Latest McCain And Obama Ads Play On Fear In Time Of Crisis: Out Of Touch Versus Unprepared

10/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Political communications consultant Mike Hughes, special to OffTheBus, deconstructs the latest campaign ads, frame by frame.

An Obama TV ad that aired the day after the McCain-Obama Ole Miss debate opens up with the sound of touch-typing, as bold white letters fill a black screen, like someone typing an email. A McCain ad launched the very same day hits the viewer with chaotic images of soldiers fighting in Iraq, while a stream of machine gun fire rattles in the background. These openings provide insight into each campaign's ad strategy, and frame-by-frame analysis shows how Obama tries to portray McCain as not understanding the troubled economy, while McCain attempts to scare and convince voters that Obama cannot be trusted on national security.

Obama's "Zero" Ad

The email message technique will likely resonate with most voters, considering 60% of Americans over the age of 18 use email daily. The light colored words on a dark screen are typically easier to read and remember. This simplistic statement sets up the next frame's punch line.

This bold and direct statement underlines the concept that McCain is out of touch with average Americans. It builds upon unmentioned factoids previously sowed by the campaign such as McCain owning 7 houses and 13 cars.

These remedial phrases stick with voters, like "it's the economy stupid." This quip subtlety instills fear, suggesting that by voting for McCain economic conditions will not change.

This expression contrasts Obama with McCain, implying that Obama understands and can fix the problems of the middle class.

The American President-like background music pulls at the heartstrings. The purpose of this video excerpt from the debate is to show Obama as Presidential as he says: "The fundamentals of the economy have to be measured by whether or not the middle class is getting a fair shake..."

Obama turns to McCain and says: "And when you look at your tax policies, you are neglecting people who are really struggling right now." This strong visual contrasts the candidate of the future arguing with the candidate of the past. It also plays on Kennedy-Nixon imagery, which might appeal to voters old enough to remember.

In the final screen shot, Obama plays to his strength - charisma and personality. The open hands and caring expression will resound, as he closes with: "I think this is a continuation of the last eight years, and we can't afford another four." This is another attempt by Obama to tie McCain to Bush, and to frighten viewers into believing that a vote for McCain will prolong the economic turmoil.

McCain's "Not Ready to Lead" Ad

The narrator says in a dark horror-movie voice: "In the midst of war..." The goal is to remind voters that it is a dangerous world and we need to be protected by strong leadership.

The narrator then says: "Senator Obama voted to cut off funding for our troops...." The "supers" in this frame convey outrage in large catchy wording. The ad shows the opponent in black and white, which always carries a negative, villainous quality.

McCain employs a potent tactic by using Biden's words against Obama. Biden says: "They said they voted against the money to make a political point."

"This is cutting off support that will save the lives of thousands of American troops." Biden making the statement on Meet the Press, lends credibility to the charge. The connotation is that Obama and Biden take positions based on political expediency.

The final frame is compelling, juxtaposing a defiant Obama against the image of an American soldier. McCain uses a syllogism based on the supposition that because McCain is a P.O.W. he is strong on defense. Therefore, Obama's voting record means that Obama cannot be trusted on defense and McCain can. This builds upon McCain's "country first" theme.

Injecting fresh imagery into the subconscious mind of a voter before they enter the voting booth is crucial, and the campaign whose ads contain the most compelling visuals and message, greatly enhance their odds of winning.

Mike Hughes is a communications advisor, political consultant and former executive speechwriter. Mike was an analyst at The Strategy Group, a political consulting firm currently advising the Obama campaign, which was established by former DNC chairman David Wilhelm in 1989. Mr. Hughes has worked on political campaigns at both the strategic and tactical level for Barack Obama, John Kerry and Illinois State Comptroller Dan Hynes. Mike has written speeches and delivered communications training to senior executives at several Fortune 500 and middle market companies as a management consultant for nearly 16 years. Mike is also the chief editor of, an online journal for liberal and conservative discourse described by some as "Crossfire on the Internet." Mike graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in political science.