Adwatch: Seven Obama Negative TV Ads Against McCain So Far

by: Matt Stoller

Mon Aug 11, 2008 at 13:00

In the last week, the Obama campaign has begun their campaign to really define McCain.  They released their first negative ad on July 7th, on McCain's links to big oil.  The second negative ad, though it was really a response, came in late July.  Since last Monday, he's released five more TV ads hitting John McCain.  Out of the seven TV ads, Obama hits McCain for his links to big oil in five of them.  The other two are regional ads where he makes specific claims about DHL job losses in Ohio and Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Specifically, the ads target McCain's acceptance of oil money and his pursuit of tax breaks for oil companies, and they compare this to Obama's embrace of clean energy.  Tangentially mentioned are his links to lobbyist and his support of George Bush.  The ads and summaries are on the flip.  Before I do my analysis, I'm curious, after you watch them all, what you think, and, knowing that some of you are in marketing, this is a good time to sign up and comment (or email me at stoller at with thoughts).  One thing is clear; Obama is making a huge bet on running against big oil.

1) Sands, July 7, 2008

This ad is the first negative attack on John McCain, and sets up a contrast.  McCain believes in drilling, a gas tax holiday, and tax breaks for oil companies, while Obama believes in clean energy and innovation.

Matt Stoller :: Adwatch: Seven Obama Negative TV Ads Against McCain So Far
2) Low Road Express, July 30, 2008

This is more a rebuttal ad against McCain than a negative ad, but it sets up the same frame used against Hillary Clinton.  It spends the first fifteen seconds saying that McCain's attacks on Obama are not true, without specifying what those attacks are.  It quotes various media outlets arguing that McCain's attacks are false.  Then it make the claim that McCain represents the same old politics, and that Obama will break our grip on foreign oil with clean energy.

3) Pocket, August 04, 2008

This is a standard Democratic attack ad, criticizing McCain for taking $2 million from oil and gas companies and refusing to tax their windfall profits.  It is framed by sad music while discussing McCain, and happy music discussing Obama's pledge to tax oil companies to give families a $1000 rebate.

4) Original Maverick, August 06, 2008

This is a response ad to McCain's maverick claims, and suggests McCain will continue Bush's policies.  It clips McCain discussing how he has been an ardent supporter of Bush, then goes on to say that McCain supports tax cuts for millionaires, he accepts oil company money, and then supports tax breaks for oil companies.  It closes with the line, 'The original maverick... or just more of the same?'

5) Yucca Mountain, August 09, 2008

This is a regional ad shown in Nevada, and points out that McCain wants to open Yucca mountain for nuclear waste storage but does not want trucks to drive through his home state of Arizona.  He's a standard old school politician.

6) Job Killing John, August 09, 2008

This too is a regional ad buy, in Ohio.  It focuses on Ohio's loss of thousands of DHL jobs after McCain's lobbyist advisers helped broker a deal with a European company to offshore these jobs.

7) McCain 'Celebrity', August 10, 2008

This ad mocks McCain as a Washington celebrity, and is by far the harshest of the ad buys.  The ad shows McCain on TV shows with ritzy music in the background, and says he represents the same old politics, with billions for oil and gas and nothing for families.

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Love that Bush is in most of them (4.00 / 3)
Especially the last one, with all of our favorite clips of McCain hugging and kissing Bush. Hell, I would just run ads combining all of McCain's Bush-love with his statements that he's voted with Bush 90% of the time and supported him 100%.

That may sound simplistic, but would probably be enough to win the election.  Of these ads, "Original Maverick" and "Celebrity" are my favs. The Yucca Mountain ad was rather poorly edited, with someone deciding to repeat McCain's "No I do not" near the end. Sounds weird, like an unintentional echo.

Yucca Mountain (4.00 / 3)
Funny, I was agreeing with you completely about favorite ads, but the Yucca Mountain ad was my other favorite.  The problem with attacking someone on a local issue like this is everyone knows you are pandering.  While people like being pandered, they dislike pandering in general, which undercuts the message.

But by comparing McCain's position for protecting his own Arizona with Nevada, McCain becomes the panderer.  And the outrage generated by the obvious unfairness of it all seems powerful to me.  I love this ad.

Technically, you may be right, but I'm not sure it matters compared to the impact.

[ Parent ]
They're good, but this would be better (4.00 / 1)
I want to see Obama wearing a yellow cape, on top of a mountain, and grabbing an effigy of McCain, squeezing its neck, and McCain's eyes pop out and black goo oozes from the orifices. He sets fire to the effigy. Then Obama, shrouded in glitter falling from the sky, recites, for 16 minutes, all of McCain's reversals and bad policies, with quotes. Copeland swells on the soundtrack.

A judge appears, slams down a gavel, and says, "you've convinced us with your arguments - thank you."  Then, Obama makes a 6 minute explanation of the benefits of liberalism vs. conservativism.  Close with, "America - you are stupid if you don't join us."

THAT is a gamechanger, my friends. Unless they run this ad, they will lose, and deserve it.

OK, just kidding.  I think Obama's ads are good.  

I am surprised that people don't see the celebrity ad as an attack on his lobbyist ties.  All they talk about is the stupid

If they keep hitting the same notes, the same handful of definitions, it will do the job.  But they need to stick with it.  

Thank god (4.00 / 3)
I was afraid he was paralyzed.

I realized the other day how wrapped up in this I am. I imagined McCain winning, and honestly had a moment where my vision went fuzzy and my hearing dissapeared in one ear--both symptoms which occur whenever I have passed out. This is the first campaign I have every really followed and volunteered my heart out in. Although I signed up for emails from Obama, Edwards, Clinton, Dodd, and Biden when this all got going, I remember signing up for Obama's draft campaign.

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join and fight for progressive change.  

If the big oil attack is where Obama leads in polling- (4.00 / 1)
something on the order of 65% polled say that Obama is more likely to lower gas prices than McCain-, then it's kind of no shi*, Sherlock to run on this issue. Clearly, gas prices are symbolic of the larger economic malaise that polls as the top issue. Obama's got to hit where people  BELIEVE he can make a difference, not attempt to manufacture arguments wholecloth.
I didn't work in advertising for that long, but long enough to learn that that's advertising's most basic principle- find the pre-existent truths, because plausibility sort of matters a lot when you're trying to sell a point.

   Why WOULDN'T Obama make a huge bet on running against big oil? There's no other preconceived notion to tap into as far as Obama being the better candidate to solve economic issues. He doesn't have a long tack record on bettering the economy, clearly, so this is where he hits and hits hard.

   And, obviously, oil connects plausibly to the war, and the massively expensive war can also be plausibly (if somewhat disingenuously) tied to the failing economy. What better issue is there to hammer at?

I feel like the "contrast" ads... (4.00 / 2)
that pivot from negative aspects of McCain to positive aspects of Obama need to be sharpened.  I'm not feeling enough of a gut-level appeal with them.

I would personally like someone to go after McCain on the grounds of character (or lack of it), but I'm not sure that would be a good idea for the Obama campaign.

Oil=George Bush (4.00 / 2)
I think that's the other thing about all of these ads.  Everybody knows that Bush is in the pockets of the oil companies on some level.  So tying McCain to Big Oil is tying McCain to everything that's wrong with the Bush era.  

Still, part of me just wishes that Obama would do one of those Head-On commercials, where they just repeat "Head-on, apply directly to the forehead."  Something like that with "Republican John McCain, voted with Bush 90% of the time."  Literally just have it loop for 30 seconds over images of McCain hugging Bush.  

Not Bad... (4.00 / 4)
But I still think they fall into the "run-of-the-mill DC political ad" category. The problem is their tone, production quality, and pacing reveals themselves as political ads within 5 seconds. If you're a political junkie it may get your attention, but if you're just trying to watch CSI then it's a good cue to turn your attention elsewhere as you know the next 30 seconds will be preaching eminent doom if a certain candidate is elected (and shit, all you wanted to know was how that dude's head ended up in that woman's garbage disposal).

This doesn't mean I'm against attack ads. I just have always felt they're usually approached all wrong. Think of the amazing Apple ads with the personified PC and Mac. These ARE attack ads. They are ruthlessly promoting the idea that a PC (and in guilt-by-association, a PC user) is dorky, unfashionable, backwards, and prone to never work right. They don't do it with a horrible ominous voice-over or harsh unsaturated graphics of a PC tower. They do it by making a PC 2-dimensional and cartoon-ish.

I don't know if Obama can run these kinds of ads himself (and that's why I'm disappointed about the campaign tying up the 527's), but I've been thinking 30 second cartoon animations of McCain would be far more entertaining to a wider audience (and enforce a narrative about the opponent) more than 30 seconds of DC-style "Armageddon is Coming!" poorly edited video montages.  

Bland and Reactive (4.00 / 1)
Although these ads aren't horrible, indeed, they're OK as far as they go, there are some macro concerns:

* They're mostly reactive to McCain ads and/or the GOP push to put oil/energy at the forefront of debate.  Other than the "local" ads (Yucca and DHL) and to some extent the new ad today, there's no attempt to drive the campaign debate on topics/terrain of Obama's making/liking.

* There's no overarching theme that connects them or attempt to frame each ad in the larger context of 'what the election is about.' Each ad individually would be better if they fed to a common summation -- "Change," "Change vs. Same." There's no "It's Toasted*" or "Country First."

* Here's what they're not talking about, area of debate that could be more favorable to Obama:

* Iraq, Afghanistan, Maliki's endorsement of the Obama plan, McCain's cave/incoherence on all of these, any pushback/ridicule of 'lose war to win election,' and/or paid messaging to compliment/capitalize on Obama's trip abroad. Instead, McCain's paid media is defining that trip.

* Anything on the economy other than oil, 'nation of whiners," trade, jobs, McCain's business/lobbyist ties.

* Any thematic definition of McCain whatsoever, any attempt to undercut McCain's positioning as a "Straight Talker," even after McCain's "elitism" type ads, no pushback/ridicule/bio definition about his eight homes, private plane, $500,000/mth credit card bills, etc., only dealing with "maverick" in a response form.

* Any thematic definition of what this election is about. They've even dropped the "change" theme, let alone framing a consistent 'change vs same' theme.


Self-refuting Christine O'Donnell is proof monkeys are still evolving into humans

Some of these comments perplex me. (0.00 / 0)

For one, do you seriously think the Obama camp wouldn't have headed for the oil issue without McCain? That's an inevitable issue, not a reactive one.

  Secondly, the ads have made repeated emphasis on green energy's potential jobs. How can you watch the "Hands" ad alone and say jobs haven't been addressed at all?

   Third, "The Low Road Express" has been used to hammer at McCain's "Straight Talk Express" line, repeatedly. Of course there's been an effort to undercut McCain's positioning as a straight talker.

Finally, ALL of these ads have framed themselves around the "Change" theme. They've been remarkably consistent. They all come back to Obama as change candidate.


[ Parent ]
I agree with you AND steve (0.00 / 0)
"Hands" is nice, uplifting, can-do. Much better for Obama to be the candidate of "yes" and a better future, in contrast to McCain the candidate of jealousy, pollution and endless war.

"Low Road Express" is only about McCain's campaign tactics, though. It's insider pool. Steve is right that line of attack should be broadened to cover McCain's many lies and pandering on positions AND character.

There are lots of opportunities if the Obama campaign will take them but they have to have the spine to burn some bridges on the way. If they're not pissing McCain off big time they're missing the mark.

[ Parent ]
Not driving the debate (4.00 / 2)
Re oil - It's not a binary issue. Of course addressing oil/gas prices/energy is a top-tier issue and can't be ignored. However the reactive over-emphasis on this one topic cedes the debate terrain to McCain.

Re jobs - Your phrase "the 'Hands' ad alone" says a lot. And while green energy has potential for jobs, surely that will not be seen as a satisfactory remedy for the employment situation. More basically, what's missing is an overall theme to drive the debate on this important area and then tying specific items -- jobs, trade, corporate lobbyists etc. -- into the theme.

Re "Low Road Express" - To be clear, the word "Express" does not occur in print or audio in that ad, let alone any compare/contrast/ridicule McCain's claim to "Straight Talk." Other than the title of the ad, which most viewers don't know, there's no connection whatsoever to "Straight Talk Express."

More generally, my comments are more macro in nature -- about themes and driving the debate -- than how specifics are addressed. Specifics on issues don't matter (see Gore and Kerry, who both held majority position views and lost) nearly as much as creating and driving a narrative of a) Who the candidates are and b) What the election is about.

McCain ads are relentlessly driving a narrative of who Obama is -- a theory of the man -- in ways that are leveraging free media to drive the debate. By contrast, while hitting McCain on some issues, Obama's ads offer no overall theory of the man and lack 'hooks' that generate free media coverage and debate.

Self-refuting Christine O'Donnell is proof monkeys are still evolving into humans

[ Parent ]
"Sands" Is Atrocious (0.00 / 0)
It's a wonderful example of talking to ourselves. Same old "power-point presentation" mentality.  Who do they think this reaches outside their base?

How hard would it be to make this into a narrative instead?  A narrative about how big oil Republicans have gotten a death grip on the American people.  Bush began it, and McCain supported him all the way.  Now he wants to do more the same.  Get a little shot of "the hug" in there, too.

People do remember that oil wasn't always $4 a gallon.  They just need a little reminding of how it got this way, and who was on the team when it did.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

Really? (0.00 / 0)
I thought that did a good job of tapping into American xenophobia, the sheer exhaustion of the endless conflicts of the Middle East. It ties McCain to the morass of the War.

       And it ties back into the "Change" theme in a way that lets Obama have claim to optimism and to the the high road.

    It's not the hardest hitting of these ads- it's a contrast ad- but I read it as fairly decent.


[ Parent ]
It Reaches People Who Are Already With Us (0.00 / 0)
That's how I see it.

You have to reach people who don't normally connect with powerpoint presentations.  That's my point and I'm sticking to it.  What you say is true--but only within the powerpoint universe.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
the way to go is for the gut (4.00 / 1)
An attack ad has to grab your gut and some of these don't come close to doing that. Some of these are just reacting to McCain's attacks, not driving the narrative like they should be.

My favorite is Job Killing John, which breaks the mold a little. The details are there if you pay attention but most people will only remember the McCain quote, the B&W look and the foreboding score. Even though it looks like the McCain quote was lifted out of context, this is pretty good stuff.

The number 7 "Celebrity" ad comes across as lightweight tit for tat. Showing your opponent hugging people and having a good time on TV shows is not an attack, it helps send a feel good message about him.

I had my gas stolen out of my vehicle Friday night. (0.00 / 0)
So, yeah, even if I wasn't a political junkie, i'd be pretty pissed at big oil about now.  $70 worth of gas siphoned right out of my GM vehicle.  I guess GM was too cheap to provide LOCKS.  So I had to go out and buy a locking gas tank cap.

For some reason, it seems that Obama has some pathological and deep-seated psychological need for Republicans to like him.  Seriously.  It's weird.

B plot (0.00 / 0)
One thing I like about most of these ads are their consistent ties back to Bush.  The specific point of each ad is different, but the connection is present.  I think that is the exact structure such larger narratives should take.

Hill Street Blues, Babylon 5, Veronica Mars and some other shows have used the approach of keeping the season-long story alive as the B plot to the individual episode.  This allowed each episode to work on its own while continuing season long narrative.  I believe this can be an extremely effective structure for campaign ads.  Let each ad address a specific point, but promote the overall narrative at the secondary level.

And, like such shows, bring the B plot back up to A level for the grand finale.

McCain is Bush (0.00 / 0)
is a winning message for Obama.  These ads do a pretty good job of reinforcing that message, especially the ones which show Bush embracing McCain.  If the Bush policies are the determining issue, Obama wins.

The latest negative ad against McCain being the celebrity and (0.00 / 0)
attacking "Big Oil", would be far far more effective if the silly music isn't there.  It has to be made SERIOUS because people are seriously hurting.  

I'm not sure that this is the year for "funny" campaign commercials like in years like 1984 or 1996 when the economy was booming.

Someone tell Obama's ad makers that this is NOT the year for funny ads or silly/funny music in the ads.  It's deadly fucking serious for the electorate.  Worst wrong-track polls in history.  People aren't in the mood to laugh.

However, Obama using limited humor in his POSITIVE ads and in his speeches is fine.

That's my two cents.

For some reason, it seems that Obama has some pathological and deep-seated psychological need for Republicans to like him.  Seriously.  It's weird.

Disagree (0.00 / 0)
The number one rule in advertising, and the most ignored rule in political advertising, is be noticed.  If they tune out your ad it might as well not exist.

The worst possible ads, and he does this too, are the ones where the same old voice repeats "tired old politics", as if hearing that phrase repeated by that voice again isn't just playing to the pro-irony crowd.  (Hmmm, come to think of it, I'm in the pro-irony crowd, so I guess it doesn't even work, there.)

[ Parent ]
Hmmmm.... (0.00 / 0)
Hmmm, come to think of it, I'm in the pro-irony crowd, so I guess it doesn't even work, there.

Ironic, isn't it?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
dilemma (0.00 / 0)
On the one hand, I would like to see ads that hit McCain harder, talking about his character.    Someone needs to educate the public about the Keating Five.  

On the other hand, I don't want Obama to be directly raising such points.   I want him to stay "above the fray".    We need an attack dog VP nominee and we need some 527s to attack McCain.  

Best attack dogs -  Wesley Clark, Joe BIden and Tim Ryan.      

Has anyone heard Obama's "Harley" radio ad... (0.00 / 0)
running in Wisconsin.  It's up on TPM.  I like it better than all of these.

to really define (0.00 / 0)
mccain by definition means an ad will be negative, negative is all mcphony is all about.

More of This and Sooner (0.00 / 0)
They waited too long to get these up.  McCain was hammering away at Obama first.  Also, it took the Obama team to long to respond to McCain's celebrity add.  Paris Hilton responded to the McCain celebrity before Obama.  

But this is progress.  In past presidential elections, I used to wonder whether Democrats would respond to the negative attacks and hit back with negative attacks.  Obama is responding and hitting back with his own attacks.  This is a great improvement over past elections.  


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