07/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

TV Ad Wars: Changing McCain v. Working Obama

Barack Obama's brand-new ad, emphasizing mainstream values and the dignity of work.

It's John McCain who is the candidate of change in the latest round of the TV ad wars, changing to his third campaign slogan in less than four weeks. Barack Obama shows more consistency, as in consistently emphasizing work over welfare in his battleground states message.

While insiders obsess over the constant back-and-forth on cable news and in the blogosphere, the campaigns seek also to drive longer range messages for the non-insiders who will decide the election, in states generally outside the perpetual media bubble.

Here you can see the concerns the campaigns have about themselves and their opponents, under the surface of the continual blur of confident-seeming statements, attacks, and counter-attacks.

On Obama's side, we see a consistent attempt to position the bi-racial, Hawaii-born, partially Indonesian-reared youthful guy with the unusual name as someone well within the mainstream of American life and values. I may look different from many of you, he says implicitly in these ads, but I understand your concerns and identify with you.

John McCain's latest ad, with his third campaign slogan in less than four weeks.

On McCain's side, we see a consistent attempt to thread a tricky needle of political positioning, for someone who needs to appeal in traditional ways to the conservative base but can't win without identifying with independents and moderates.

Which is why, from Team McCain, we've seen a new campaign slogan roughly every nine days and dramatic shifts in mood, style, and messaging.

Let's look at what the two candidates are doing now.

Obama just went with his second TV ad of the general election last night. It's called "Dignity," as in extolling the dignity and value of work. Unlike his first ad, the biographical 60-second ad in which Obama speaks throughout, it's a 30-second ad with a male narrator.

While images of an active Obama, alternately smiling and somber, fill the screen, the narrator explains how Obama worked his work through college and Harvard Law School, turned down elite Wall Street offers, and worked to help economically-stricken neighborhoods and workers. Notably, Obama, who didn't connect with those "bitter" voters in the Pennsylvania primary wearing his suit and tie, is featured here with rolled-up shirtsleeves.

Here's the script:

Obama: I'm Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

Announcer: He worked his way through college and Harvard Law. Turned down big money offers, and helped lift neighborhoods stung by job loss.

Fought for workers' rights. He passed a law to move people from welfare to work, slashed the rolls by eighty percent. Passed tax cuts for workers; health care for kids. As president, he'll end tax breaks for companies that export jobs, reward those that create jobs in America. And never forget the dignity that comes from work.

He's saying he's not an elite, effete, quasi-socialist, but a populist. The imagery, themes, and overall messaging is completely consistent with the first Obama ad. In that ad, Obama was again mostly casual and approachable. Speaking to camera himself, he described the commonality of his background with that of most Americans, and talked up the value of hard work, a value he further emphasises in his brand-new ad. This is an advertising strategy which, so far at least, is on plan.

As Obama makes these moves, McCain's advertising strategy has a certain conceptual incoherence, with McCain having run three different ads -- with three very different campaign slogans -- in the same markets in the past three-and-a-half weeks, striving to show independence from George W. Bush while actually changing key policy positions to those of the president.

In contrast to Obama, McCain's advertising has undergone sharp shifts in style, tone, and messaging, all over a very short period of time. Beginning with a stark-looking spot in which McCain, his face half in shadow, invokes the threats to America's national security. Then shifting to a much brighter and noisier spot in which a female narrator talks up his independence from the president and break with Bush over climate change.

"John McCain stood up to the president, and sounded the alarm on global warming, five years ago," intoned the new female narrator. Amidst honking car horns and images of collapsing Arctic ice shelves, traffic jams, power plants, and a setting sun.

But that ad had the misfortune of launching on the same day that McCain adopted Bush's oil policy -- especially offshore oil drilling -- a policy McCain's biggest backer in the West, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, criticized last week in a high-profile speech in battleground state Florida. And now the campaign has shifted to a new ad, which began running over the weekend, trying to promote a theme of "energy security," linking an energy policy which includes support for renewable energy -- which McCain has frequently opposed in the past -- with national security. But dropping the theme of independence from Bush.

McCain's new ad is "being cycled into" the campaign's current buy, the campaign says. It is running on national cable and in Nevada, New Hampshire, Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa. Seven fewer states than the 18 that Obama is playing in.

Here's the script for the new ad, which uses a male narrator (replacing the female narrator of the independent-from-Bush themed ad) and features images not of McCain himself but of American technological know-how.

Announcer: American technology protected the world. We went to the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

John McCain will call America to our next national purpose: Energy Security. A comprehensive bipartisan plan to: Lower prices at the pump; Reduce dependence on foreign oil through domestic drilling; And champion energy alternatives for better choices and lower costs.

Putting country first. McCain.

McCain: I'm John McCain and I approve this message.

Even though the ad focuses on energy, there is a new McCain campaign message that emerged late last week: "Country First." The patriotism-focused slogan appears on screen at the end of the ad next above McCain's name. "Putting country first" is one of the last lines of the ad. A campaign memo by McCain senior advisor Steve Schmidt echoed the theme in a table-setting memo for political reporters last week which sought to frame the race as the resolute McCain vs. the flip-flopping Obama (ignoring McCain's repeated flip-flops, naturally). The title: "Country First Vs. Self-Serving Partisanship."

This latest campaign slogan replaces the earlier "Reform, Prosperity, Peace." Which in turn replaced the original slogan of three-and-a-half weeks ago. That first ad, entitled "Safe," launched on June 6th, had the tag line: "I'm running for president to keep the country I love safe."

Intriguingly, this ad, McCain's first broadcast and cable TV ad of the general election campaign has vanished from McCain's YouTube channel. My two links to it, from New West Notes and Huffington Post, no longer work. And I didn't see it on McCain's web site when I scanned it earlier today, though there's plenty of web ads (i.e., stuff that never shows up on broadcast or cable TV).

Meanwhile, Obama is continuing to spread the field on McCain. Obama is playing in 18 states, seven more than McCain: Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia.

And Obama is reportedly flooding the zone on McCain, outspending him on the air in the 11 states in which they are both advertising.