Swiss Bank Accounts or a One-Term Proposition: Attack Ads, Round Two

After some vacation time, I’m now back to the blog. The latest round in advertising for the US presidential campaign features attack ads by the Obama campaign and by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative superpac.

The Obama campaign’s attack ad starts with Barack Obama’s affirmation – in his voice accompanied by his physical presence – that he approved the ad. With Romney’s off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful” in the background it reminds us that Romney’s firms outsourced private sector jobs to Mexico and China, and that as Governor of Massachusetts, he outsourced public sector jobs to India. It continues that Romney personally has millions in Swiss bank accounts and tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. It ends with the text message “Mitt Romney’s not the solution. He’s the problem.”

The Americans for Prosperity ad starts with a clip of Obama pledging to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term in office and then shows clips of a “national debt clock,” in which the national debt increases from $10 trillion at the start of his term of office to the current level of $15.9 trillion – the latter displayed with a cacophony of background voices talking about the debt crisis and government spending. The ad ends with another clip of Obama saying that “I will be held accountable. If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s gonna be a one term proposition.” The ad’s punch-line is the text message: “let’s make this a one-term proposition.” The ad concludes with a narrator stating that “Americans for Prosperity is responsible for the content of this advertising.”

What stories is each ad telling? Who is the narrator? Which ad is more convincing?

Obama’s voice and the accompanying clip of him in the White House at the outset proclaim his status as a metanarrator, the person with authority to set in motion the attack on Romney. The attack is waged on two levels, first public policy, namely that Romney has outsourced both private and public sector jobs in the past and can be expected to do so in the future; and second, personal probity, the implication that, through bank accounts in Switzerland, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands, Romney has been aggressively, and perhaps illegally, minimizing his tax obligations. Contrasting Romney’s public display of patriotism with his policy decisions and personal conduct as taxpayer suggests hypocrisy and an absence of integrity.

The Americans for Prosperity ad has a much less authoritative metanarrator. Who or what is Americans for Prosperity? The conflation of the deficit with the national debt is unexplained and the cacophony of voices hides a fuzziness of thinking. In the second clip of Obama, in which he says “if I don’t have this done in three years,” it isn’t even clear that the “this” he refers to is the same “this” (cutting the deficit in half by the end of his first term) he was referring to in the first clip. The ad’s implicit message is that Obama is a promise-breaker. But is breaking a promise a sufficient reason to throw an incumbent out of office? There are plenty of instances of incumbents being reelected even if they broke their promises. What incumbents must argue is that they made a sincere attempt to keep their promises, but circumstances changed, and changing circumstances required a changed response. Obama hasn’t yet made that argument, but he could, and he could certainly blame the Congressional Republicans for their role in the US Government’s inability to halve the deficit.

To summarize: the Obama campaign’s attack ad tells a more coherent and convincing story than does the Americans for Prosperity ad, it hits at more serious personal failings on Romney’s part, and it uses a more authoritative metanarrator. Advantage in round two to the Obama campaign.


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