Is Clinton Winning the Ad Wars?

Hillary Clinton unveiled a closing argument ad in Pennsylvania today, one that features an image of Osama bin Laden and that immediately drew an outcry from the Obama campaign.

“The politics of fear,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

But for all of the griping — or whining, depending on your P.O.V. — over Hillary Clinton’s campaign tactics, she’s the only candidate who has even come close to producing a 30-second spot that really created a stir.

The Obama campaign is outspending Clinton 2-1 in Pennsylvania, and he bested her in money thrown at 30-second spots in Texas and Ohio, too. Yet even as Obama’s campaign capitalizes on viral video, it has yet to produce an ad since the contests began that really match Clinton’s “3 a.m.” spot in attention, whether in the form of free media or watercooler chat. Instead, the philosophy seems to be to drench states with pretty traditional spots, with the hope that voters are bound to get the message.

The danger in all of this is that the campaigns roll through states and voters are exhausted by all the ads, robocalls, canvassing, etc. It speaks to larger difficulties in general in reaching audiences that have become satiated and cynical about hucksterism. So the first ad that comes along that is anything outside the norm is bound to get attention. The irony is that the “3 a.m.” ad wasn’t even original, as it borrowed heavily from one made for Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign against Gary Hart. But it was different enough to cause a stir, and Obama’s campaign has yet to match it. Given that the Obama’s campaign has been so groundbreaking in so many other areas, it’s a bit surprising. And his spots seldom deploy another technique to make a mark: irreverence.

Obama’s best spot came at the beginning of this cycle, “Our Moment is Now,” below, introduced in Iowa in December. It evoked Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” in inspiration, and surely had an impact on moving Obama up in the early states. Yet as the campaign has taken a nasty turn, Clinton has been the one who has come up with the game-changing spots, while Obama’s team has been forced to respond in kind.

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