Why the Economic-Related Ads Look So Much Alike in Presidential Race

Spots Are Indistinguishable Mashups of Stats, Headlines, Factory Workers

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Think a lot of campaign ads look alike these days? Kudos to you for paying attention. The first presidential election since the financial crisis offers no shortage of economic ailments to advertise about, but few visuals to illustrate them in ways that really grab you. Slow growth and mounting debts don't exactly make for heartstring-pulling video. The fiscal cliff is a legislative construct, not a scenic overlook. The padlocked factory gate has no equivalent in the service economy, and unemployment lines are increasingly moving online.

For the purposes of TV ads allowing mere seconds for explanations, there just aren't a lot of pictures worth 1,000 jobs, much less millions of stimulus dollars, billions in Medicare commitments or trillions in debt. Not helping matters is that so many advertisers are producing so many ads about the economy that the go-to visuals feel exhausted.

Of the 27 spots aired by big-spending presidential advertisers over the past month, 24 have focused on an economic issue or issues. Seven different advertisers produced them. Yet so many draw from the same checklist. Superimposed statistics, charts and signs. Newspaper headlines and TV talkers. American workers, either stressed out at home (in attackers' ads) or high-fiving the visiting President Barack Obama at work (in his own).

And factories -- lots of factories, loading docks and assembly lines, mostly abandoned but some humming (again, depending on whose ad they're in).

Watching them all, you might think the vast majority of Americans clock in at the plant every day.

Except for a handful of folks who work in some sort of lab or as commentators on financial TV news. These commentators and their video-game graphics of stocks, earnings, entitlement debts and all manner of deficits are presidential advertising's chief ambassadors of the 88% of GDP that isn't manufacturing.

For many all-important swing voters, of course, factory floors and exteriors are exactly the right images to use even if they feel increasingly cliched. The industrial Midwest and Pennsylvania account for five of the 12 states seeing presidential ads. Conversely, as loud a bell as a "foreclosed" sign on a front lawn might ring for many Americans, only two battlegrounds, Florida and Nevada, have really struggled with underwater mortgages, so we see few foreclosed homes in ads.

The biggest nods to "the rest" of the economy have come from a set of Mitt Romney campaign ads tailored to individual states. An Iowa spot featured cornfields and computer labs, North Carolina spot, computer and medical labs. The Virginia spot showed a computer lab, an oil rig and construction workers. A fourth spot targeting Ohio featured, well, ships and shipyards, steel workers and factories.

Romney's ad-makers have avoided the sameness of most other spots, maybe in part because factory floors are a riskier option for him. Their latest spot, questioning Obama's motives for the stimulus, show money going up in flames.

Obama's spots have the broadest range, comparing the fee-riddled, outsourced wasteland that America supposedly would become in a Romney Administration and the improving picture under Obama himself.

One spot that aired before the debate plunged full-bore into outsourcing was literally a mosaic of shots of services and jobs allegedly hit by fee hikes during Romney's time as governor. But for the most part, Obama's ads have relied on conventional images: the palm-lined beaches, aerials of mansions, and Chinese factory workers we've seen in union ads for decades, plus footage of Obama touring assembly lines.

Here's your viewer's guide to the most popular visuals:

Homemade signs announce closed businesses. The good old National Debt Clock ticks higher. A Republican National Committee ad uses signs effectively with a fast-paced montage of anti-debt protestors holding placards saying "Budget Too Big " and "Stop the Spending." And where real life doesn't cooperate with signage, advertisers fill screens with supers of selective stats, produce their own charts or "borrow" TV news graphics. Absent the gripping urgency of the financial crisis, though, charts feel less like real-time scoring, more like homework.

Despite Wall Street 's concern about anti-business rhetoric, no advertiser is going to call out a bank while holding out a hand to bank executives. Names like Citi, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs popped up in some earlier Republican ads, and a current Obama ad lingers on an Exxon sign (not like much ExxonMobil largesse is flowing his way). Since the enormity of their fundraising challenge set in for Obama's team in Chicago, Wall Street and its denizens have made only generic appearances in ads, usually by way of the green street sign or Hamptons estates. (In races further down the ballot, things get a little more explicit.)

Beyond some (dated?) stills of unemployment lines, hundreds of faces look out from the TV screen, most etched with worry, some talking to camera. Pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action has cut memorable testimonials to make its "job-killer" case against Romney, featuring former employees of Bain-directed companies accusing Bain of eliminating their jobs.

Fewer workers overall -- but still a good many of them -- appear on behalf of the "things are looking up" side.

Ad-makers are increasingly using news-media footage to make complex issues accessible. The soundbites and headlines are perfect for 30-second ads and bring the credibility that viewers (still) assign to journalists. The latest Crossroads GPS spot opens with CNBC's John Harwood proclaiming March through June as "the weakest job-adding quarter in two years." Entire ads have been spawned by a single newspaper story -- The Washington Post probably hasn't seen such widespread use of its reporting since Watergate. Supers of headlines and TV news clips are fast becoming one of the most-used images of 2012 advertising.

Even in today's service-and-dot-com economy, this is perhaps the most-used "found" image of all, no small thing given the predominance of economy-focused ads. Boarded up and shown from a car window while rolling past, or brightly lit and teeming with workers thankful to be (back) on the job, the factory -- or the warehouse, loading dock or assembly line -- is the inanimate star of recent presidential advertising. Aimed squarely at the hearts and minds of voters in five (at most) of 50 states, we have a new metaphor for disproportionate influence wielded in presidential elections by a thin sliver of the American electorate.

Elizabeth Wilner is VP of Kantar Media's CMAG, which tracks and analyzes broadcast TV advertising content, placement and spend.
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