.
Hank: A lot of times, you can tell who’s losing.
Sam: Yeah, who’s desperate.
Bill: How so?
Hank: They seem more desperate. It seems like they feel more of a need to defend themselves against attacks from the other candidate. Like in Ohio, Ted Strickland is losing to Rob Portman, and you can tell that [Strickland’s team] is kind of on their heels, having to defend themselves and make these extreme, radical claims against whoever. Same with [Russ] Feingold — he’s beating Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. And Feingold, a lot of his ads are more traditional, saying, “I did these things in the Senate.” The losers don’t seem as on-message. They’re just all over the place, ads trying to attack everything. The desperation — it’s not obvious in all the cases, but you can tell.
Sam: Yeah, like Michael Bennet in Colorado. He’s had an easy lead in Colorado.
Rebecca: Who’s he running against? [beat] Oh, Darryl Glenn.
Amanda: Darryl Glenn!
Rebecca: That’s the worst ad we’ve ever seen!
Sam: Is that the one with him working out?
Rebecca: Yes! He’s doing, like, P90X for three minutes!
Sam: Michael Bennet hasn’t attacked once. I’ve seen 10 ads for Michael Bennet, and not one of them has an attack in it.
Rebecca: Yeah, he has run a very positive race.
Amanda: Until Darryl Glenn released that ad, I don’t think we even knew who [Bennet’s] competition was.
Rebecca: We didn’t, yeah! We were like, “Is he running uncontested?” Because nothing bad was coming out about him, and he’s not saying anything bad about other people.