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Are McCain’s Ads “Dangerous”?

Let’s compare two commercials. The first is an RNC spot entitled “Chicago Way”, which hits Barack Obama on his connections to Tony Rezko, William Ayers and (somewhat oddly) William Daley:


This is a pretty standard negative ad. The message is essentially: “Obama’s a little wet behind the ears, he might be corrupt, and he’s made some poor judgments in his associates”. The ad is straightforward and — dare I say — relatively fair. Nothing is taken out of context. In poking fun at the Chicago tradition, it even seems to have a bit of a sense of humor.

By comparison, take a look at “Dangerous” — the most recent spot put together by the McCain campaign:

This is a much darker ad. The viewer is caught in a matrix-like web of television screens. The colors are washed out. There a sinister (although barely audible) low-pitched hum in the background. The female narrator is humorless, scolding.

It is an ad, in short, designed to engage the viewer on an emotional rather than intellectual level, to play to the subconscious mind. And that carries through to the tagline — “Who is Barack Obama?” — a question that the ad addresses only obliquely. What, precisely, is that supposed to mean? Shouldn’t the ad be telling us who Barack Obama is, rather than asking our imaginations to run wild?

I am no advertising critic, but the McCain campaign’s ads are routinely among the most bizarre that I have ever seen, appearing to originate from a sort of parallel universe in which cartoonish Obama heads float disembodied before sepia-toned backgrounds, in which language is distilled to a technocratic shorthand, in which the line between imagination and reality is blurred. I find them exceptionally disturbing, and that is surely the reaction they are meant to evoke.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.