New Romney anti-'coal war' commercials throw away the cookie cutter

On Tuesday, September 18, Alpha Natural Resources announced it was closing eight of its coal mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and eliminating 1,200 jobs

And now for something completely different

(9.2% of its work force) — at least partially because of what CEO Kevin Crutchfield euphemistically called “a regulatory environment that’s aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal.”

The Romney campaign didn’t use such highfalutin’ language. They called it Obama’s “War on Coal,” which is the title of the first of two new television commercials that started airing throughout Virginia and Ohio coal country this morning.

The commercials’ quick timing is one departure from the laid-back way the campaign’s been doing business as usual — but not as big a departure as the commercials themselves.

No more cookie cutter

Up until now, the main advertising thrust of the official campaign has been a set of mix-and-match commercials featuring clips from the Republican candidate’s convention acceptance speech, followed by fill-in-the-blank B-roll footage and voice-over with a state’s name and a pertinent economic statistic.

Many political campaigns at all levels use this kind of generic combination of found-object video, quickly edited to make a point about one issue and sandwiched by opening and closing shots of the candidate, regardless of who that candidate may be.

As a result, these commercials share a remarkable sameness. Between the similar structures, the similar concerned, earnest voice-over reads, the same serious stock music in the background, and the same kinds of images on screen, it’s hard for viewing voters to realize whose commercial it is.

And in an election where the conventional wisdom says that about 90% of the electorate has already locked in its choices, starting off with a head shot of the candidate may hurt more than it helps.

The new Romney spots don’t share this sameness.

About the audience, not the candidate

Neither commercial is about Romney. Both are about coal miners, like those 1,200 who’ll be starting to find themselves out of jobs next week.

In fact, it’s coal miners who are the stars and the supporting cast, with the candidate playing little more than a cameo.

In the first 30-second commercial, called “War on Coal,” Mitt Romney doesn’t even appear until 18 seconds into the spot and doesn’t speak until the 24-second mark.

In the second, “Way of Life,” he doesn’t show up until 21 seconds in and speaks only in the federally mandated “I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message” voice-over at the end.

Real miners, real words

“War on Coal” assembles closeup footage fromĀ  different miners — men that nobody could possibly of being rich, cold, inauthentic or aloof, which is a big plus right there.

“Obama’s ruining the coal industry,” says the first one to talk.

“The policies that the current administration’s got is [sic] attackin’ my livelihood,” adds a second.

“They’re wantin’ to close these mines down,” notes a third, “I got little ones at home — a wife that’s needin’ me.”

Finally, with six seconds to run, the candidate gets into the act, speaking to a crowd of coal miners (and over their shoulder to voters beyond coal country). “We have 250 years of coal,” he says. “Why wouldn’t we use it? Utility bills are up. People wonder how they’re going to have a brighter future when they can’t see how they can make it to the end of the next month.”

“Way of Life” focuses on one, older, miner’s story.

“My family’s worked in the coal industry over 60 years,” he says. “This is the only way of life we know. Policies that the current administration’s got is [sic] attackin’ my livelihood. Obama said he was going to bankrupt any new power plants that opened up that’s [sic] coal-fired and he’s keeping his promise. I got two young grandsons. I’m…I’m scared for their future, let alone mine. I support Mitt Romney.”

Aside from the mandatory candidate line at the end, that’s the only audio mention of Mitt Romney’s name in the entire spot.

In fact, it’s the only spoken reference to Romney in both spots.

It’s all about the message

Advertisers, particularly local advertisers, have a big thing about constantly repeating their brand names throughout their commercials. It’s as if the most important thing is that viewers know whose commercial it is, rather than why the product may be worth buying.

Pushing brand name over message in regular product commercials loses lots of sales. And in political campaigns where just hearing one candidate’s name could very well alienate about 47% of the voters, it could very well prove fatal.

That’s why these Romney spots are shrewdly constructed. Having real coal miners tell their own stories in their own (edited) words, on television stations in markets whose economies depend on coal mining, greatly increases the odds that people will stay with and at least listen to the first 18 to 21 seconds of the message.

If you can get them listening to, and maybe agreeing point by individual point with, the message for at least half the commercial, you’re well on your way to making the sale — much further than you’d have gotten if you’d just dusted off the old fill-in-the-blank cookie cutter.