Why Sanders' Simon & Garfunkel ad raises goose bumps

Art Garfunkel on Sanders ad using "America"
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Story highlights

  • New ads released by three campaigns show different effectiveness: Trump's succeeds at sowing doubt about Cruz, says Barbara Lippert
  • She says Cruz's attack ad on Trump misses mark, while Sanders', using Simon & Garfunkel song, is a home run without attacking

Barbara Lippert writes about media, advertising and politics in her "Mad Blog" at Mediapost.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)With the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary closing in, candidates are using every means possible to fire up the base, including relying heavily on the power of last-minute, old-fashioned, local TV advertising.

Barbara Lippert
That goes for Republican candidate Donald Trump, who, with every outspoken statement along the campaign trail, has earned billions worth of media coverage without spending a cent. He has decided to pour some $2 million a week into TV buys for ads in those two states.
Obviously, he's not alone. But up until last week, the candidates' TV spots were fairly standard, paint-by-number messages.
    The new surprise in this particularly unpredictable political season, however -- the breakout ad by far -- belongs to Democrat Bernie Sanders. Yes, the sometimes grumpy-seeming, non-candy-coated, white-haired, 74-year-old socialist candidate, imitated so well by a peevish Larry David, has released a 60-second ad that is so full of love, enthusiasm and patriotic uplift (complete with flag-waving) that it's downright goose bump-inducing.
    Set to the soothing sounds of the Simon & Garfunkel classic "America," the beautifully executed spot makes no claims, attacks or political statements of any kind. Rather, Sanders assumes the role of the kindly, twinkly paterfamilias, presiding magically over the country, while hugging, holding and smiling at supporters.
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    Intercut are shots of an array of solid, everyday Americans who are going about their business, drinking coffee, dancing, walking with their families and baling hay. The cuts are perfectly paced to the music, which, like Sanders, has been speaking this language since the 1960s; it gently suggests an earlier time when people were burning with ideological fervor.
    Iowa is a very white state, and Sanders followers are not known for their diversity, but we do see several people of color, all suggesting the beautiful mix that is America. During the musical hooks, "All come to look for America," we see sped-up digitized images of tens of thousands of Bernie's individual supporters (he is famously "not for sale").
    The visuals and music build to an emotional rally, with Sanders at the podium. By the very end, he's heard as a voice-over, saying only eight words: "I'm Bernie Sanders, and I approved this message." But with this message, he's brought a sweet but nonsyrupy sense of possibility and aspiration about the future (foreshadowing his tag line, "A Future to Believe In") as well as a visual and aural feast for those yearning to feel good again.
    Certainly, one of the reasons the Sanders ad stands out so much is that it's such a departure from the usual mudslinging. Attack ads are nasty and dirty, but politicians use them because they work (even to sometimes suppress the vote for a particular opponent).

    Going negative

    Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are battling it out in what appears to be a very close race. Not surprisingly, both have gone negative.
    Recently, the Trump camp released a 60-second ad attacking Cruz, his neck-and-neck competitor. It shows the senator from Texas uncharacteristically stammering as he attempts to explain his stand on immigration to Fox News host Bret Baier during an appearance on Fox News last month.
    Using actual TV news footage in political ads has several advantages: it looks good, having been created by professionals for the TV medium, and it costs the campaign next to nothing to produce. And although the clip is shown within the frame of a TV set displayed in the ad, the average viewer, while typically flipping channels, might stumble upon it midspot and mistake it for actual news.
    The rarely-at-a-loss-for-words Cruz acts like he's caught in a lie about whether he approved of the 2013 Immigration Bill that some say would have given amnesty to undocumented immigrants.
    "Sounded like you wanted the bill to pass," the Fox interviewer is shown saying from his side of the split screen. And Cruz sputters over an answer that sounds very much like John Kerry's famously self-indicting line, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." The way the ad shows the exchange, Cruz never manages to articulate a coherent answer.
    Meanwhile, the spot interrupts with a very Trumpish headline: "What is He Talking About?" and later another dismissive, "Yeah, right, Ted."
    Then Trump is shown in footage from a nicely lit interview with ABC News in which he talks about securing the borders "in a humane way."
    Immigration is a hot-button issue in Iowa, and the ad persuasively catches Cruz's apparent flip-flop, which could be enough to sow doubt.
    The nature of the attack on Trump in the Cruz ad is not as clear.
    While Trump used footage that showed Cruz atypically at a loss for words, the Cruz spot shows Trump in just the sort of gilded, powerful settings that he himself has flaunted on "The Apprentice."

    The '80s high roller

    The 30-second spot opens with the hardly engaging phrase "Eminent Domain," which is a real conversation-stopper and would make most viewers blink and reach for the Fritos. It then goes on to explain that Trump forced a little old lady out of her home in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to make way for a limousine parking lot for his casino.
    The photos and footage seem dated and picture a younger, more vital version of The Donald. All of this happened at least 25 years ago, and it looks as though Cruz is indicting Trump for being a high roller in the '80s.
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    Overall, it comes off as dark, crowded and chaotic, and not compelling. The only memorable image comes at the end. It's a more recent image of Trump in a white "Make America Great Again" hat, waving his arm through his limousine window.
    The problem is that's exactly how his followers love to see him -- hardly an evil overlord, rather someone so successful that he's comfortable among the trappings of power.
    The final frame shows the word "TRUSTED" in capital letters, with the TRUS in red and TED in black. The red letters stand out enough to leave the ungainly, little-thought-of word "truss" (as in "tie up") in viewers' minds, forever tied with the name Ted.
    It's the opposite of uplifting, and I give it no cigars.