The Art of Creating The Presidential Campaign Ad

by Frank W. Baker

As Campaign 2012 winds down, it's interesting to look at the art of crafting a political campaign advertisement.

While most of us have heard or seen a political campaign commercial sometime in our lifetime, we rarely stop to contemplate "how was this put together?"  Yet, understanding the constructed nature of mass media messages is central to media literacy education.

Today's media literacy emphasizes both analyzing (reading) media messages as well as giving students opportunities to create (write/produce) media as well.

In fact, with "close reading" now being emphasized  in the newly developed (and adopted) Common Core English Language Arts teaching standards, helping young people deconstruct these (and other) messages  is both appropriate and relevant.

Many young people don't know that political ads start with a script, crafted by people in the advertising and persuasion business. These experts know which words and images to use to pull an emotional string or to get our attention. 

Editing to Convey a Message
Most of us aren't aware of editing and the impact it can have.  In a 2008 CNN special The Campaign Killers some of the experts in the field of campaign messaging reveal some of the tricks, "pulling back the curtain" on the editing techniques commonly used in the production of campaign ads. CNN host Campbell Brown says  "
Political ads that distort the facts use visuals to match. To make your opponent look bad, drain the color. Or better yet, slow motion. It gives a sinister feel. "

In the special,
Bill Hillsman,  a political ad producer, reveals that where you position the camera is important. 

Showing a photo of Hillary Clinton (left, speaking from a podium) he reveals that  "the camera angle comes into play here. When you shoot people from a little bit lower, they look more heroic." 

Conversely, photographing someone very close can make them appear unflattering: "The tighter you go on someone's face," Hillsman says, "usually the more unattractive most of us look."

A Closeup Look at An Obama Ad
Consider this
script from a recent Obama ad:
“Every president inherits challenges, few have faced so many. Four years later our enemies have been brought to justice. Our heroes are coming home. Assembly lines are humming again—they’re still challenges to meet, children to educate, a middle class to rebuild but the last thing we should do is turn back now.” 

But the words, as important as they are, are even more powerful when you consider they are voiced by actor Morgan Freeman.  His selection as the unseen, off -camera narrator is an important consideration.  His voice has authority, credibility and believability.  His delivery is slow and deliberate. Underneath his voice-over narration is a subtle, slow but dramatic music selection.

Let's not forget that the words must be  joined by images---carefully selected  and edited to engage the audience.   The spot is produced using an editing technique that's become known as the
"Ken Burns Effect," named for the documentarian who took still photographs from the Civil War era and made then come alive in his award-winning PBS series. The effect he used involved panning the video camera (from left to right), tilting it (moving up or down)  or zooming into or out of  a photo. (See the images alongside the script here.)

"Challenges" spot starts with a black-and-white shot of an empty oval office, and then dissolves, to a photo of Obama, seen walking into the light.  Another dissolve to a black-and-white shot of Obama seated at his desk attentive to something he's reading as the photo changes to color.  Another dissolve to a video billboard declaring Osama Bin Laden is Dead, with one firefighter, among a group, cheering the news.  Another dissolve to a soldier holding his son, another showing cars on an assembly line,  another shot of a family seen from behind;  a child with her hand raised in a classroom;  home construction workers; and finally, an American flag perched on the backside of a truck parked in a neighborhood. The final shot is the word FORWARD, followed by the obligatory shot of the President as he approves the message.

Ten separate pictures tell the story and all of this happens in just 30 seconds. There is alot of information packed into a small package.  Go back and read the words: you can almost see the images as each phrase is spoken, even if you've never seen this commercial.

Back in the 1990's GOPAC ( a Republican political action committee) distributed a guide entitled
"Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,"  authored by then Congressman Newt Gingrich.  It was intended to persuade candidates, and their advisors, that the words used can and do frame their argument or debate with Democrats.   The guide contained two lists, which grew out of focus group sessions.  One list would help republicans define their vision while the other list would define the opposition.   I think it's easy to conclude that the use of specific words and phrases continues to this day.

Take a look at these wordles created from the convention speeches of both President Obama (left) and Governor Romney (right).

Many of these same words, and phrases, comprise the themes of local, regional and national candidate's campaign messages.


In The Classroom
The best way to help students recognize the power, persuasiveness, and effectiveness of political ads is to expose them to as many different ads so that they begin to recognize the techniques used in them.  

Websites like The Living Room Candidate stream many of the campaign ads broadcast by candidates for the presidency.  Famous spots like "Daisy Girl" (LBJ, 1964)  and "Morning In America" (Reagan, 1984) are great ads to start with.  There is also a lesson plan available: Understanding The Language of Political Ads.

A few years back I created this Political Ad Analysis Worksheet, which you could print out and have your students use as they watch these unique spots. It invites them to consider the words, images, sounds and symbols.

Teachers could also invite an ad agency representative to speak to students about the process of creating an effective ad.  Just helping students peek inside the often-secretive advertising industry can be educational, eye-opening and revealing.

Engage your students in creating their own ads for the candidates.  Not only can students create a 30 second TV script, they can also create banner ads, radio scripts, bumper stickers, billboards and poster designs.


Frank W. Baker is the author of three books; his most recent “Media Literacy In the K-12 Classroom” (ISTE, 2012). Previously he wrote “Political Campaigns & Political Advertising: A Media Literacy Guide” (Greenwood, 2009). He maintains the nationally recognized Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and conducts media literacy workshops at schools and districts across the US. He is a consultant to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). He can be reached at