One of the most discussed ads of the 2012 presidential campaign featured a man named Mike Earnest recalling when outsiders took over the paper plant where he had worked in Marion, Indiana. Earnest had built a stage at the plant for the new management to make an announcement. The announcement turned out to be that Earnest and his colleagues were fired. When he built the stage, he said, he was building his own "coffin." Earnest didn't seem to have much doubt who was at fault.
"Mitt Romney made over a hundred million dollars by shutting down our plant," Earnest said to the camera, "and devastated our lives."
The ad, produced by Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC supporting President Barack Obama, was something of a remake. Back in the 1994 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, Democratic media consultant Bob Shrum had sent a film crew to Marion and let the tape roll as bitter workers recounted how they had lost their jobs. Shrum's client, incumbent Senator Ted Kennedy, used the ads to rebuff a challenge from Romney.
Romney always viewed the ads as dishonest. But they were powerful precisely because the workers delivered their messages in such intimate, personal and seemingly unvarnished terms. It's doubtful a consultant could have put such effective words in their mouths, or such compelling expressions on their faces.
To be credible, however, such testimonials must also be -- or at least appear to be -- nonpartisan. (If the Marion workers held a grudge, it seemed to be because they were fired, not because they were Democrats.) Which makes me wonder, as political polarization continues its creep across the land, how much longer will such testimonial ads remain in the campaign arsenal?
We've already seen instances of nonpolitical (but clearly partisan) witnesses claiming to have been damaged by Obamacare in ways that don't withstand scrutiny. My guess is the Obama administration postponed its mandate for employers to provide health insurance until after the midterm election at least in part because political operatives feared a barrage of 30-second ads featuring employers claiming that Obamacare had forced them to fire workers.
"The employer mandate has extraordinarily little impact on coverage," Linda Blumberg, an economist at the Urban Institute told Sarah Kliff. "It doesn't affect behavior much at all."
Except in an increasingly partisan culture, it might at least influence claims about behavior. Given the human penchant for motivated reasoning, it probably wouldn't be hard to find conservative business owners convinced that they had to fire someone due to Obamacare. After all, "Bette in Spokane" didn't bother looking for a better health insurance deal on the insurance exchange because she was sure that awful Obamacare had already made her situation untenable.
If the testimonial ad loses its persuasive powers, the unsentimental folks who run campaigns will have to can it. It's been a standby of political advertising for many years, and one of my favorite forms. I'd hate to see it go.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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