The real reason political commercials look and sound so much alike

Elizabeth Wilner probably watches a lot more political commercials than you do. As vice president of Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks and analyzes broadcast TV advertising content, placement and spending, she has to.

The process is to blame, not the content.

But if you’re paying any attention at all to the Romney and Obama television commercials, you’ve probably noticed the same thing she has:

Of the 27 spots aired by big-spending presidential advertisers over the past month, 24 have focused on an economic issue or issues. Seven different advertisers produced them. Yet so many draw from the same checklist. Superimposed statistics, charts and signs. Newspaper headlines and TV talkers. American workers, either stressed out at home (in attackers’ ads) or high-fiving the visiting President Barack Obama at work (in his own). And factories — lots of factories, loading docks and assembly lines, mostly abandoned but some humming (again, depending on whose ad they’re in).

Wilner attributes this sameness of look, sound and feel to a sameness in content; voter surveys show over and over again that the biggest national concern by far is the failing economy. “For the purposes of TV ads allowing mere seconds for explanations,” she writes, “there just aren’t a lot of pictures worth 1,000 jobs, much less millions of stimulus dollars, billions in Medicare commitments or trillions in debt. Not helping matters is that so many advertisers are producing so many ads about the economy that the go-to visuals feel exhausted.”

But is it really just a matter of the content driving the execution?

It wasn’t always this way

Political commercials don’t have to be visual clones of each other, differentiated only by audio track and supers.

In fact, for nearly half a century, they haven’t been.

The 1964 campaign, for example, saw the devastating “Daisy” spot that helped put the final nail in the Barry Goldwater presidential coffin.

Eight years later, the Nixon campaign’s commercials featured such unexpected visuals as the president’s passport and a George McGovern weathervane changing direction with the wind.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s campaign featured evocative shots of “Morning in America” to symbolize the nation’s economic and spiritual recovery under his first administration.

And in 1998, the George H. W. Bush campaign used original footage of pollution in Boston Harbor to refute Michael Dukakis’s claim of a record of proven competence as Massachusetts governor.

So if those campaigns could turn out arresting commercials with comparatively primitive video technology, why can’t the Obama and Romney campaigns and their super PAC allies today?

The answer lies not in the sameness of content, but in the sameness of process.

It’s the process, not the content

The great presidential-campaign advertising of the past was proactive. The campaigns figured out their main strategies — usually based on what they perceived to be the opponent’s biggest talking point or biggest weakness. Then they went out and shot their spots, post-produced them, and went with them for most if not all of the campaign.

They had to.

In pre-videotape 1964, for example, color correction, dissolves, titles and supers, and other effects were all done optically, on film — a process that took days, if you were lucky and it got done fast and right the first time. Getting 16-millimeter quantity prints to distribute to television stations took weeks.

Today, what-you-see-is-what-you-get nonlinear video technology, computer generation and a proliferation of “found object” stock and news footage combine to make it possible to produce commercials while-u-wait.

So one reason presidential advertisers churn out commercials that way is that they can.

Another is that they think they have to, for several reasons.

One is avoiding the McCain Mistake. In 2008, John McCain either failed or refused to answer attacks from his opponent. He ended up blowing a post-convention lead. That wasn’t the only reason, but it helped.

Unlike McCain, the Romney campaign commercials answer attacks the same day, or, at worst, the next. Ditto the Obama campaign. That leaves no time to shoot original footage, cast actors, scout locations, shoot — and even to think up non-superficial ideas.

No time or money to do better?

With today’s 24/7 news cycle, failing to respond quickly is tantamount to conceding the opponent’s claims. So speed takes precedence over creativity.

So does money.

Thanks to a quirk in the federal election laws, presidential candidates can’t sgtart spending really big bucks until after their parties’ conventions. Meanwhile, they have to make do with the money they have left over from the primaries. As an uncontested nominee, Obama’s comparatively rolling in dough. But Romney has to make do with what’s left over from an expensively contested primary campaign.

And every dollar that’s spent on production values, shooting original film or video, even paying a top-notch creative team to work for a week or so coming up with great concepts, is a dollar that can’t buy air time.

Like station-produced commercials with better lighting

The process is essentially the same one Channels 6, 8, 12 and 35 and Comcast cable use to produce commercials for local Richmond retailers: Take all of 15 minutes to throw together a script from laundry-list sales points, send a two-man video crew to spend all of two hours shooting talking heads (in this case the retail owners) or show-the-factory B-roll, throw it together in a two-hour edit, and you’re done.

The big difference is that the presidential commercials are properly lit, and a professional audio engineer doing the mix knows how to equalize frequencies so that the voice-over sounds as loud as in commercials produced by professionals who know what they’re doing.

Pick two out of three

There’s an expression in the advertising industry (and probably others as well): “Quick. Cheap. Good. Pick any two.”

In an election on which so much of America’s future is hinging, voting citizens deserve not only good, but better.