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What Romney & Obama Learned from Campaigns Past

Romney-Obama video screen

During the third and final debate, President Obama sympathized with Americans over watching "way too many TV ads." Over the course of the 2012 election, we've seen many ads that use the classic principles of stereotyping, association, demonization, and code words to influence the electorate—because they've proven to be successful.

Stereotyping: During the Cold War, it was popular to portray leftist-leaning candidates as communist sympathizers having allegiance to foreign powers. When Kerry received the Democratic nomination, opponents sought to tie him to controversial Vietnam War protester and actress Jane Fonda. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran an ad entitled "Friends" that asserted, "Even before Jane Fonda went to Hanoi to meet with the enemy and mock America, John Kerry secretly met with enemy leaders in Paris. . . . Jane Fonda apologized for her activities, but John Kerry refuses to."

Association: One of President Obama's first ads attacked Romney for his close ties to the oil industry. With an ad buy targeted on key states such as Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, and Iowa, the Democrat sought to take advantage of the unpopular industry and rising gas prices to suggest that his opponent "stood with big oil, for their tax breaks, attacking higher mileage standards and renewable." Later when Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom said his candidate “could reset his campaign just like an Etch-A-Sketch,” opponents brandished the childhood toy to make their complaint that the Massachusetts Governor lacked firm principles.

Demonization: Political opponents are portrayed as extremists out of touch with the mainstream or guilty of immoral behavior. Adversaries are identified with policy actions that are widely condemned or seen as socially destructive. However, this tactic must be used carefully because there must be some believability in the specific appeal for an ad to have credibility. One cannot simply make charges that are unsubstantiated or so far out of bounds as to exceed voters' ability to internalize them.

Earlier this year, Republicans linked Obama with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rick Santorum morphed Obama into the unpopular Iranian leader, while a voiceover noted that the latter was a "sworn American enemy."

Code words: Many people feel that thirty seconds is too brief a period to convey much in the way of substantive themes, but during election campaigns, single words or expressions can take on enormous importance and campaigns can use short messages to communicate broader messages to the public.

In 2012, both parties made frequent appeals to code words such as "extremist," "liberal," "conservative," "Tea Party," or "Romnesia." The percentage of voters viewing President Obama as "too liberal" rose from 29 percent at the beginning of his term to 40 percent by summer, 2012. But Obama won the messaging war over who would do a better job of protecting the middle class as people were more likely to say Romney would protect the rich as opposed to the middle class.

In a time of social media and virtual voter outreach, traditional television advertisements continue to be important. They have shaped public impressions of the candidates and helped to set the agenda of campaign discussion.

Watch my discussion on the evolution of political ads at CNN.com »

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