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A look back at the ads of the campaign: lots of new, some of the same

October 25, 2008 | 11:41 am

Political advertisements are more than just commercials, they’re artillery. And they’ve played a key role in driving the news cycle and shaping the narratives –- and even the vocabulary -– of this presidential race.

Now, as election day looms, and as Barack Obama and John McCain's campaigns unfurl increasingly negative ads at an increasingly rapid pace, the Ticket wondered: Is this normal?

So we turned to David Schwartz, a campaign commercial expert and the Chief Curator of the Museum of the Moving Image. Schwartz, who is the brain behind The Living Room Candidate, an online archive of presidential campaign commercials from 1952-2008, says this year's collection of ads has been exceptional in both quantity and creativity.

The campaign has seen a mix of ads this cycle, according to Schwartz, with campaigns making traditional television commericals (like Hillary Clinton's "3 a.m." spot) and also online-only videos (like this new Republican National Committee-sponsored ad attacking Obama for his ties to Tony Rezko). The Web spots are cheap to make and free to post to YouTube, so the campaigns can churn out dozens of new ones each week.

When making any kind of ad today, the campaigns are always thinking about the kind of life it will live on the Internet. So, like any good viral web videos, many campaign ads now aim to be funny or provocative. Consider, for example, "Celebrity," the McCain campaign's 30-second spot that compared Obama to stars like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

Schwartz thinks that videos like these are designed mostly to get attention from the media. And often, they do.

Schwartz said he admired McCain's "Celebrity" ad because it was different. "It was creative and it seemed to help [McCain] for awhile," Schwartz said. "That's a new line of attack, to attack a candidate for being too popular."

This season's ads have focused more than ever on the personalities of the candidates, Schwartz said. While McCain has painted Obama as a "celebrity," and, in recent weeks, as dangeously mysterious (a recent McCain spot asks ominously, "Who is Barack Obama?"), Obama has tried to portray McCain as erratic and out of touch.

Negative ads are nothing new, of course. They start cropping up at a certain point in every election, Schwartz says. "The candidates introduce themselves early in the campaign with positive ads and biographical ads and then . . .

. . . . they go negative"

Why go negative? Becasue it often works. Schwartz pointed to the brutal attack ads that President George H.W. Bush aired against his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis as an example. Bush battered Dukakis with television ads that accused him of being an ineffective, inexperienced liberal who was soft on crime, and eventually, that's how some Americans began to see him.

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The McCain campaign has unleashed a wave of similar attacks on Obama in the last several months, but they haven't worked as well, Schwartz thinks, because the attacks keep changing.

"It’s very scattershot," he said. "They try out a new line of attack each week."

In 2004, Democratic candidate John Kerry's campaign for president was derailed in part by attack ads paid for by a tax-exempt 527 organization called the "Swiftboat Veterans for Truth." Third-party groups haven't been as active on behalf this year's Republicans candidate, but there have been an increase in pro-Obama ads made by third-party groups (like those made by Planned Parenthood or the MoveOn.org Voter Fund).

In fact, one of the most iconic videos of the election -- the Obama music video produced by musician will.i.am. -- wasn't even created by a campaign. These types of ads, if they're good enough, spread like wildfire online. Yesterday two new pro-Obama videos were posted -- one made by director Ron Howard and one made by the actors who starred in those popular Budweiser "Wassup" commercials (you can watch it below). In less than 24 hours, they have garnered nearly two million hits.

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The landscape of campaign advertising is certainly different this year. This month, Obama even placed the first-ever presidential campaign ads in online video games. But, Schwartz insists, some things never change. When it comes down to what the ads are actually saying, for example, they look a lot like past presidential campaigns.

"You always have Republicans saying Democrats are going to raise their taxes," he said. "And you always have Democrats saying that they're fighting for the working class."

-- Kate Linthicum

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