Kasey El-Chayeb

Barack Obama released a new wave of television and online advertisements last week. One in particular, featuring Bill Clinton and a narrative about Obama’s actions in tracking down Osama Bin Laden, has received heavy criticism. The advertisement, which employs traditional fear appeals in reference to national security, has been called “despicable.”Additionally, some of the criticism has been a direct result of the advertisement’s claims that presidential candidate Mitt Romney would not have made the same decision to kill Osama Bin Laden if he had been president.

Political Psychology study, called “It’s My Campaign and I’ll Cry If I Want to: How and Why Campaigns Use Emotional Appeals,” describes the idea of backlash, which often occurs in response to negative advertising or misused emotional appeals. The study explains that viewers of this type of advertising may “reduce their positive evaluations of the sponsoring candidate if they believe the advertising is “too negative” or unfair, and thus they would be more likely to vote against that candidate (Riddout & Searles, p. 443).” The Bin Laden advertisement has received a negative response. Romney has publicly commented that the commercial is “really disappointing” and the wrong course for the Obama campaign. He also denied the accusation that he would have not have ordered the attack on Bin Laden’s hide out. Other critics of the commercial, like Arianna Huffington, have also criticized the assumption and stated that the advertisement over politicizes Bin Laden’s death. Huffington also likened the commercial to Hillary Clinton’s rather unpopular 3 a.m. phone call commercial.

Despite this response, Obama and his advisors have defended the advertisement. The campaign has been working on disseminating several types of advertisements, using a variety of appeals. The newly released web advertisement called ‘Forward’ highlights accomplishments Obama has made with specific regard to the economy, healthcare, education, and women’s rights. This advertisement has not received much criticism thus far and has been reported as a “part of a shift in rhetoric by the campaign — selling Obama as the embodiment of progress while branding Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican Party as regressive and out of touch. (Politico)”

Citing accomplishments in an ad and using the “looking to the future” message is typical for campaign advertising, especially early on. Campaigning for Heart and Minds, a book on how emotional appeals work in political ads, explains that Enthusiasm, Pride, Fear and Anger are the most commonly used emotional appeals (Brader, p. 154). The Political Psychology study mentioned above adds key knowledge to this area of study by also revealing conclusions on what type of candidates are likely to use which appeals and at what times. Based on those findings, it is very unusual that the Obama Campaign chose to use fear appeals now- claiming the Republicans will undo progress in the ‘Forward’ ad and referencing national security threats in the Bin Laden ad. This type of tactic is typically used by a trailing candidate and “more frequently in October than in earlier months (Riddout & Searles, p.453).”

It is clear through analysis of these advertisements that this race is several months away from producing an obvious leading candidate, if at all. While Obama did receive his highest approval rating as of yet in the month of April, he “remains essentially tied with Romney in Gallup’s head to head match-ups.” As for a foreshadowing of future advertisements, the study indicates that leading candidates typically will rely on pride and enthusiasm appeals. The types of appeals we see in the future may indicate both campaigns’ opinions of their stability in the race.


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