End of an era for political ads

Trump threatens to sue Cruz as ad wars heat up
Trump threatens to sue Cruz as ad wars heat up

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    Trump threatens to sue Cruz as ad wars heat up

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Trump threatens to sue Cruz as ad wars heat up 02:46

Story highlights

  • Barbara Lippert: Presidential campaign shows standard political advertising practices have grown too limited
  • No single ad can possibly compete with one of Donald Trump's tweets, she says

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 South Carolina primary imminent, presidential candidates have unleashed the political advertisement hounds. As expected, they have been rabid. But the mixed results suggest it may be time for the campaigns to rethink their effectiveness.

Take Ted Cruz. By now, most people know that adult actress Amy Lindsay played a small role in the faux-therapy group portrayed in the Texan senator's now-defunct spot, "Conservatives Anonymous."
Ironically, Cruz's ad team was going for something a little more sophisticated and smart with the spot, which was aimed at pounding rival Marco Rubio over his allegedly shifting position on immigration. It was a bit high-concept, in contrast with the usual somber attack ads. But after Lindsay's other life as a softcore porn actress was quickly revealed, to the Cruz crew's eternal embarrassment, the ad was pulled. (Although I'm sure I am not alone in wondering the identity of the opposition researcher -- or journalist -- who was so intimately familiar with Ms. Lindsay's oeuvre that she was outed almost immediately).
Barbara Lippert
The thing is, in performing her line "Maybe you should have looked for more than a pretty face," Lindsay wasn't giving off a porn star vibe, instead just looking like your average concerned voter. Indeed, the actors playing support group members sitting in the circle all possessed a certain sad-sack quality -- everything in the room was made to look glum to get across the joke that this group had been betrayed by the Florida senator.
But although the ad is definitely an insult, (and, unfortunately, satirizes him for being "pretty") it takes a while to make the point, and is perhaps too inside baseball. At this point, Cruz would be better off appealing to casual voters and fence-sitters, rather than the strict conservative ideologues who are already his base.
More than that, though, Cruz may actually have compounded his mistake by so quickly pulling the ad.
Shortly after the spot was dropped, Lindsay appeared all over the news (looking blonder and more attractive than she did in the ad) to explain that in spite of some of her R-rated roles, she was just a single, middle-class woman trying to make a living -- and was a conservative Christian, to boot.
This made it a lose-lose situation for the Cruz campaign, because surely no one watching the spot -- and seeing Lindsay's every-woman performance -- could have been offended. So instead of using it as a teachable moment -- talking about dirty tricks, the need to think differently and let everyone inside the tent, and embracing the unexpected faces of conservatism -- Cruz may simply have ended up dissing potential voters in the form of libertarians (and consumers of porn).
Still, I'm beginning to think that it isn't just Cruz's campaign that has faltered over an ad. The reality is that this impossible-to-predict, outsider election has demonstrated that standard political advertising practices -- relying on regular TV and radio slots -- have become too limited, too 20th century pro-forma, to work in this amped up, hyper-angry atmosphere.
Certainly, in the case of Donald Trump, no single ad can possibly compete with one of his tweets. He's truly the first candidate to be able to transcend the boundaries of television, and present an unfiltered, purely digital Id. Even people with no familiarity with Twitter, and who are hardly on social media, end up hearing about the last unbelievable thing he tweeted in the middle of the night. (And in a way unlike anything seen before, he's not held accountable. In fact, he has just gotten more and more popular with each beyond-the-bounds smiting).
For the first few months, Trump spent no money on ads. His first radio spots were incredibly amateurish -- 60 seconds of nonstop talk. They've certainly gotten better. His latest TV spot, meanwhile, is persuasive in an old-school way. It features Jamiel Shaw, whose 17-year-old African-American son was shot and killed by an illegal immigrant in 2008. Shaw is shown on camera, saying: "Trump is the only one saying, you're going to be dealt with. We're going to enforce that. ...That's a beautiful thing."
He adds: "I believe Donald Trump wants to make us great again, and he loves America."
At a time when candidates in both parties are attempting to reach, persuade -- and frankly, pander to -- black voters in South Carolina, Trump panders particularly well. His TV spot takes the Trump slogan, which on its face could suggest that making America "great" again means going back to a less diverse, inclusive time in the country, and softens and broadens it.
Meanwhile, Jeb's PAC, Right to Rise, has another Trump attack ad out, using all the things he always hits the billionaire with, including his bankruptcies, which triggered a furious response from Trump in Saturday's debate. But the key image of the ad -- a giant Trump made of glass, or ice, who can be toppled over like the statue of Saddam Hussein -- somehow doesn't work. Why? Because Trump is a man who seems right at home in a glass house. And if the giant sculpture is supposed to be made of ice, well, Trump is the opposite -- electrifying and captivating. And voters seem to take to the notion of getting close to his dangerous flame.
Ultimately, whatever the outcome in November, this presidential election run-up suggests that it might be time for the traditional ad system to go the way of Gallup polls.
And ad consultants might want to look into a joining a support group to help them make the transition.